As we dive into our season openings across the country, I am cautiously optimistic that we can look forward to a successful return. As of this writing, all but two of our ICSOM orchestras have secured contracts for the coming year. The protocols for mandatory vaccination and/or testing are in place.
From what I see, our audiences are eager to come back. Barring further variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, we should be able to resume where we left off 18 months ago. But caution will have to be our byword—and not just caution around health and safety. The economic repercussions of COVID-19 are not over. The long-haul effects of these past months will be with us for some time to come. In orchestras where we suffered concessionary setbacks, it will take years to negotiate back the ground that was lost. Any pre-existing conditions—with our managements and boards, our relationship to our communities, financial instability—may have been exacerbated by this crisis. It is those vulnerabilities that will require our vigilance.
Of course, New York City Ballet (NYCB) and San Antonio Symphony (SAS), two orchestras on opposite sides of the country with differing histories, have not yet settled contracts. NYCB has had a long, stable, if not lavish, history of contract settlements. They have not had a work stoppage since 1999. In contrast, SAS has had a series of harrowing negotiations that goes back decades. They are now on strike having refused a ‘last, best and final’ that would reduce the number of full-time musicians by nearly half. Some other orchestras have been forced to accept highly concessionary contracts. The common problem, I think, is that some boards view their orchestras as a necessary evil. “Isn’t there some way we can discharge this responsibility for less? Cut it down to a more manageable size?”
The answer is “no, you can’t.”
A work of art is not something you exercise dominion over. It lives beyond the scope of one individual lifetime. You can’t just cut it down to suit your taste or wall space. If you are fortunate enough to have it briefly in your possession, your responsibility as steward and caretaker is to protect and preserve—to sustain its creative potential into the next generation.
An orchestra is a living, breathing, work of art. Most of our orchestras have been in existence longer than the people currently engaged in them. It is the passion to safeguard this living entity, to promote the creation of orchestral music, that must be the foundation of our institutions.
Yes, we have to be fiscally responsible but the wellspring of an orchestra is not a spreadsheet. It is the unequivocal desire to see this art form thrive. Every person—board, management, staff and musician alike—must believe wholeheartedly in the value of this endeavor. Each of us bears responsibility for its success. If the passion is there, the path will present itself. If it is not, then step aside and don’t block the way.
We cannot afford to sleepwalk out the other side of this pandemic hiatus. We must be alert and vigilant to signs of instability or distress within our orchestras. And we must all take the necessary steps, within our circle of influence, to fortify and promote its continuing health. Sometimes we will have to stand our ground and fight for what we believe, and when necessary, we will come to each other’s aid.
We have little room for error right now. Our continued success depends on our alert fidelity.