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In a bleak morning in late January, a group of 30 Houston Symphony musicians gathered outside the box office of Jones Hall. Some carried their instruments, but they weren't there to play. The cement was still wet from a heavy rainstorm, and the sky promised more bad weather on the way.
The group represented all 97 members of the orchestra, who were in the middle of a protracted and bitter round of contract negotiations with their management, the Houston Symphony Society. Days earlier the musicians had filed an unfair labor charge against the society with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming bad-faith bargaining and stonewalling on the part of the society. But the musicians were not only frustrated with the tone of the negotiations, they were shocked by the society's proposed cost-saving measures, which included cutting individual salaries by around $10,000 and reducing the number of musicians in the orchestra.
Dressed in a sharp dark suit, David Kirk, longtime principal tuba player and musicians' spokesperson, took his place behind a music stand.
"We are one of the nation's finest orchestras," he began the press conference. "We bring pride and distinction to Houston." But, Kirk warned, "Houston's great cultural jewel is at risk." Because musicians considered the society's proposed cuts to be "egregious," they had been performing without a contract since the previous one expired in early October 2002. While Kirk acknowledged the symphony's projected $2.3 million deficit for the coming fiscal year, he claimed the society had rejected musicians' suggestions for reaching a balanced budget without reducing players' salaries.
The situation was so dire, announced Kirk, that respected symphony members had taken steps to secure positions in other orchestras -- some had already gotten other jobs. (An internal poll the musicians would take just weeks later shows that 72 of the 93 responding musicians were considering career moves that would end their employment with the symphony.) To protest the situation, Kirk announced that the symphony was refusing to play that Saturday night's scheduled concert with famed violinist Midori.
"We regret the inconvenience caused," Kirk continued politely. "We hope our audience understands."
The nice clothes, the humble apology -- this work stoppage announcement was hardly the stuff of Harlan County, U.S.A. Even in protest the players kept the tailored, professional image of classical musicians. But the proper veneer hid the growing rift between the musicians and the society. And while Kirk would not comment on a possible strike, a walkout seemed the next logical step.
Standing at the front of the musicians' huddle that day was Christine Wu, at 26 one of the youngest members of the symphony. A violinist with the orchestra since August 2001, Wu has played violin as long as she can remember. At two and a half she learned correct form by using a Cracker Jack box attached to a ruler. But Wu is not your typical classical musician. She loves the heavy metal band Alice in Chains as much as Beethoven, and she describes the works of Shostakovich as "slammin'." She mentally prepared for her audition with the Houston Symphony by reading sports psychology books and practicing martial arts, and says she was thrilled to be offered a job with a world-renowned symphony.
"The assistant players in Houston are as good as principals at other orchestras," says Wu excitedly. "People will ask me how I'm doing, and I'm like, 'I can't believe I get to be on stage with these people.' It blows my mind."
But Wu, who says veteran players are crucial to helping both her and the symphony advance musically, is worried about the future.
"The quality and reputation of the international standing of this orchestra stands to be compromised," she says, echoing the feelings of many musicians. "The best players came here with an idea in mind: Finances would be in order, pay would be commensurate with talent. I fear they may want to leave, and in so doing, we will not attract the same caliber of player. If I was in graduate school now and I heard what was happening in Houston, I'd stay away."
While the musicians warn about the immediate ramifications of slashed salaries, symphony higher-ups point to a list of recent maladies -- Enron, Tropical Storm Allison, the recession -- affecting their organization's financial health. But the complicated truth of the matter is that the problems facing the Houston Symphony are far from new -- they began festering long ago, years before Christine Wu picked up her ruler and Cracker Jack box. The disconnect between management, musicians and community is like a wound that won't heal. And, say symphony watchers, unless fundamental changes in the organization take place, this financial emergency won't be the last.
A few years ago Gideon Toeplitz, who left the Houston Symphony in 1987 after serving six years as its executive director, was driving through New York City listening to a classical music station. The radio was broadcasting Brahms's first symphony, and Toeplitz was amazed at how good it sounded.
"It was so fabulous, I thought, 'It's got to be Vienna, with one of the great conductors,' " he remembers. Toeplitz pulled over to the side of the road to listen to the rest of the piece. When it finished, the announcer told listeners they had just heard the Houston Symphony, directed by Christoph Eschenbach.