Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Excuses, excuses

    Longish time no post, and I can offer no better explanation than the vicissitudes of the winter past: a death (my dear father), a marriage (my own, thank you State of Maine) and arpeggios (which will get in the way of everything if you let them). But with the advent of spring I am back at it...hoping that my countless dozens of readers haven't jumped blog for some other more entertaining and reliable pianist?
    The San Francisco Symphony strike awakened my dulled senses. The orchestra's current season and upcoming tour have been shut down over wage disputes, the current average salary being $165,000. My burning question: does that include the bass clarinet player? According to SFS executive director Brent Assink (a Dickens-worthy surname that!) management was “ready to resume bargaining” with the players, though “collectively, we need a few hours of sleep.”
    Now, I will say right off the baton that I don't know a thing about how these organizations tick. A job as principal pianist for a large regional orchestra in years past only provided an outsider's view at best; orchestra pianists often play fewer than half the contracted annual services, since the vast majority of symphonic repertoire doesn't include the piano at all. When it does, you will often have 400 measures of rest, a highly visible eight bars or so of colorful solo material, and then a return to a state of longeur for the rest of the concert. One spends a lot of time avoiding the bitter stares of string players who must endure every minute of rehearsal, knowing that you will probably be home on your couch watching Law and Order SVU reruns while they are still thrashing out the last passages of the Tchaikovsky 4th. Nevertheless, I am pretty darn sure that even the most senior contract players in our hard-working ensemble didn't make anything near $165,000 a year, not to mention the health benefits and various extras such as recording fees that must come with a seat in a prestigious orchestra like San Francisco. My colleagues would have been lucky to cobble together even half that much money, even while supplementing their income by working with other nearby orchestras, teaching privately and in academic institutions, and with the occasional soul-wearying wedding gig and such. Assuming that SFS players have the opportunity to take on these kinds of additional employment as well, they would be looking at nearly $200,000 a year. Even in our completely skewed culture, that seems pretty close to a fair recompense. I mean, you are also being given the privilege of playing and recording exciting music with some of the world's greatest musicians and conductors, often traveling the world in the process. 
    As a fellow musician, I totally sympathize with the orchestra players and their quest for fairness. But from the point of view of a solo artist who lacks the ongoing continuity, comradeship and financial security that an orchestra can provide, I envy these musicians their current great fortune. Were their orchestra to fold, as sadly so many others have of late, the loss would be felt not only by these individual players and their audience- not all of whom are fat cat industrialists, surely- but also by classical musicians everywhere who are also fighting hard to survive by their art in a culture that seems to value it less and less every day. A fine dilemma.

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