DSO Strike & The Case Of St. Louis

Nov 10, 2010

The musicians strike at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is now well into its second month. Shows have been cancelled through November. The impasse is, in part, over a proposed pay cut that would put salaries in-line with those at lower tier orchestras.

The players say accepting the concessions would threaten the orchestra's world-class status. But what might the DSO look and sound like if management had its way?

Two Cities
St. Louis and Detroit have quite a bit in common. Both cities enjoyed a an industrial renaissance in the early 20th century followed by a rapid decline in population as jobs disappeared and families moved to the suburbs.

They are also home to two symphonies that enjoy a well established creative history.  And another commonality, Leonard Slatkin. The DSO's current conductor spent much of his early career in St. Louis before leaving for the National Symphony in Washington D.C., and eventually landing in Detroit.

The DSO and St. Louis Symphony have something else in common. If musicians in Detroit accept a pay cut, they'll be earning around the same salary as their counterparts in St. Louis. According to arts-consultant Drew McManus, a nationally recognized expert on the orchestra business, that possibility is becoming increasingly likely.  

"That would be the best scenario for them at this point," he says. "I'm increasingly having a darker outlook on things."

The Case of St. Louis
Five years before the DSO strike, St. Louis dealt with its own financial struggles and labor strife. In 2005, the St. Louis Symphony suffered an eight-week work stoppage after musicians and management sparred over pay cuts and the length of the season.

The two situations differ in some key ways. The two orchestras are considered by experts to be of different calibers.  Even so, industry watchers say what happened in St. Louis post-stoppage may serve as a sneak preview for Detroit.

"Not much happened the first year, maybe we lost one or two. The second year, maybe two or three. But over a five year period we probably lost about ten people, plus people close to retirement age were upset with how they were treated and decided they'd had enough," says       

Susan Slaughter, the recently retired principle trumpet player in St. Louis. She was with the orchestra for 40 years.

As Slaughter explains, the first casualties were those musicians in a position to leave the orchestra.  She says the bitter feelings and budget cuts created a talent drain. 

So Goes Detroit?
Drew McManus says the same thing would likely happen to the DSO. 

 "You're definitely gonna see your top tier, like your fixed-chair players, your first chair players, start to peel away first and those are the players that inevitably help guide the sound of the orchestra," he says. "So once that starts to go away you start to lose things music directors are hired to build in the first place."    

That "sound" McManus speaks of is one of the things that changed after the work stoppage in St. Louis.

Ron Klemm was a longtime radio host on that city's classical music station, Classic 99.  

"In my personal, humble opinion, the ensemble suffered for a little while until they could find themselves," he says. "It's kind of like the Detroit Lions finding themselves for a while before they can gel as a group and just sock it to the Rams."

Klemm says the orchestra sounded great, but hasn't been the same since the work stoppage.  

"You know how it is with musicians," he says. "They have this sixth sense of knowing what the other person is doing and feeling what the other person is doing and thinking in order to play together. That's the whole concept of ensemble and that does not happen overnight."

The proposed pay cuts, if they go through, might push some musicians to leave Detroit for greener pastures. But experts say it will be far from a mass exodus, if what happened in St. Louis is any indication. Sarah Bryan Miller is the music critic for the St. Louis Post Dispatch.  

"Most people will stay put because they have nowhere else to go," she says. "And they have lives in that community. They're families are there. They may have teaching jobs on the side. People just don't pick up and move lightly. There aren't enough places for them to pack up and move to."

As for recruiting new talent, that was also affected by pay cuts in St. Louis. Susan Slaughter says it's now harder to woo truly gifted musicians. 

"It's been really difficult to attract really quality players here," she says. "Quality, meaning those that can step into a position at the New York Philharmonic or Chicago. That's the kind of quality we look for."

That said, if the DSO were to hold auditions after a significant pay cut

"Your gonna get a couple hundred kids that are gonna come out of conservatories that play really well but you can't throw a bunch of players who play really well, who are young 20-something's together and expect the same product that your gonna get from a group of veteran musicians who understand and have had time together to build a collective sound," McManus says. 

Whether the quality of the music changes under a pay-cut scenario is a highly subjective question.  But one thing everybody notices is the conductor. Current Music Director Leonard Slatkin has remained publicly silent since the strike began, as is typical in these kinds of labor disputes. But McManus, based on what he knows about Slatkin and the industry as a whole, says he'd be surprised if the conductor stayed, should the cuts pushed by management go through.

"I really think, inarguably that there are fewer high-quality conductors to go around than orchestras at this point in history. So it would be very difficult for group like Detroit to take the kind of hit they're doing, and to expect to replace Leonard with somebody of equal or better quality," he says.

If classical music lovers in St. Louis have learned anything from their experience, it's that things eventually return to something of an equilibrium. Audience numbers are up and orchestra watchers say the ensemble is just now starting to find its sound again under Musical Director David Robertson. But radio host Ron Klemm has a warning. He says an eight-week work stoppage is one thing, a strike lasting a whole season is entirely different.  Klemm says every week that goes by more people learn to live without an orchestra.