Just a few weeks ago, I came back from my second trip to Puerto Rico. There I helped members of the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra (PRSO), including orchestra committee chair and Local 555 president José Martin, negotiate with the management of the PRSO and the Corporación de las Artes Musicales (CAM), the governmental agency that oversees the PRSO and other musical arts in Puerto Rico. It is a very complicated situation, including a lawsuit brought by CAM asking the court to declare that the orchestra is a governmental entity not entitled to workers’ rights never before disputed. Such a declaration could deprive the musicians of privileges fundamental to labor, including the ability to negotiate collectively and to strike.
I was successful to a point. I got all parties to start talking—about suspending the lawsuit, starting bargaining for a new CBA, and forming a long-range planning committee. It’s hoped that the long-range planning committee, composed of musicians, management, and governmental officials, will be able to facilitate a smooth transition from a wholly government-supported orchestra to a freestanding institution with an endowment, an autonomous board, and self governance. Len Leibowitz was unable to attend these discussions but participated by phone. He crafted a joint statement, agreed to by all parties, that was read at a press conference held at the Puerto Rico Federation of Labor office in San Juan. Len will also be involved with the on-going negotiations for a new CBA.
The reason I had the success I did was that the orchestra members were 100% in solidarity. When José and I spoke to the management, they knew that we were speaking for all the members of Local 555. It felt powerful. In the end, it proved to be the most important catalyst for moving discussions in a new direction.
That brings me to a concern I have on a subject that has been mentioned to me by at least thirteen delegates, committee chairs, and rank-and-file musicians. The concern is the lack of collegiality within our various orchestras. There seems to be far too much backbiting, open antagonism, and just plain bad manners toward older players from newer players.
This attitude is very harmful to any team-oriented operation, and surely to an arts organization like a symphony orchestra. It shakes the foundation of our commitment to ensemble, the shared experience, and the very nature of what we are trying to accomplish at our performances. Moreover, this attitude promotes a mean spirit that, once started, will permeate the entire organization.
A symphony orchestra has a unique structure. There are three distinct groups. There are the over-50, seasoned veterans. This group is the custodian of the institution’s history, the masters of the folklore, and the curators of artifacts (e.g., pictures, instruments, and awards) collected throughout the orchestra’s history. All this, plus they have the experience of years of musical performance, contract negotiations, and, in general, the life of the orchestra. These people are tangible assets for every musician. There should be a great deal of respect for those who have stayed the course and have made the job and the music making available to the younger generation.
The next is the 30- to 50-year-old group. These are the career-track musicians with the will and dedication to continue the legacy, who strive for the highest possible musical performance achievable. This is the largest group in the orchestra, and it is the group that has the energy and the will to demand of management and musicians alike to reach for the highest possible goals. This is the group that teaches the new players the stage etiquette, the procedures of governance, and respect for the entire institution. It is the group that motivates, and it should be the group that sets the tone for respect, good manners, and solidarity for all musicians.
The last group is the 20- to 30-year-olds just out of school or moving up from another orchestra. In my experience these players are the best ever in the forty years of my career. They can flat-out play! They are, however, woefully uneducated about labor relations, contract negotiations and their history, the function and success of ICSOM, personal contracts, pensions, life after retirement, and all the other aspects of symphony life. They are looking for guidance, and the way each of us approaches the new musicians will mold and shape the attitudes of this next generation of players.
A revolutionary once said, “We must hang together, or we will surely hang separately.” This is true of symphony orchestras as well. Not only in contract negotiations must we show solidarity, but also during every aspect of performance, we must believe in and demonstrate collegiality. It is the only way to achieve excellence.
The newer players are sometimes much better players than the old guard. This is the way of life. When we teach, we want our students to experience such success. Sometimes it takes a “village” of all an organization’s members to help set things right. We must always believe in respect, good manners, and a professional courtesy to all our members. Compassion is our greatest gift to a colleague.