Monday, August 20, 2012

Labor Pains

It has not been the best of times for one of Atlanta’s most venerable performing groups, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Over the past few weeks, several emerging stories concerning the orchestra have caught the attention of the press as well as the local arts community. First, there is the increasingly contentious contract dispute between the ASO Players Association and the orchestra’s board and management. The details can be found in an article written by Mark Gresham. Unfortunately, stories of major orchestras running up deficits, operating in the red and ultimately facing financial crisis are far too common in our nation. The reasons for this rising phenomenon are varied and far too complex to discuss within the confines of this small blog post. The bottom line is that this type of dispute casts a pall over the artistry of the orchestra and makes many within the arts community nervous about the future.

A second story that has become another public relations issue for the ASO, even as it struggles with its current labor dispute, deals with community outreach. The orchestra management has recently informed some local high school choruses that they will not be invited to perform with the ASO this year, as they have in the past, for an annual Holiday concert. Citing issues of diversity, the management is seeking to include other groups for this year’s concert. Regrettably, this has caused a firestorm of protest within the community. Exactly what the ASO does not need at this time!

Finally, another article trending in Atlanta has to do with a recent performance by a pseudo-pop/classical vocal group, Il Divo. This group is the operatic crossover vocal quartet created in 2004 by American Idol fixture Simon Cowell. They were featured on summer pops concert billed as “Il Divo and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.” However, the orchestra did not actually perform. They were asked to simply pantomime to pre-recorded backing tracks provided by the vocal group. To add to the ignominy, the orchestra members did not learn of this until they showed up for the gig and it wasn’t even the ASO they were using as backing tracks but a completely different recorded orchestra. This story, again covered by Mark Gresham, is detailed in a recent article published in
The fabulous musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

What does all of this have to do with composers? All of these stories have one common thread: the mistreatment of professional musicians. As a composer who interacts with performers frequently, this is an issue that must be taken to heart. How do we show our appreciation to those who have devoted their lives to performing at the very highest level? In the recent London Olympic Games, we all marveled and swooned over the accomplishments of athletes. Yet, does it ever cross our minds that every member of a professional orchestra like the ASO has put in the same – if not more - countless hours of practice?

It’s bad enough when management balks at salaries or when pros are forced into humiliating situations such as the Il Divo concert. It’s worse when we, as composers, treat performers the same way; when we look upon them as means to an end – namely the performance of our music – and not as highly trained professionals, colleagues and artists without whom our music remains nothing more than silent designs on paper. Of course, composers are rarely in a position to threaten a musician’s salary and most of us don’t consciously think about ways to demean performers intentionally. However, we often do lots of little things that show a lack of respect. How often are we late in delivering a score and parts? How often is our printed music not clearly notated and error-free? How often do we write unidiomatic musical lines? Do we micro-manage a rehearsal? Do we properly acknowledge and thank performers after a concert? Dealing with composers can be another road hazard the professional musician quietly deals with.

Yet despite it all, musicians continue to perform. They grit their teeth and play that Il Divo gig; they spend their valuable time practicing our music; they do their best to count our incomprehensible rhythms and navigate the unidiomatic parts we composers bring to them on short notice before a concert; they usually always go that extra mile. Remember that public relations miscue spoken of earlier wherein certain high school choruses in Atlanta will not be invited to perform with the ASO? The orchestra members have responded in a press release detailing their offer to play for the kids for free. This doesn't surprise me. Most of the finest musicians I know are also the most generous people I know. I can’t help but think of all the times fabulous performers have also played my music for free or, often, for payment far below what they should have earned.

My hope is that the recent ASO stories all conclude in ways that strengthen the organization. These stories have reminded me that performers put up with a lot. While I shouldn’t feel nervous about composing challenging music or following my own artistic voice, I need to balance my writing with courtesy and respect.  It’s the very the least I can do.