Is Philadelphia Orchestra history? Strike: A 60-day musicians' strike threatens to end one of the world's most famous symphony orchestras, the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Sun Journal

November 14, 1996|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia Orchestra's most recent concert was Sunday, in Camden, N.J., a lead-gray town on the other side of the Delaware River. The mere prospect of such a lowly venue for this orchestra, familiar in Paris and Berlin, would have provoked a fit in Leopold Stokowski, the same in Eugene Ormandy.

Luckily for both former conductors of the Philadelphia Orchestra, they are already dead.

Their successors, Riccardo Muti and current music director Wolfgang Sawallisch, are committed to silence about the rancorous strike of the orchestra musicians. So no one stands forth with the Olympian stature of the deceased to ask the fearful question:

Is the Philadelphia Orchestra history? Might it wind up a second-tier musical aggregation instead of indisputably first-class?

The strike, 60 days old today, is longer now than the one 30 years ago that nearly silenced the orchestra for good.

"American orchestras," says Neeme Jarvi, "are never safe." With that in mind, Jarvi -- conductor of the Detroit Symphony -- lent his protective baton to the Philadelphia musicians by conducting the Camden concert, and the sympathetic musicians of the New York Philharmonic.

For three hours Camden was lifted above its own decay, and the musicians' strike fund was enriched by over $20,000 in fees and gifts from concert musicians around the country.

Across the river, the people of the Philadelphia Orchestra Association -- management -- could only grit their teeth and enjoy it. The music, that is. Also, for that day, they were spared the

quotidian sight of pickets in front of the stately Academy of Music, all bright brick and antique brownstone. The pickets, needed in Camden, were back Monday.

"I'm not making a strike," says Jarvi, his voice suffused with innocence. "I'm just making music." Is he concerned about displeasing orchestra managers elsewhere?

"I'm booked to 2005. I don't worry."

Others do. For the prospect at least exists that this city could lose its principal cultural ornament. Peter A. Benoliel, chairman of the association, says that if the strike goes on, "the financial position of the association is going to deteriorate rapidly." If so, adds orchestra president Joseph H. Kluger, "We won't be able to sustain the present offer."

It was Monday, and Benoliel called off the ninth week of concerts.

People are canceling subscriptions; tickets are being returned. The orchestra's 30,000 subscribers, and 10,000 donors wait, impatiently.

The Philadelphia Orchestra is only three years shy of its 100th birthday. It has been a glittery life, colored by Stokowski's love of the avant-garde, enriched by Ormandy's sumptuous strings (a Stradivarius under every chin), Muti's fine precision and brisk tempos.

These great leaders put the orchestra securely among the top five in this country (up with New York's, Chicago's, Cleveland's, Boston's), and among the first rank planet-wide.

What would happen if Philadelphia were to lose this ensemble? Who would cry were it to disappear? Not so many as would weep at the departure of the Flyers or Phillies, for sure.

But Philadelphia would change. It is known all over the world as the home of this orchestra, by music lovers unfamiliar with the art in hockey and baseball.

What would Philadelphia be without the Philadelphia Orchestra? Just an unremarkable American city with a funny Greek name?

Many of the musicians have forebodings as dark as Benoliel's. They believe that they are in the hands of managers who are steering the orchestra to oblivion, or worse, mediocrity. Management responds that the music business has changed, and the players refuse to recognize that.

"Maybe they'll decide foreign tours are not a necessity," says Richard Woodhams, principal oboist. "If you get a bottom-line obsession, who knows what we could come to?"

The strike was triggered by a pay dispute in mid-September when the contract expired. The last management offer, made Monday night, was the same one rejected a week ago. It would lift the musicians' pay from $1,400 to $1,610 a week in three years. But it would require some musicians to pay part of their health care, and would require extra concerts, without pay, for the pension fund and to cover administrative expenses.

Like the first offer in September, it dropped the annual guarantee to each player of $6,000, on top of their salaries, for recordings and radio broadcasts. This quickly became the fount of all pain and alienation in the dispute. It awoke the issue of managerial competence.

The players have suspected incompetence among their leaders for a long time. But their suspicion became a certitude when the prestigious record company EMI dropped them in August. For the first time in over 50 years, the Philadelphia Orchestra had no recording contract.

Frequent recording is important, not for the income, which isn't great, but to keep the orchestra's name before those people who enjoy classical music, buy CDs and go to concerts.

The musicians have other complaints about their bosses:

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