“It is with both trepidation and pride that we introduce the first issue of SENZA SORDINO. It has been put together against the pressure of both time and limited funds, and no doubt bears the scars of its difficult (one is tempted to say ‘Caesarean’) birth.” And so began the January 1963, Volume 1, Number 1 issue of Senza Sordino. The editor of this publication, and the additional two issues from March and May of 1963, was Robert Coleman, a violist with the Chicago Symphony.
I spoke with Robert Coleman at his home on Cape Cod about his experience putting together those first issues of Senza Sordino and learned a great deal about this lovely man. As we talked he wondered at the fact that nearly 50 years had passed. Robert graduated from Julliard in 1949, spent a year with the Pittsburgh Symphony, and joined the Chicago Symphony two years out of college, in 1951.
As I prepared for my conversation with Robert, I reviewed his newsletters. They contain a great deal of insight into the early days of ICSOM. Those were days when musicians battled not only their managers but also their locals and the Federation. Back then, nearly all contact between orchestras or orchestra committees had been bilateral, with no real means of addressing common problems with common solutions.
One of the most interesting articles in the first issue describes a series of four inter-orchestra conferences that were the first of their kind. (They were also called symposiums —perhaps because “Symphony Orchestra Symposium” would be shortened to “SOS.”) They were held between July 1960 and October 1962 and eventually developed into what is now the annual ICSOM Conference. AFM President Kenin called the first one together in New York City. Although musicians anticipated addressing real issues, such as contract ratification, dismissal procedures, and pension, the theme of this symposium instead became local autonomy. The only motion that was allowed was one to convene a conference annually. Even that was undercut when the 64th AFM Convention declared that future conferences would be held at the discretion of the AFM Executive Board.
In early 1962, President Kenin called for another symposium to be held in June. Several orchestra committees decided to meet in May in preparation for that meeting. When President Kenin cancelled the June symposium, that did not deter the musicians from their plans, and so the first three-day conference was convened in Chicago on May 12, 1962, with delegates from 12 of 26 invited orchestras in attendance, but without union participation. It was at that May 1962 meeting that some meaningful resolutions were first adopted, calling for: publication of a newsletter (i.e., Senza Sordino), establishment of a symphony department, the right to organize and elect orchestra committees, and the right to ratify agreements.
When the Federation rescheduled the cancelled symposium for October 1962, musicians planned to meet before that as well, this time in Cleveland, September 6–8. The September conference was called the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) and, like the previous one, was held without union participation. When the Federation did hold the October symposium, it met in New York City and, like the first New York symposium, accomplished little. Interestingly, the AFM arbitrarily limited attendance to orchestras that had budgets exceeding $300,000—and thus excluded the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, which had been in a bitter dispute with Local 802, from attending.
The first item on the agenda of the Chicago symposium of May 1962 was a report from the Symphony Newsletter Draft Committee that recommended establishing a Federation-wide news medium specifically for symphony orchestras. When the name recommended by the committee (The American Symphony Orchestra Newsletter), did not go over well with the Canadian orchestras, musicians voted to establish the newsletter but to postpone naming it. Robert credits Joane Bennett, the assistant editor for the first and second issues, with coming up with the name Senza Sordino. As we spoke, Robert said he felt guilty that it took four to five months to get the first issue to press and that he had not been able to live up to the original goal of an issue each month. I, on the other hand, am impressed with the quality and content that was published that first year. Robert and his colleagues Joane Bennett and Janet Lorin (assistant editor for the third issue) are all to be commended for the valuable service they performed in producing those first issues. Their contribution is even more remarkable when you consider that once publication responsibility passed to the next editor, there were only two issues per season (although the newsletter was being published more professionally). It was not until Sam Denov, also from the Chicago Symphony, took over as editor that it expanded to more than four issues per year again.
Finances were a real problem that first year. The second issue included an apology that read: “This issue of SENZA SORDINO is approximately one month late; the reasons are mostly financial, and its tardiness is unavoidable; but the editor wishes to apologize, nonetheless. One orchestra has recommended five issues per year instead of ten, and there is considerable merit to the idea. However, this is a matter for ICSOM to decide at its next meeting. In the meantime, the present editor will struggle to produce issues as rapidly as funds allow.” In his editorial, Robert wrote about ambiguities in the newsletter’s mandate: “For instance in order to open a bank account in SENZA’s name, the editor has been required to declare himself to be the legal owner, a state of affairs that is undesirable in the extreme.”
The original intention was that the editorship would be passed to a different orchestra each year, and Chicago just happened to be the first. Robert told me that the early days of ICSOM were somewhat fuzzy to him because he was never actually a delegate to ICSOM. That led to a discussion about what was occurring in the Chicago Symphony at the time of ICSOM’s formation. He told me that the season was not very long when he joined the orchestra and that it had little if any summer season. Scheduling and hiring for a summer season was virtually at the discretion of the personnel manager. Robert said that most people were afraid of the personnel manager because of the power he wielded. Robert felt that one of the greatest things about forming an orchestra committee was that it defused the power of the personnel managers. Until that time, personnel managers held almost total control over hiring and firing, though they did need the consent of management.
Robert said that when the committee was established, it was not universally supported by the members of the orchestra; they were fractious and there was a great deal of infighting. Yet, this was a time when the Chicago Symphony was considered to be the best in the world—even as the musicians were divided and hostile. As far as Robert remembers, over time all the “arch conservatives” eventually came around.
The orchestra had been battling Local 10 President James Caesar (“Little Caesar”) Petrillo. (I suspect that the “Caesarean” birth Robert referred to in the first issue of Senza Sordino, quoted above, may also have been a nod to Petrillo.) I asked Robert if he had any idea why Petrillo was so unwilling to support CSO musicians. He suspected that, aside from his complaints that the orchestra made a lot of noise at union meetings, Petrillo believed the union was for jazz musicians. He didn’t really understand classical symphony musicians. While Petrillo would defend jazz musicians who were under attack, that wasn’t the case with symphony musicians. Robert also thought it was possible that Petrillo didn’t want to antagonize the CSO board, many of whom were very powerful in the city of Chicago. (In discussion with a current CSO member, the latter reason was probably closer to the mark. At the time, CSO musicians earned less than the many successful Chicago freelance musicians, and CSO board members were very powerful and important.)
Add to this that the CSO was in a lot of trouble. Active members of the orchestra were being fired. Though there was no tenure at the time, these acts of bad faith by management brought tenure into focus as a key issue for the orchestra. Robert was among four or five musicians fired by management for labor activity. When it foolishly admitted the reason, management was forced to hire the musicians back because (surprise!) firing for that reason was illegal. One year later, management tried again, this time citing musical reasons. A writer for one of Chicago’s newspapers approached Music Director Fritz Reiner and asked about his reasons for the terminations. Reiner knew nothing about any of it. In fact, he revealed to the newspaper that there were some musicians he’d like to get rid of, but they weren’t these musicians. Management had to rehire the musicians once more and never tried that again.
All the controversy and lack of unity, plus personal attacks by management and a union that refused to support musicians—that was the environment of the first editor of Senza Sordino. Robert has mixed feelings about those first issues. As he reviewed them recently, he wished the quality of some of the writing was better, but he knew they were done in a hurry to get the issues out. There were about half a dozen people who helped put it all together, but Robert wrote most of the content. He saw some angry writing that lacked finesse and thought the periodical kept an angry tone until it was published more professionally. Still, he also felt that some later issues lost that initial spirit, where warfare among and between musicians, their union, and their managements were the setting for some very scary and precarious times. Robert later realized that the issues were losing their roughness, but he also believed they deserved to be better produced.
Roughness aside, there are many positive things about those first issues. They contain the first lists of orchestra committee members, the first wage charts (with periodic updates), letters from readers who share orchestra news (both positive and negative), and reports that some locals were more progressive and supportive than others (and even pointed out some as role models). And there was humor. In the first issue, the “prospects” for the next issue included such topics as: some tear-provoking insights into the life of the assistant principal, a profile of a committee chairman, and a recipe for a potent holiday punch made from valve oil, rosin, and flute polish. The third issue announces that the price of individual subscriptions had been set at $5.00 per year and warned: “The individual subscriber is advised that the number of issues per year is undetermined, and that the price is exorbitant; he therefore is not only a subscriber, but a financial supporter. It is just one more desperate device to make SENZA SORDINO solvent.”
Technology has come a long way and allows us to communicate much more rapidly. And yet, we are all professional musicians first and foremost. I cannot imagine fulfilling the requirement to publish an issue every month, or even every two months! What Robert and his colleagues accomplished in establishing Senza Sordino is nothing less than astounding, especially under such difficult conditions. While those old issues may bring back tough memories, they are priceless in their accomplishment.
Robert is now 85. In 1964, after 14 years with the orchestra and not long after he relinquished responsibility for Senza Sordino, he left the Chicago Symphony to become a professor, a teacher, and a member of the University of Connecticut’s string quartet for the next 14 years. He returned to orchestral playing as assistant principal viola in the Dallas Symphony for 10 more years before he finally retired. His wife, he said, was always supportive during those years in Chicago, but she wished the fighting would end. Robert would never want to go through that time again. He said he was much braver in those days than he is now. For me, I’m very glad he was so brave because his work provided a wonderful starting point from which to build. As ICSOM Secretary, I am always reminding delegates about the importance of communication. That is what ICSOM was, and is, all about.
I urge you all to go to the download section of the ICSOM website and view the first issues of Senza Sordino. You will marvel at how heroically those before us faced such seemingly insurmountable problems. I hope that you will admire Robert Coleman, as I do, for producing those newsletters while enduring distractions like divisiveness and personal attacks. I know I speak for all of ICSOM when I say thank you, Robert, for your incredible contribution to our history.