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San Francisco’s Sulky Strikers Deserve Ridicule: Comment

Michael Tilson Thomas
Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony. Photographer: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images via Bloomberg

I want 10 weeks of vacation and if I don’t get what I want, I’m going on strike.

I’m just not going to commit any writing for a while! Writing is an annoying way to make a living. You have to write and when you do that for a few hours every day, you know what? Your fingers hurt.

I think I’ll go to San Francisco for company.

One hundred and three people there are sulking and striking.

They are the players of the San Francisco Symphony who have stopped working because they don’t like doing what they are meant to be doing.

For instance: play the viola or the bassoon for an average yearly salary $165,000 plus excellent health benefits and a guaranteed pension.

That a bassoonist could actually make a nice living playing oompah-oompah is thrilling to know. I begrudge bassoonists nothing.

Long ago, I played second bassoon in the Nyack High School Band. That I might wish to continue playing oompah-oompah filled my parents with dread (so here I am in another endangered profession).

Normally, the San Francisco Symphony isn’t a topic of conversation for me or most New Yorkers.

Comic Search

We have other leitmotifs. There’s the promised resurrection of James Levine, the ailing Metropolitan Opera maestro, who is scheduled to make a motorized appearance in May.

And for humor, of course, there’s always the Boston Symphony Orchestra, whose ditzy inability to hire a new conductor (to replace Levine who left two years ago) is the stuff of comedy. I hear a Latvian may rescue them from their self-inflicted paralysis.

But the San Francisco Symphony was meant to be in New York this week playing Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler and a new piece by Samuel Carl Adams called “Drift and Providence” -- an unintentionally appropriate description of an entire orchestra jumping into the bay.

The tour included Newark’s New Jersey Performing Arts Center and the Kennedy Center in Washington. They were to have been led by Michael Tilson Thomas, the music director who has sprinkled star dust on his players since arriving in 1995.

For this he gets paid a lot -- $2.4 million annually. That’s around twice the salary of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Gustavo Dudamel, for instance, and about $1 million more than New York Philharmonic’s Alan Gilbert.

New Audiences

But they’re younger by far. Tilson Thomas is the dean of American conductors. An energetic 68, MTT has broadened the orchestra’s repertoire, attracted new audiences, signed rare recording deals and made his band a centerpiece of West Coast cultural life.

You can’t visit San Francisco without MTT looking down from a poster.

So nice to thank him by striking.

Perhaps the union thought the board would cave so as to save a costly tour to the grand music palaces of the eastern seaboard.

Oops. Wrong call, folks! Time for a reality check.

We Want More

Look around. Orchestras are endangered, expensive cultural artifacts in our towns. A month-long lockout at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra ended in September after players accepted $5.2 million of concessions over two years. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra musicians took a pay cut to end a four-week lockout there.

Yesterday, after 11 frustrating months spent assuaging its union, the board of the Minnesota Orchestra canceled performances through April 27.

The offer in San Francisco was generous: A pay freeze until September and then a 1 percent raise for the first year and 2 percent for the second. The players even had options that would continue their paid-for health-insurance costs, which is unusual.

Instead of slobbering all over Brent Assink, the executive director who brought them this deal from heaven, there’s been grousing about his $250,000 “longevity” bonus, a reward for 14 years running the orchestra.

At around $600,000 a year, he’s still making about a million less than Deborah Borda, the star CEO of the L.A. Philharmonic.

Tough Job

Running an orchestra is actually a tough job. You don’t just rehearse, play and go home. You’re on call day and night raising money, planning, traveling.

My sense is that unions have long run out of legitimate demands and are becoming ever more preposterous. A bone of contention is now retirement age.

The board would like to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65. You might think people who chose music for a living would be thrilled by a few more opportunities to play, say, “Death and Transfiguration.” But apparently you would be wrong.

So why doesn’t the board offer really early retirement to everyone right now?

Why wait? Juilliard and other fine music schools churn out excess musicians every year who would be delighted to have a job.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg’s arts and culture section. The opinions are her own.)

Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and Rich Jaroslovsky on technology.

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