Arts » Classical Music

A cancelled season? - ISO's worst nightmare


Urbanski and the ISO
  • Urbanski and the ISO

In January 1972, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra musicians, unable to reach a contract agreement with the Indiana State Symphony Society, held a strike, stopping the group's Clowes Hall based concerts for a number of weeks. Then-mayor, Richard Lugar, successfully arbitrated a settlement, allowing the orchestra to finish out the season with six "new" concerts held at the Murat Theater under music director Izler Solomon. The ISO took several years to recover fully from that incident. Solomon, who retired three years later, never did fully recover.

Now, 40 years later, the orchestra faces an even bigger issue -- bigger because the orchestra's operations are far larger in scope, its possible outcome directly affecting a far larger number of people and indirectly affecting our entire community. Of course it is about money: The ISO executive board--often referred to as the Indiana Symphony Society (ISS) -- states that the orchestra has been spending beyond its annual income for close to ten years, getting worse during the musicians' just-concluded three-year contract, which expired at midnight, Sunday, Sept. 2. As NUVO previously reported, no agreement was reached by Sept. 8, and the ISS has cancelled the first two weeks of its season, needing the time to inform ticket holders, etc. Is this a "lockout," many have asked? That word has not been used in official statements by either party to date.

The failure to bring in an expected $100 million (with only $13 million acquired) during a campaign the last two years spearheaded by Jim Irsay and Herb Simon, respective owners of the Colts and Pacers, surely added to the funding dilemma. Meanwhile the ISO's non-unionized staff has seen a number reduction from 78 three years ago to 46 presently -- a rather drastic cut in comparison to the present loss in player complement. Because of unfilled chairs mainly due to retirements, the number of active players has been reduced over this last contract period from 87 to 74.

Succinctly, the ISO management and board, as of their last press release, want to reduce the orchestra from "full-time" status -- 45 ½ weeks a year -- to 38 weeks, reduce the player complement to 69 players and reduce their annual salary by 40.8 percent (a number which has varied one or two percentage points from different reports). All the symphony's "product lines"-- classical, pops, Yuletide and Symphony on the Prairie would be maintained, though possibly reduced in quantity by varying degrees. The musician cuts would come entirely from players of string instruments (violins, violas, cellos, double basses) -- always the variable in orchestra sizes. The board states that no string players would be "terminated" with its present offer (see below). Still, the reductions appear drastic -- as they surely must have to the players when first informed of them this June.

On the other hand . . . the management and board's June offer to the players was initially more severe: 32 weeks instead of 38, a salary reduction of 45 percent instead of 40.8. These lower figures appear to be starting points from which to bargain "up." Plus Richard Graef, chief negotiator for the players' union (and an ISO French-horn player) told me by phone: "Management settled on their initial contract offer on March 1 and 2 and kept it secret from everybody until June. Why would they do that, and give us less time to negotiate?" Management's succinct response is that Graef is incorrect.

On the other hand . . . if the management offer is adopted, I suspect the "dire" results predicted by so many of our symphony loving and player sympathizing tweeters and bloggers may be a bit overboard. The players would not leave in droves: There is nowhere to run to in this era of nationwide orchestra scalebacks. A reduced salary is better than no salary. (European orchestras also are losing their government support as a result of the current European financial crisis.) Music director Krzysztof Urbański would not jump ship, with his salary for 2012-2013 assured and his contract in place. The same applies to pops conductor Jack Everly. Yet Urbański will surely leave the ISO sooner or later, whether or not he departs a "full-time" orchestra. At his age and with his talent, he obviously sees the ISO as a stepping-stone to greater acclaim, with a world-class orchestra in his future.

On the other hand . . . The union/players speak of how drastic the player cuts will be, citing that we've had a minimum of 80 players forever, and that this will involve terminations of 30-year players. The facts are that the present orchestra has 74 players with management wanting a reduction to 69 -- that's a cut of 5 string players, averaging 1 player per string type. The full complement of the current 74 players, plus outside contracted string players to bring the total to 87, are needed only for the present 20-week classical series, which means these 5 players do 20 concerts out of the so-called 52-week season. Of course we are not talking about 5 specific "people"-- just player positions.

On the other hand . . . it is difficult to understand the intractability of management in refusing outside examination recommended by the players from an experienced consultant in symphony/financial matters, e.g. Michael Kaiser, CEO of the Kennedy Center. (Graef says Louisville currently has one, as we speak.) Why not allow his expertise to look over the situation? Does management fear he will side with the union? Just asking . . . If he could successfully outline a plan which retains much of what the orchestra has enjoyed and minimize the viewed-as-drastic nature of the currently proposed cuts in wages, players and programs, he will have done us a great service. No arbitration, nothing cast in concrete, just recommendations. What is the downside? That he might agree with management?

On the other hand . . . the players' stated lack of a CEO as a problem goes a bit overboard in my view. Many of the current financial problems occurred under CEO Simon Crookall's watch, perhaps leading to his announced resignation in February. I've been informed that the staff, even with its reduced number, are more relaxed and relieved since Jackie Groth has taken over as acting CEO, and she appears to me well on top of the negotiating process and issues.

On the other hand . . . by far my biggest concern is the ultimate cancellation of this entire season because of the "combatants'" intransigence. Then the players -- with no income whatever -- would desperately be seeking playing jobs, any jobs, elsewhere. Urbański, whether he is paid or not, would have a far higher motivation to be looking at other orchestras, either here or abroad, and, with the rising world awareness of his burgeoning young talent, would probably have little trouble in relocating, perhaps within a year. It is incumbent upon management and players to take this threat under strong consideration.

On the other hand . . . as a classical music lover for my entire life (well, from age 5 anyway), I find it disheartening that these ongoing symphony orchestra issues, having been all over cities on the American map, finally came home -- came to my home town. I hear these well meaning protagonists talking negotiation-in-good-faith, each tilting their pitching points just a bit toward their favor, and hearing arguments of the aesthetics of the ISO's historic status against the practicality of its continuing at its present level.

As always, the devil resides in the elusive money details -- mainly salary reductions and how much funding, about which I'm not well enough versed to say who makes the better argument. But there are those non-elusive points discussed above, which strike me as having been better-made by one side, and others better-made by the other side.

Meanwhile, I look at my Discover Our Sensational Season program booklet, see every one of the classical, pops and Happy Hour programs for 2012-2013, see the works offered, note the ten appearances of our music director, the already booked and contracted guest conductors and performers -- and I ponder if I will hear any of them. I keep my eyes and my ears open, and my fingers crossed.


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