In response to the Coronavirus, the vast majority of ICSOM orchestras have continued to employ their musicians under modified structures, but a select few have instead cancelled either a portion or the entirety of their 2020–21 seasons, shutting down entirely and leaving furloughed musicians to rely on unemployment and stimulus checks.
Among others, the musicians of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, the Phoenix Symphony, and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra have all been furloughed by their managements for an extensive period of time over the course of the last ten months. While the dynamics of each shutdown are unique, the response from the musicians of these orchestras shows a common desire to take care of one another.
By far the largest group of furloughed ICSOM musicians comes from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, who have been receiving health, instrument, and life insurance, but no pay since April 1, 2020. Since then, musicians have been performing their own concert series, designed not only to raise money, but to collaborate and inspire one another while raising awareness about the orchestra.
This effort, the MET Orchestra Spotlight Series, highlights musicians from the orchestra as well as friends of the orchestra (such as Angela Gheorghiu). Modestly priced tickets are sold through the MET Orchestra website, and patrons can either watch the performances live or stream them for a period of time after the premiere.
Ticket proceeds benefit the MET Orchestra Musicians Fund, which disburses need-based grants that are approved by an independent board of directors. It was important that these grants remained need-based as ICSOM delegate Javier Gándara explains: “If the people who are most vulnerable are taken care of, you are going to feel more comfortable about the unity of the group and more confident about the strength of the upcoming contract.”
Though there was no set goal at the start of the fundraising, the MET Orchestra has raised nearly $500,000 for their fund and have just recently ended their first round of grant disbursement. Tickets for upcoming performances (including a recent concert on February 21) can be found at https://www.metorchestramusicians.org.
When the musicians of the Phoenix Symphony saw their 2020–21 season cancelled, they ended up settling on a contract that would continue only their insurance coverage, leaving them with no salary whatsoever.
Anticipating that unemployment compensation would end sometime in the fall, the musicians of the orchestra realized that some would be hit hard by the loss of income, such as those with medical bills and the younger musicians with little savings or high student debt.
The orchestra committee began a $30,000 fundraising campaign via GoFundMe and asked the nonprofit MusiCares to administer the relief fund in order to anonymize the process of approving need-based grants.
“As we planned how to remain active in our community, we wanted a centralized, accessible, online fundraising portal where community supporters or other musician associations could donate towards our relief fund. Starting the fund online also allowed us to easily connect the donation ask to our existing Musicians’ social media channels, as well as a new website and newsletter,” explained ICSOM delegate Peter Lorenzo Anderegg.
The Musicians of the Phoenix Symphony are still working towards their goal at https://www.gofundme.com/f/vjnqdt-fundraiser-for-musicians-of-the-phoenix-symphony.
In Indianapolis, it became apparent that musicians would be furloughed for a second time starting in June 2020, this time with a loss of health insurance. In response, orchestra musicians set up a PayPal account to collect funds and began scheduling outdoor performances to help raise funds and ensure that the orchestra musicians remain an active part of the artistic community.
“It was apparent from the start that our concerts resonated with people, because we would see an immediate increase in fundraising afterward,” says Brian Smith, Orchestra Committee Chair. “We heard time and time again how much people wanted to help out our musicians.”
Currently, the musicians of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra are no longer furloughed, as they reached an agreement to be paid a modest stipend that began in January 2021. Health insurance was restored in September 2020 as part of that agreement. Fundraising for the Musicians’ Emergency Relief fund continues at http://isomusicians.org/donate.
Similarly to Indianapolis, the musicians of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra have recently ratified an agreement to receive a weekly $500 stipend as well as a continuation of healthcare coverage in exchange for “non-traditional” work services.
However, in the wake of their earlier furlough and cancelled 2020–21 season, the orchestra committee began fundraising and performing to both provide for their musicians and remain active in the community, notably through both performing and volunteering at local food banks.
While performances and volunteer work continue for the Nashville musicians, their emergency fund will close to new public contributions as part of the ratification of their current agreement. Public money that is donated after the start of the agreement will be turned over to the Nashville Symphony Association and earmarked for use in the musicians’ stipend.
The musicians of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra have been furloughed since August 2020, and started a GoFundMe campaign with an ambitious goal to raise $50,000.
The purpose of the fund is primarily to take care of members who have not been eligible for unemployment, but also to cover any gaps between the end of unemployment compensation and the beginning of employment. In addition, many musicians are now responsible for medical premiums for spouses and dependents, which had previously been covered by paycheck deduction.
The majority of the fund is reserved to help individual musicians with insurance, living expenses, and other similar costs, but an anonymous committee was created in Fall 2020 to deal with smaller funding requests.
As the musicians of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra go back to work on February 23 for the first in a limited number of work weeks, their public campaign will end, but their GoFundMe page remains at https://www.gofundme.com/f/vso-musician-relief-fund.
In response to the work these hundreds of musicians have undertaken to raise funding for their memberships, many ICSOM orchestras have lent financial support. With these contributions and those of local communities, there is hope that the musicians of these five orchestras will not only be able to make ends meet for themselves and their families, but may also find themselves in a stronger position once they are invited back on stage by their managements.
Note: the author is the ICSOM Delegate for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.