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Tuesday on the NewsHour: San Francisco Symphony on Strike

Click to enlarge. Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall.

The ongoing strike by the San Francisco Symphony brings back a lot of memories for me, some pleasant, one in particular rather daunting.

I’ve been listening to and watching the San Francisco Symphony for a long time. My mother used to take me to concerts at the Opera House when I was a child, before Davies Symphony Hall was built. When I was a high school student, I took clarinet lessons from Frealon Bibbins, the second clarinet in the orchestra, which was then conducted by Pierre Monteux. (I didn’t get much out of those lessons, because I didn’t practice enough and because I didn’t have any talent. No reflection on Bud Bibbins.)

In recent years, my wife and I have been regular season subscribers to the orchestra, through a series of conductors from Seiji Ozawa to Michael Tilson Thomas, who is the boss today.

When Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall opened in 1980, I was assigned to do a story on its acoustics. Besides conducting the required interview with an acoustics engineer, I decided it would be amusing to try out the sound myself. So I packed up my clarinet and took it with me to the hall. When the interviews were done, I walked onto the stage, and while my camera operator rolled, I played a bit of Mozart’s clarinet concerto — the first performance in that celebrated venue. You would have thought I had infiltrated the situation room at the Pentagon! Public relations people descended on me from all sides. I had told them when setting up the interview that I was going to try out the acoustics with my horn; they had said ok, but now they said they thought I was kidding.

They told me in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t use the footage — that no one could listen to the sound in the new hall until after the New York Times had listened to it and reviewed it. They threatened to get me fired from my job at the local public television station.

So I didn’t use the music I had created; instead I used music from a record (we had those then) of a far better clarinetist playing Mozart over pictures of the symphony hall. And I didn’t get fired.

Now, in my job as a PBS NewsHour correspondent, I’m covering a strike by symphony musicians who make on average $165,000 a year, plus get 10 weeks vacation, health care and a pension. That fact, when I tell people about it, often outrages them. But orchestra members I talked with say they have to stay competitive with other top orchestras; these are star performers, the creme de la creme, the equivalent of athletes on the San Francisco 49ers or Giants, the reason 8,000 to 10,000 people a week come to the symphony. Doctors and lawyers and executives make that kind of money and more. In fact, symphony management isn’t arguing for lower wages but says it can’t afford to pay much more, claiming expenses for performances are too high, especially in the face of a recession.

The strike has gone on for a couple of weeks now and shows no signs of ending. It’s one of many labor disputes that have plagued American symphony orchestras over the last few years. Some have gone out of business; others have reduced pay; others have settled. In San Francisco, it’s a polite labor dispute among cultured people on both sides. But it’s in earnest, and for now the music has stopped.


Tune in to Tuesday’s NewsHour for Spencer Michels’ report on the ongoing strike by musicians of the San Francisco Symphony.

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