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2009 Conference

Opening address to the 2009 ICSOM Conference
August 19, 2009

Bruce Ridge, Chairman

Delegates, guests, colleagues, and friends:

Welcome to the 2009 meeting of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians. Welcome to Norfolk, and welcome to my hometown. It was just a few blocks from here that I heard my first live symphony orchestra, which at that time was known as the Norfolk Symphony. I was privileged to join that orchestra just a few years later, when numerous mentors and heroes took me under their wings when I was just 15 years old. These musicians, some of whom are here today, were legends to me. I idolized them, and I wanted to be just like them. They taught me what it meant to be a musician, and the lessons I learned in this city some 30 years ago are carried with me through every concert I play, and to every orchestra I visit.

I am only able to stand before you today due to the mentoring and support of people and teachers too numerous to mention. I was lucky. I was welcomed and accepted by those who went before me, and I was only too eager to hear their wisdom. I also had incredible support from my family, and I remember well coming out of Chrysler Hall after evening concerts to find my parents holding hands and listening to the radio, waiting to take me home so that I could get to school the next day.

Everyone in this room has a story of someone who profoundly changed their lives when they were becoming musicians and artists. Everyone has someone who took them aside and carefully nurtured a belief that they had an ability that might allow them to achieve something greater than themselves. And now as we reach out to a new generation of musicians, we are beholden to return the favors that were granted to us.

Recently, I was reading a speech by Nelson Mandela where he said that “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. When we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

As I have prepared for this meeting in Norfolk, and this emotional homecoming for me, I have been unavoidably sentimental about my earliest days as a musician, remembering all of those “firsts” that remain ingrained in our memories forever. These are feelings that all musicians share…how it felt the night we first performed a Beethoven Symphony, how it felt the first time we walked on a stage before a full audience.

I think that sometimes we can lose touch with that early excitement as our careers go forward. It is only natural. After all, life intrudes as we work to pay bills, travel to multiple concerts, maintain our teaching schedule, and struggle to accomplish the administration of life activities that too often control our days. Modern life provides too little time for reflection, and often too little time for activism.

But we must never lose touch with the musicians we were at the start of our journeys. The greatest musicians among us are those who are still inspired by the opportunity to inspire.

In this year of difficulties, when economic pressures on arts organizations weigh on us all, it might be easy to give in to frustrations, and those moments of inspiration might be more difficult to reach in light of the negativity that surrounds us. But it is precisely in times of difficulty that our idealism must be relied on and nurtured. In order to move forward and to continue to inspire ourselves as well as our communities, we must re-engage in our mission of advocacy. All musicians must work to demonstrate the value of our orchestras to our cities and our audiences. Our colleagues look to those of us in this room for leadership, and we must respond, now more than ever.

Sometimes, going through the necessary soul searching over whether or not to fight a battle can be more difficult than the battle itself. We ask ourselves now if we shouldn’t just give in and allow the media to define the future of our orchestras, or if we should once again reach into the well of inspiration that came so easily in our earliest days as musicians to re-inspire ourselves as well as our colleagues and our communities.

This has been a hard year. This has been a time when musicians have had to become economists. And frankly, we are every bit as knowledgeable as some of the paid pundits that have promulgated a flood of negativity in the 24 hour news cycle. That constant chatter has professed an atmosphere of disaster and depression upon us all, hindering the nations’ recovery from this cyclical economic downturn. The assertion of apocalypticism has made its way into our field, where managers have sought to create what they call “A New Economic Reality” that merely would serve to reduce our organizations to a size that their skill levels are capable of managing.

This, of course, is not true everywhere. Even in this climate, some talented managers have led their orchestras in advances for their communities. But in many cases we have not been asked merely to address the temporary situation that we all acknowledge, but we have been threatened that if we don’t accept a permanent reduction in our artistic mission, our organizations will cease to exist.

It is a negativity that permeates society’s view of the arts. We hear news accounts of school systems eliminating bands and orchestras, even though we know that students who participate in music programs are far more likely to stay in school, and actually even enjoy learning. When faced with a view that the arts are dispensable, we have to ask ourselves what kind of children do we want to rear, and we have to ask ourselves what kind of country do we want to be.

There are signs of recovery. Last month was the best July in the stock market since 1989, and the best month overall since 2002. We must be poised to take advantage of the impending recovery, even if our managements are not. We must be looking to restore our commitment to the growth of our orchestras, even if our managements are not. And we must demonstrate that we are capable of inspiring our communities and our colleagues…even if our managements are not.

As we fight against this promulgated negativity, we must also fight against our own apathy and frustration. We must lead our colleagues from their frustrations as well. This is truly a time for activism and inspiration, and the need has never been greater.

We have seen the results of grassroots efforts. In concert with our friends at Americans for the Arts, artists led the call for support of the arts in the economic stimulus package put forth by the new administration. We have seen musicians post petitions calling for a Secretary of the Arts and they have been successful in getting hundreds of thousands of signatures.

Let us not falter in our mission. Let us not be discouraged, but instead let us be inspired to greater activism. We all must be engaged in advocacy for our art form, for our communities, and for our friends. We must not allow hard times to impair our idealism. Our enemy is apathy, and our enemy is frustration.

There is a poem that I think most of us feel is too trite to quote. While it was written by Arthur O’Shaughnessy, I really think I probably learned it from Willy Wonka. “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”

In a world that values discord over debate, where negativity dominates television ratings for talking heads who must merely out-shout their opposition in order to be rebooked, the musicians of America’s orchestras continue to offer our message of hope. We are the sound of reason in a noisy world, and we are a beacon in a destructive sea.

In a world that can be at times disheartening, we must not be disheartened. We must not doubt ourselves or the value of what we do. This is not a time to be discouraged. This is a time to renew your commitment. Reach back in your memories to the earliest moments of your career, and see yourself now the way that you saw music as a student.

We have seen our nation respond to messages of hope in this year. In the speech I cited earlier, Mr. Mandela went on to say “as we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” But, it is not only the communities that surround our orchestras that are eager to feel enlightened in the way Mr. Mandela professed, but is it also the internal community of our union.

ICSOM was founded largely to achieve recognition from our union, and that struggle for recognition continues nearly 50 years later. In this time of crisis for orchestras in America, our musicians have never needed the support of the Federation more, and I am saddened to say that they have never had it less.

In this year of need, the position of director of the Symphonic Services Division was left unfilled for 10 months. In this year of need, as musicians faced heartbreaking decisions about reductions in their salaries and seasons, the Federation has stood largely silent. In this year of need, when the friendship of the symphonic players conferences led to unanimous recommendations that could have served to lead us to a new era of unity, those unanimous recommendations were dismissed.

Symphonic musicians keep this union alive. We provide financial support through 55% of the Federation work dues, but our voices are still too often ignored. While we will continue to offer a voice that can unify and not divide, that voice must not be denied by a Federation that would accept our money but reject our ideas.

When we extend our hand in friendship and unity, the leadership of the Federation must reach back. You cannot lead by dividing…by dividing, you can only retain power.

In this week, we will again offer our hand of friendship and unity, and we will again demonstrate that leadership is born of trust. Recently, before the International Executive Board of the AFM, I said that we are advocates of unity, and I invited them to join us in our cause. I again issue that invitation, and we offer our hand to move forward with a new dialogue.

We have all arrived here today weary from a year of bad news, filled with unexpected re-negotiations and dire prognostications about the future of our orchestras. But in life, every crisis is also an opportunity. Despite the din of negativity, there are positive signs that can lead us to a renewed period of activism.

Artists from across the country, working together with Americans for the Arts, helped to generate over 85,000 letters to Congress in support of funds for the National Endowment for the Arts. Now is the time for a new emphasis on the value of music in education and the economy, and this effort must be led by the musicians of our nations’ orchestras. Let us spend this week supporting and inspiring each other, and then let us spread the message to all of our colleagues that there is reason for hope, and that there are things that we will accomplish together that we could never accomplish apart.

Even in this difficult time, we have seen reports that attendance at our concerts is rising in many places. There remains a community of loyal supporters eager to hear our music and our voices, and they can be joined by a new generation of audiences that seek solace from the onslaught of divisiveness.

Here in Hampton Roads, home of the Virginia Symphony, the arts have an annual economic impact of over $365 million. Here in Hampton Roads, the arts employ nearly 6000 people. Cultural events in these cities result in over $193 million in audience spending. This is the fifth largest metropolitan area in the southeast, home to over 1.7 million citizens. And since 1920, it has been home to the Virginia Symphony.

The Virginia Symphony began as the Norfolk Symphony, and in the late 70’s it went through several name changes as it attempted to brand itself as one of the nation’s finest orchestras. The orchestra has achieved great artistic success, especially now under the eloquent leadership of our great friend JoAnn Falletta. But the future of this orchestra is at risk, as inconceivable as that can be. Some would have us believe that only economic factors are contributing to these difficulties, but I know the citizens of Hampton Roads have never doubted the value of this orchestra.

Too often across the country, especially in this year of difficulties, we have seen this scenario repeated. The musicians of America’s greatest orchestras have come to Norfolk to support our colleagues in the Virginia Symphony, and to demonstrate to the citizens of Hampton Roads that there is a jewel in their midst and it must be nurtured. Had there been no Virginia Symphony, my life would have been radically different and far less meaningful. There are children today that must not be deprived of the same opportunities afforded me. This orchestra will not only survive, but it will thrive and grow to match the vision of the musicians who maintain the historic legacy begun almost 90 years ago.

And just as we have come here this week, we will stand with any orchestra in need. These are not times that call for hand-wringing and threats of bankruptcy, these are times that call for vision and leadership.

I am honored and humbled to serve as chair of ICSOM, and on a daily basis I am inspired by the musicians of America. I feel constantly connected to the work we all do, and I am aware during every concert I play that at the very same moment, my friends across the country are performing before their loyal audiences as well.

I have relied on the members of the Governing Board of ICSOM for support and wisdom, perhaps this year more than ever before. No amount of praise would be adequate to describe the work they do on your behalf, or to compensate for the sacrifices they make to serve the cause of musicians everywhere. We work together with a camaraderie and unity that seems rare in the world today. Our debates are open and enlightening, and our only focus has been to serve the cause of the musicians who have placed their trust in us.

We do have an absent friend this year. Our thoughts and best wishes are with our legendary counsel, Leonard Leibowitz, who is currently on leave from his work with ICSOM, and this week will afford us an opportunity to discuss some of the circumstances that surround his absence.

What is it that we seek to accomplish here this week? I hope that this convocation will serve to dispel any defeatism we might face, either from within or without. As Nelson Mandela said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us most. We ask ourselves Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and famous? Actually, who are you not to be?”

At a time when there are many who doubt America’s orchestras, we will not doubt ourselves. We will leave here with a renewed spirit of activism, and we will take this message to our colleagues back home. This judgment we make affirmatively: together, we can be powerful beyond measure.

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