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Going Baroque

Wu worries that veteran musicians will leave Houston for more financially stable orchestras.
Daniel Kramer

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.

"I was floored," says Toeplitz. "It was so good, it was second to none."

Conductor from 1988 until 1999, when he left to direct the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eschenbach is credited with dramatically increasing the visibility and artistic reputation of the symphony by bringing in impressive talent, insisting on touring and expanding the group's recordings. Working with Eschenbach was a professional musician's dream, and even now those who played under him talk about his risk-taking, vision and musical interpretations like schoolkids with a crush.

"His sheer determination created something," says Kirk. "We were the only major U.S. orchestra that hadn't made a tour of Europe, and we were of the mentality that that would never happen. Then this guy showed up and the sky was the limit."

But despite Eschenbach's advances, despite recordings that might be mistaken for some of the greatest orchestras in the world, Toeplitz says he's not sure that Houston appreciates the quality of its orchestra. In fact, it can be difficult to get people to appreciate any symphony. Jack McAuliffe, vice president of the American Symphony Orchestra League, acknowledges that in this fast-paced culture, attention spans are shortening every day, and the symphony is not amusement for the lazy.

"I think for some people the lack of visual stimulus is a challenge," he admits. "But the beauty of it is the fact that you as a listener are a participant. You provide the picture."

Of course, Houston Symphony musicians are quick to defend their role in the community. Their music is part of joyful celebrations, such as the annual Fourth of July concerts. It's also the city's balm: After the recent explosion of the space shuttle Columbia, the musicians played a free concert at Jones Hall. And just days after September 11, 2001, the players opened a free performance at Miller Outdoor Theatre with Aaron Copland's appropriate "Fanfare for the Common Man."

The symphony also has a community outreach program that provides free performances at homeless shelters, schools, hospitals and drug treatment centers. Cellist Jeffrey Butler remembers a shelter audience once asking the players to improvise "Amazing Grace."

"We came up with this amazing arrangement on the spot," he says. "It's a real pleasure to get out there and connect with people."

Besides providing an emotional backdrop, classical music may hold a more tangible importance for the city.

Joe Nelson, president of the Houston Endowment, believes a strong symphony is crucial to Houston's reputation in the business world.

"Regardless of the number of people who avail themselves of the concerts, their existence is good for recruiting employees," says Nelson. "Symphonies are a tremendously valuable asset -- they, like our other arts organizations, are so critical to our quality of life."

In fact, there are many people availing themselves of the concerts.

"The last decade was actually quite healthy for orchestras," notes McAuliffe. Despite the bad economy, symphonies across the country have seen attendance grow.


The Houston Symphony is certainly not alone in its financial struggles. The Pittsburgh Symphony is facing contract negotiations this summer, and it's already $2 million in the hole. Symphonies in Fort Worth, Dallas and San Antonio are facing shortfalls as well. The recession has delivered a sucker punch to many arts organizations' endowments, which rise and fall with the stock market. The Houston Symphony's tumbled from $56 million at the end of May 2002 to $45 million today.

Houston has also had to deal with a unique set of circumstances -- namely, Tropical Storm Allison, which caused an estimated $6 million worth of damage. Precious sheet music and irreplaceable instruments were lost, and the symphony staff was without permanent office space for nearly a year. Time better spent fund-raising instead went to rebuilding. And, while Enron was never a major donor to the Houston Symphony (although it did provide workspace after the flood), the collapse of the energy giant added to the malaise of the national economy.

Still, bad times are bound to come, say arts leaders, and a lousy economy can't always be an excuse for a financial crisis. Simply put, organizations have to save.

 

"You've got to have a bunker mentality," says Paul Tetreault, managing director of the Alley Theatre, which also suffered $6 million in damages from Allison but has rebounded to the point of being halfway to its $30 million capital campaign goal. "I don't mean slashing staff and cutting programs. I mean by being smarter, by being thrifty…When the good times are there, you better put the reserves away and build up those reserves for a rainy day, because eventually it rains."

The Dallas Symphony is certainly making a run at being smarter. President Fred Bronstein says the symphony is attempting to turn around its budgetary shortfall by ramping up fund-raising efforts and cutting expenses. It seems to be paying off: Donations are up about 7 percent from the previous year, and the organization has even been able to give its musicians a 4-1/2 percent pay increase.

"The way I always say it," says Bronstein, "is you've got an artistic vision you build, but you've got to build your institutional infrastructure on a parallel track. When those things get out of alignment, that's when you get into trouble."

Unlike other arts organizations, the Houston Symphony's financial problems seem endemic to the organization itself rather than a symptom of the economic climate. Since 1971, the society has run deficits every year except one. In 1976, the accumulated deficit had reached $1.4 million, and 29 concerts were canceled after a new musicians' contract could not be agreed upon. Ten years later, during the mid-'80s oil bust, musicians' wages were cut by 15 percent and positions were left vacant.

Under Eschenbach's tenure, the gloomy days seemed to be over. The successful 1992 European tour pushed ticket sales back home to record highs. And in the spring of 1993 the organization surpassed its $40 million capital campaign fund goal. The symphony was awarded large grants from the Cullen and M.D. Anderson foundations, and it added almost $27 million to its endowment.

But by the 1995-96 season, the organization was again posting a deficit of $1.1 million, even though revenue from the endowment was growing along with the stock market. The administration argued that projected income simply didn't meet spending needs.

In an attempt to right the boat, the symphony board's executive committee brought in the Dini Partners, a philanthropy and nonprofit management company to assist in planning for a $37.5 million capital campaign.

After interviewing individuals, corporations and foundations considered critical to the campaign's success, the Dini Partners issued a final report. "While the last seven years have witnessed a remarkable advancement in the artistic quality of the Symphony," it read, "this transformation has not been accompanied by a corresponding improvement in the quality of the Symphony's administrative and support systems." The partners blamed a "history of labor discord" for making it difficult for the organization to work together as a healthy fund-raising team. In addition, the report argued that board membership was not sufficiently diverse, nor representative of Houston's philanthropic community.

The situation was growing only more tenuous. The estimated deficit for the 1996-97 season was $1.7 million. The society also acknowledged a bank debt of $7.1 million. By summer, the society had cut salaries by almost 8 percent, and in an interview with Chicago magazine, a frustrated Eschenbach said, "To be number one, like Berlin, Vienna or Chicago, [an orchestra] needs financial involvement…If the folks in Houston don't want that, I'm ready to leave." (Eschenbach's agent turned down requests for an interview with the former conductor, as did his successor, Hans Graf.)

The society launched a $25 million capital campaign, but it never got the size of gifts it needed and so was quietly put to sleep.

"It started out as a debt reduction campaign -- not the most sexy lure for donors," explains one former development department staffer, who asked not to be identified.

In an attempt to pull the symphony into the black, the Houston Endowment and the Wortham Foundation ponied up enormous grants that combined to make a $7.3 million gift to the campaign, effectively bailing out the society. But despite a clean slate and the go-go '90s stock market that led other arts organizations to flourish (the Museum of Fine Arts' five-year capital campaign generated $127 million for the new Audrey Jones Beck Building), the symphony entered the new century -- almost unbelievably -- in the red again. The projected deficit for the upcoming fiscal year is $2.3 million.

But the symphony would be wise not to expect another bailout. "We will continue to support the symphony," says the Houston Endowment's Joe Nelson, choosing his words carefully. "[But] I think it would be a much more difficult decision today for the board, given our experience, to agree to something like that again."

 


Why has the symphony so often operated in the red? In an e-mail to the Houston Press, executive director Ann Kennedy says, "The main traditional deficit has been the lack of a sufficiently large endowment."

But musicians question why the 150-member board of trustees has not done more to increase fund-raising, and why they didn't take more advantage of the financial boom of the late '90s. Some speculate that the trouble stems from the board's assumption that Houston doesn't need more than a nice regional symphony. "When we did strategic planning in the '80s and '90s," says Kevin Kelly, a violin player with the orchestra since 1977, "we had to fight the board, who thought Houston couldn't afford an international-class symphony."

Echoing the Dini Partners' report about board diversity, musicians and supporters believe the board is operated by a tight-knit cadre of wealthy, longtime Houstonians who are not forward-thinking in terms of the symphony. Some musicians say the tradition of Monday-evening concerts, for instance, which few symphonies still schedule, is a holdover from decades ago, when Monday was considered the board members' night to see and be seen after weekends away.

In one telling anecdote, when the board balked at funding the symphony's European tour in 1997, Christoph Eschenbach became furious, and a board member had to be called off the golf course to attend an emergency meeting.

"There are a lot of decisions about the Houston Symphony that get made at the River Oaks Country Club," says Kirk.

One current board member, who asked not to be identified, says the musicians may not be entirely off the mark. She calls the lack of diversity on the board and the lack of energy in recruiting new members "one of the largest problems with the symphony."

"They're always looking to the same group of people, who maybe feel they've given all the money they can afford to give," she says. "They've boxed themselves into a situation where they've had the same people for so long they don't have a lot of sources of new capital." She'd like to see an effort to recruit younger members, and to draw from different occupations, including physicians and consultants.

In a letter to executive director Kennedy, former board member and longtime symphony supporter Katherine Taylor Mize criticized the current board members for essentially throwing up their hands and saying that "as protectors of the symphony orchestra, they simply cannot cope with the hard issues of raising the money needed to support an institution so critically important to the well-being of our community."

A former development department employee, who asked not to be identified, says the symphony works hard to raise funds but is forced to battle other top arts organizations for a limited amount of donations.

"I can't say the development office was the most smoothly run organization there ever was," he says. "There was always a lot of turnover, I think because of the pressure. I think one of the things you have to be aware of is, in Houston, we're not in the same league as cultural consumers."

Former executive director Gideon Toeplitz agrees. While Houston has always been generous to charity programs like hospitals and education, he says, "my experience in Houston is that performing arts is not at the top of the list."

But past arts support in Houston would seem to challenge that theory. In addition to the MFAH's remarkable recent capital campaign, the $100 million Hobby Center for the Performing Arts was built almost entirely with private money (with the Hobby family making the lead gift). And the Wortham Theater Center was funded completely by the private sector at the height of the 1980s oil bust.

While the argument could be made that it's easier to raise money when you're building something, the Alley's Paul Tetreault thinks the spirit of giving to all arts programs is strong. "When you get to some of the smaller organizations, those may have a complaint; Houston has a way of supporting the biggies," he says. "But to say that people here don't support the arts -- I don't know how they can say that."

Laura Bodenheimer, executive director of development at Houston Grand Opera and former director of corporate foundations and government grants at the symphony, agrees. Houstonians should not be heralded as leaders or blamed as slackers when it comes to giving to the arts.

"Houston pretty much fits the national pattern" of arts giving, says Bodenheimer, estimating that the arts take in slightly less than 10 percent of the philanthropic dollars available.

And while recent surveys have ranked Texas dead last in per-capita arts spending, the City of Houston itself has shown notable support for the fine arts in recent years. In 1998 Mayor Lee Brown lifted a $5 million cap on public funding for the arts, generated by the hotel occupancy tax. According to María Muñoz-Blanco, executive director of the Cultural Arts Council of Houston/Harris County, the tax currently generates about $7 million to $8 million for the arts.

 

The city also houses the symphony, which rents out office space at Jones Hall and leases the performance hall on a per-event basis. While musicians have long complained about the less-than-modern acoustics of the 35-year-old building, the venue is a good deal for the arts group: It rents at nonprofit rates, and the city pays for expenses like the $3 million in renovations scheduled to take place this summer.

"Houston is fairly young in the scheme of things," says Muñoz-Blanco, who recently arrived at the council from a similar position in Atlanta and claims Houston has a national reputation for public arts funding. "When you look at it, Houston has been able to develop some pretty significant arts organizations. It's very impressive from afar, and even from within."


When the musicians' contract expired in October, the society proposed slashing the base annual salary of a symphony musician from $74,100 to $65,500. (Symphony spokesperson Art Kent says administrative staff costs were reduced by 11.5 percent.) One society suggestion that was eventually rescinded would have reduced the symphony's schedule from 52 to 45 weeks a year -- effectively turning the fourth-largest city's orchestra into a part-time organization. They also proposed increasing the amount players pay for health insurance and changing certain "work rules" they've fought for over the years. For example, musicians who are not being used in certain pieces could be asked to bring in income by playing elsewhere, perhaps even at weddings. These demands, say Kirk, are unprecedented in the symphony world.

Former board member Mize says that expecting the musicians to carry the brunt of the deficit is wrong.

The board "knew six years ago that this negotiation was going to come up," she says. "Obviously they've had some sort of problem."

It is true, however, that Houston Symphony musicians are some of the best-paid artists in town. The Alley Theatre may pay a handful of senior resident company members around $55,000 for a season of about 50 weeks, says Tetreault. And the most current public tax documents available from Houston Ballet show that the highest-paid dancer made $71,701, still a few thousand less than the cheapest symphony musician.

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."

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?

"I'd love to see more one-on-one with our sponsors," she says. "It's about an attitude -- musicians wanting to work to help the society raise money, the society wanting to use us."

Her young voice, unaffected by the years of discord that haunt the Houston Symphony, seems to ring out as loud as Beethoven's Fifth. Now if only the Houston Symphony would stop to listen.


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