Sunday, September 26, 2010

Detroit: decline or fall?

Musicians of the Detroit Symphony have voted to strike on Oct. 4, three days before the scheduled opening of the season, after reaching an impasse with the orchestra’s management over a contract offer calling for a 30 percent pay cut and taking on additional work outside the concert hall, Mark Stryker reports in the Detroit Free Press:

As the recession has pushed many orchestras, opera companies and other performing troupes from chronic financial stress toward oblivion, it was just a matter of time before a front-line institution radically cut back or folded. It appears that institution will be the Detroit Symphony, long ranked among the top 10 U.S. orchestras.

That’s not especially surprising: Detroit has been in decline for decades, and the recession walloped the auto industry. As Stryker notes, cultural institutions in Detroit have been hit especially hard by reductions in individual and corporate contributions and grants from local and state government.

Detroit Symphony musicians have been among the best-paid in the country. Under their former contract, base pay was $104,650; the management proposal to cut that to $70,200 would still place the players near the top of the orchestral food chain. Their counter-proposal to accept a reduction in salary to $82,000, rising back to $96,600 in three years, won’t generate much sympathy in such an economically
depressed community. (The comments thread following Stryker’s article suggests just how unsympathetic the locals are likely to be.)

A cultural realignment – most classical-music lovers would call it a decline – has been under way for some time in this country. Music education has all but disappeared from public schools; classical music has all but disappeared from mass media. Right-wing populists have conditioned many to think of the fine arts as "elitist," undeserving of public support. Groups that feel no personal or collective stake in maintaining the Western art-music tradition – young people, non-European immigrants and non-whites, religious fundamentalists – are among the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. population. Even among educated and affluent whites, the longtime core audience and donor pool for classical music and its performing entities, younger people are far less attuned to the music than their parents and grandparents.

On top of all that, we see the decline of the old industrial cities that built and sustained most of the leading U.S. orchestras, and no great rush to establish major orchestras in growth areas. If classical groups’ artistic stature reflected the economic and demographic profiles of their hometowns, Denver, San Diego and Charlotte would have larger and better orchestras than Detroit, Cleveland and St. Louis.

In Detroit, it appears the options are a qualitatively diminished orchestra or a defunct orchestra. Other cities, in the Rust Belt and beyond, will soon hear the same sad song.

AFTERTHOUGHT: A cruel irony to this situation is that the U.S. classical audience is probably larger today than it was in the supposedly golden age of the 1930s and ’40s. (The country's population has nearly tripled since then.) The audience, however, is far more dispersed geographically; highbrows in Missoula and Mobile are no help to orchestras in Buffalo and Baltimore.