The San Francisco Symphony's annual Carnegie Hall visits are always major events on the New York City musical calendar, as shown by last year's American Mavericks Festival, which, among other things, included a performance of John Cage's Song Books with Jessye Norman, Meredith Monk, and Joan La Barbara.
This week, the SFS was supposed to return to Carnegie to perform Mahler's Ninth and the New York premiere of Samuel Carl Adams' Drift and Providence. (If that name sounds familiar, it's because Sam's dad is John Adams, the SFS's former composer-in-residence.) Instead, the musicians have gone on strike, as they've been unable to come to terms on a new contract. Fom a layman's perspective, management's latest proposal seems fairly generous:
- A 3% increase in musician compensation, to a new annual minimum salary of $145,979 (up from $141,700), with increases of 1% and 2% for the latest two-year proposal.
- A $74,000 maximum annual pension.
- 10 weeks paid vacation.
- Full-coverage healthcare plan options, with no monthly premium contributions for musicians and their families across three of the four options.
- Additional compensation including radio payments, over-scale, and seniority pay.
For their part, the musicians argue that the pay, as generous as it seems, isn't sufficient to meet the high cost of living in the Bay Area. Moreover, as one of the top orchestras in the country, musicians insist that they need to offer these kinds of salaries and benefits to remain competitive. Case in point: Principal Timpanist David Herbert will be leaving the SFS for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the end of the season, lured by their better pay and "artistic opportunities."
Personally, I'm torn. I got to know SFS Executive Director Brent Assink when I participated in the League of American Orchestras' Essentials seminar several years ago. He's a calm, intelligent man who, from my perspective, works hard and plays more than fair with his musicians. But, Brent also grew up under the wing of former SFS Director Peter Pastreich, whose combative negotiating style resulted in a bitter 1996 strike that lasted more than nine weeks. So, who's to say what's happening behind closed doors?
The thing is, things are far different now than they were 17 years ago: orchestras big and small are going bankrupt, attendance is down, and the overall state of classical music is tenuous at best. Can any orchestra really afford a strike right now—especially one that results in the loss of income and exposure that an East Coast tour yields?
When is it time to make a stand, and when is it time to look at the bigger picture? I don't have the answer. All I know is that in these situations, it's always the audience that suffers the most: New York City for two nights, and San Francisco for far longer. The hard work for both musicians and management will begin after all this is over, trying to figure out how to get everyone back on track with so many other entertainment enterprises—musical and otherwise—competing for everyone's time and money.