It's easy to think of classical musicians as being a breed apart from the rest of us. They've mastered the most technically challenging music ever written, after all, composed by some of history's most recognizable names. They do what they do out of passion — what else could it be? — for their instruments, for their music, for their talent, but almost never a passion for wealth or celebrity. They're members of an elite, mysterious fraternity that stretches back to antiquity, and their regular business attire is dress blacks and tuxedos. The only other people who dress like that are royalty in small nations and British secret agents.
So it's a slight shock when, as sometimes happens, we discover that classical musicians are people just like people everywhere. Post and Courier Spoleto overview critic Blair Tindall brought this point home in spectacular fashion last summer when she published Mozart in the Jungle, a memoir of her youth in New York City as a professional oboist, forever seeking a full-time position with a regional symphony orchestra, drinking and debauching with (and sometimes on) her musical peers, and sleeping her way into largely unfulfilling part-time gigs. Tindall's book, and its frank discussion not just of life in '80s New York but of her own gritty, harsh experience of struggling to earn a living as a classical musician, was a refreshing look inside an insular, mythologized industry.
Last week, Charlestonians got another opportunity to see the human side of classical musicians. On Tues., Jan. 17, James Holland, the principal cellist for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and a spokesman for the CSO musicians, sent an e-mail to local news organizations stating that the CSO board was insisting it wouldn't begin marketing and fundraising for the 2006-07 season next month if musicians hadn't signed a new contract with the orchestra by Feb. 1. Three years ago, the symphony narrowly avoided disaster by implementing sweeping, across-the-board budget cuts. The 40-plus players stepped up in a big way by taking an 18-percent salary cut on the chin, making the average pay of a full-time CSO musician about $17,500. In his e-mail, Holland noted that the musicians had accepted the pay cut in good faith, but with the understanding that their salaries would be restored to 2003 levels — at the minimum — once the financial situation for the symphony improved.
"By accepting the pay cut in 2003, we essentially donated over half of a million dollars to the orchestra during the last three years," Holland wrote. "We are pleased and relieved that those sacrifices have made it possible to preserve this cultural jewel for Charleston. However, we'd like to relinquish our status as one of the largest donors to South Carolina's only full-time professional orchestra."
Holland went on to suggest the management's refusal to announce the season and begin fundraising amounted to a "board strike" meant to preempt the possibility of a musicians' strike, which he noted they'd never formally threatened. The CSO's marketing and fundraising efforts have improved significantly in the past three years, he observed. "All we want is for the board to work for the success of next year's season, and conduct our negotiations using the increasing knowledge of the institution's true financial position that each new marketing and fundraising effort gives us."
Holland's e-mail was an effort to open a very public back channel for negotiations with the board, since private meetings had gone nowhere. It worked. The following day's article in the P&C laid out the dispute for all to see, and at a regularly scheduled board meeting Wednesday night, executive director Sandy Ferencz and board president Ted Halkyard made acquiescent noises to arts reporter Dottie Ashley. They would go forward with fundraising for the 2006-07 season, they said, and musicians would have until June 30 to negotiate and sign new contracts.
After the concession, Holland saw no point in pressing matters further, electing for a wait-and-see strategy. To date, there's been no official word on the status of a new contract, but it's unlikely we'll see any placard-toting, picketing musicians in front of the Gaillard.
At $17,500 a year, you can hardly blame anyone for playing a little hardball. As Blair Tindall showed us, it's a jungle out there. That goes double if you wear a tuxedo for a living.