orchestras/trouble

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the VIenna Philharmonic, summer concert

what an orchestra can be

It has been a dark few years for this country’s orchestras. In the past season, a bitter strike in San Francisco and a lockout in Minneapolis led to cascading cancellations, including of the San Francisco Symphony’It has been a dark few years for this country’s orchestras. In the past season, a bitter strike in San Francisco and a lockout in Minneapolis led to cascading cancellations, including of the San Francisco Symphony’

This remarkable venture, which resulted in works by Lukas Foss, Paul Hindemith, Roy Harris, Gunther Schuller and many others, put Louisville and its orchestra on the international cultural map and attracted luminaries like Shostakovich and Martha Graham to visit the city. But that wasn’t enough to fend off the regular financial crises that have dogged the orchestra over the decades since, until its recent bankruptcy filing.

This perennial instability has stemmed in part from an overreliance on bailouts from private sponsors and large corporations, some of which reduced donations during difficult economic periods or moved out of town. “No one wanted to face the reality that one day support would end,” said Jorge Mester, the orchestra’s current music director, in a telephone interview.

One solution being discussed is to reduce the Louisville Orchestra’s 71 salaried players to 55 and fill in the gaps with freelancers. “The musicians, of course, don’t want to abandon their colleagues,” Mr. Mester said. While the ideal is an orchestra that plays 52 weeks a year, he added, “it’s not a calamity” to use freelancers. He doesn’t fear that quality would suffer.

A reliance on freelancers is growing increasingly prevalent in many industries. Some first-rate orchestras, like the New York ensembles Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and Orchestra of St. Luke’s, have long had freelance structures. But even with lower overhead many freelance music organizations are now playing fewer concerts and producing less income for the musicians.
Stewart Rose, a horn player with St. Luke’s since 1983, also plays with Orpheus and the New York City Opera Orchestra and is currently on a temporary arrangement with the New York Philharmonic. He enjoys “the variety that comes along with freelancing,” he said in a telephone interview. But the time lag between performances during a slow stretch can be demoralizing, he said. “It’s really been tough for everyone with the decline in the amount of work out there.”

While the freelance model can be perilous for musicians, the upside for orchestras is a more flexible operating system. The rotating work force of the excellent Orchestra of St. Luke’s, for example, makes it easier to survive challenging times.

“One of the things that makes us resilient is our flexibility,” said Katy Clark, the orchestra’s president and executive director. “We don’t spend what we don’t have. We don’t guarantee work to our musicians and don’t require that they turn up. Even though you might think this would be anarchic, we have very stable personnel to an amazing extent.”

Another benefit of freelance orchestras, Ms. Clark added, is that they tend to have more inclusive management styles and thus suffer less labor friction.

St. Luke’s currently has balanced budgets, no operating deficit and a new revenue stream from the DiMenna Center for Classical Music, a complex for performance and rehearsals that opened in March, with rooms for rent by outside groups at affordable rates. The orchestra, which is often presented by Carnegie Hall and other organizations in collaborative partnerships that Ms. Clark described as fundamental to its success, has not cut any of its self-produced programs but has received fewer fee engagements during the recession.

This perennial instability has stemmed in part from an overreliance on bailouts from private sponsors and large corporations, some of which reduced donations during difficult economic periods or moved out of town. “No one wanted to face the reality that one day support would end,” said Jorge Mester, the orchestra’s current music director, in a telephone interview.

One solution being discussed is to reduce the Louisville Orchestra’s 71 salaried players to 55 and fill in the gaps with freelancers. “The musicians, of course, don’t want to abandon their colleagues,” Mr. Mester said. While the ideal is an orchestra that plays 52 weeks a year, he added, “it’s not a calamity” to use freelancers. He doesn’t fear that quality would suffer.

A reliance on freelancers is growing increasingly prevalent in many industries. Some first-rate orchestras, like the New York ensembles Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and Orchestra of St. Luke’s, have long had freelance structures. But even with lower overhead many freelance music organizations are now playing fewer concerts and producing less income for the musicians.

Stewart Rose, a horn player with St. Luke’s since 1983, also plays with Orpheus and the New York City Opera Orchestra and is currently on a temporary arrangement with the New York Philharmonic. He enjoys “the variety that comes along with freelancing,” he said in a telephone interview. But the time lag between performances during a slow stretch can be demoralizing, he said. “It’s really been tough for everyone with the decline in the amount of work out there.”

While the freelance model can be perilous for musicians, the upside for orchestras is a more flexible operating system. The rotating work force of the excellent Orchestra of St. Luke’s, for example, makes it easier to survive challenging times.

“One of the things that makes us resilient is our flexibility,” said Katy Clark, the orchestra’s president and executive director. “We don’t spend what we don’t have. We don’t guarantee work to our musicians and don’t require that they turn up. Even though you might think this would be anarchic, we have very stable personnel to an amazing extent.”

Another benefit of freelance orchestras, Ms. Clark added, is that they tend to have more inclusive management styles and thus suffer less labor friction.

St. Luke’s currently has balanced budgets, no operating deficit and a new revenue stream from the DiMenna Center for Classical Music, a complex for performance and rehearsals that opened in March, with rooms for rent by outside groups at affordable rates. The orchestra, which is often presented by Carnegie Hall and other organizations in collaborative partnerships that Ms. Clark described as fundamental to its success, has not cut any of its self-produced programs but has received fewer fee engagements during the recession.

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