Going Baroque

Musicians and management of the Houston Symphony battle over a budget that wonít stay in the black

A relatively strong union in the American Federation of Musicians has helped ensure top-dollar symphony salaries, says Dallas's Bronstein. Musicians say they need to make enough money to help cover the costs of their expensive instruments; violinist Christine Wu patched together several loans to purchase her $100,000 violin.

Houston's musicians also argue that they're paid less than their counterparts at comparable symphonies -- claims supported by statistics from the American Federation of Musicians, the largest union in the United States representing professional musicians. Houston's budget is around $23 million, and according to the society, about 50 percent of that goes to musicians' salaries. But the base salaries of Houston musicians fall behind those at symphonies with similar budgets such as Washington, D.C., Detroit, Minnesota and Dallas.

"Houston is a major city," says Tom Lee, president of the federation. "For Houston to take a role of 'We can't pay our symphony as well as Cleveland or as well as Chicago or Detroit,' to me, I can't understand that."

Wu worries that veteran musicians will leave Houston for more financially stable orchestras.
Daniel Kramer
Wu worries that veteran musicians will leave Houston for more financially stable orchestras.
Former symphony director Gideon Toeplitz says Houston gives less support to the arts than to other philanthropic endeavors.
Photo courtesy of Gideon Toeplitz
Former symphony director Gideon Toeplitz says Houston gives less support to the arts than to other philanthropic endeavors.

The five-member musicians' negotiating committee, led by assistant principal horn player Roger Kaza, began a series of heated meetings to try to arrive at an agreement with the society that did not involve taking such a hit to their paychecks. According to Kaza, the musicians have offered several cost-saving ideas, including leaving vacancies open, changing insurance providers and making the summer season optional. Kaza says the society did not respond to these suggestions. The musicians also attempted to hold a fund-raising concert after Tropical Storm Allison. While musicians contend management quashed the idea, executive director Kennedy says the staff worked hard to put on the show, which ultimately didn't happen because of scheduling conflicts between proposed guest artists and difficulty finding a suitable venue.

Of course, Kennedy and the musicians don't seem to see eye to eye on a lot of things. While Kennedy claims that the negotiations "have been carried out in a professional, forthright and frank manner," musicians claim they haven't gotten to see the financial details they've requested.

"We had difficulty scheduling meetings; their lawyers would not return phone calls," says Kaza. "We don't feel it's been a negotiation in the true sense. It almost seems as if [the society] wants to provoke something." (While the symphony issued a news release expressing disappointment at the musicians' charges, Vinson & Elkins attorney Doug Hamel, representing the society, did not return calls from the Press; neither did several members of the society's negotiating committee, including society president Jeff Early.)

The musicians are also bothered by the fact that Kennedy has not attended most of the meetings. Kennedy told the Press that her responsibilities as CEO extend beyond contract negotiations, and that she's spending the bulk of her time addressing the financial crisis.

"Her allegiance is entirely with the board," says Kaza. "It's a very difficult situation."

Adding to the problem, says Kaza, is that some of the society's negotiators are not knowledgeable about how symphonies operate, and are focused only on resolving the immediate financial crisis.

"The people there are outsiders to the industry," he says. "It's like the folks on the board are trying to reinvent the American symphony orchestra."

Brian Thomas, a French horn player and one of the symphony's more outspoken musicians, adds: "They're trying to run us as a bottom-line, for-profit business. If a museum has a bad year, do they start selling paintings?"

Young violinist Christine Wu is sitting at a table in the Montrose coffeehouse Brasil, sipping a cup of tea and talking with her hands. Her first classical love was Beethoven, she says, because something about his music reminded her of certain nuances in heavy metal. But that's not what kept her interested in classical music.

"I really think art music makes life beautiful, because it really takes you outside what you're doing every day, and puts you in a state you want it to," she explains. "It's a space you can use any way you want. Take two hours, wear something you wouldn't normally wear, and come to the symphony. We're wearing things we don't normally wear."

As Wu speaks, a flicker of concern crosses her face. She knows about the long history of tension between the society and its musicians, and the patterns of thinking that have developed over time, "almost like an ingrained habit." She fears that negotiations, which were continuing at press time, could deteriorate into a strike, and she's nervous that publicity about the issue will paint the musicians as unreasonable and difficult.

Suddenly, Wu's hands are fluttering again, and she has moved on to her hope for a "unity campaign." If there's a disconnect between management, musicians and the community, then the ties simply must be mended. She brings up the St. Louis Symphony and how, after facing a recent financial crisis, the orchestra members, management and citizens in that city pulled together; so far the symphony has raised $27 million toward a $40 million challenge grant awarded by a prominent St. Louis family. She says it would be useful if a musician sat on the board -- something else St. Louis has tried with success. It would also help, she thinks, if the marketing department went after younger audiences, or geared shows toward certain groups. And what if the society identified new donors, and musicians were able to develop relationships with them through private concerts or special shows?

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