Unfinished Symphony

The arrival of a brilliant conductor was drowned out by labor discord. Now the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra begins a new season -- with some strings attached.

For the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, April 16 was freighted with symbolism. Not only did the evening mark the orchestra's first trip to Carnegie Hall in nearly three years, it was also a coming-out party for the musicians and their new music director-designate, David Robertson.

By all accounts, the New York performance was a raging success. Opening with Charles Ives' "Unanswered Question," Robertson and crew coaxed numerous standing ovations from the near-capacity crowd. Chief New York Times classical music critic Anthony Tommasini deemed the night a "love-fest" and fawned over Robertson's "sweeping and heady account" of Ives' cheeky second symphony. Not to be outdone, St. Louis Post-Dispatch music critic Sarah Bryan Miller characterized the show as "close to flawless."

So enraptured was the maestro with the quality of his new orchestra that backstage after the concert he reportedly held aloft a flute of Champagne and told the musicians, "You are the stuff from which people make legends. You are going to change the face of music, mark my words."

Chicago Tribune music critic John von Rhein deemed incoming maestro David Robertson "the most gifted of the new generation of American conductors."
Chicago Tribune music critic John von Rhein deemed incoming maestro David Robertson "the most gifted of the new generation of American conductors."

But there was another layer of meaning to the Carnegie performance. Only six weeks earlier, the musicians had approved a new labor contract, ending one of the most contentious orchestral disputes in recent memory. The three-and-a-half-year contract nudged by with tepid support -- 55 orchestra members voted in favor, 35 against -- setting first-year base pay at $74,000, well shy of the $80,000 they'd anticipated.

Nationally, critics viewed the Carnegie concert as a public reconciliation. Privately, though, players were still reeling from the brutal negotiations.

"This is an orchestra that historically has always gotten up for those concerts that mean a lot to the institution," says Marc Gordon, widely regarded as one of the world's finest English horn players. "When we're onstage playing a concert, there's this two-hour period where nothing invades our aura. But the rest of the time, it's just not a pleasant place to be."

Flutist and piccolo player Jan Gippo is more pointed in his post-negotiation assessment: "There is a poison in the air."

Tense labor-management dealings are nothing new, not even in the pitch-perfect confines of a concert hall. But while last winter's labor negotiations were particularly acrimonious -- rife with such hardball indignities as cutting off musicians' healthcare, banning them from recording at Powell Hall and a musician vote of "no confidence" in the symphony's president and executive director, Randy Adams -- a lot more than a contract was at stake.

For years now, orchestras across the nation have been struggling to balance their budgets. CD sales are flat, and while the quality of musicianship may be higher than ever, audiences continue to dwindle. The cool national economy exerts tremendous pressure on orchestras to secure private annual donations. Locally owned companies are increasingly swallowed by out-of-town parents, imperiling corporate sponsorship. Municipal interest in arts-taxation districts is low. The combination of economic and cultural forces has prompted many orchestras to keep ticket prices high, perhaps bringing in more short-term money but further isolating them from the communities they seek to serve.

Far from immune, St. Louis is emblematic of the struggle. Plagued by decades of financial mismanagement, by the year 2000 the SLSO was on the fast track to bankruptcy. The organization managed to sidestep financial ruin at the time by cutting salaries and trimming ten weeks from its performance schedule. But it was a temporary fix, and the festering concern resurfaced during last winter's labor strife. Ostensibly a showdown over musicians' wages, the work stoppage was in fact a clash of two radically different philosophies.

At issue was the manner in which an institution that has survived for more than a century on community philanthropy can endure the vicissitudes of a modern market economy while maintaining artistic excellence. On one side of the debate stands Randy Adams, who aims to cut costs, shore up resources and increase the orchestra's endowment before taking artistic or economic risks. Across the divide stand the musicians, who argue that while austerity may improve financial health, it does so at the peril of artistic quality -- the orchestra's greatest attribute.

Adams won the first round in a walkover. But not only did the musicians agree to a contract that fell short of their monetary expectations, they also came away demoralized, with the impression that the SLSO is continuing a course of artistic decline and that as employees they are expendable.

"We had been the poster child for good relations between musicians and management," says assistant principal violist Christian Woehr. "Now it's the worst I have ever seen. I know plenty of people in the orchestra, myself included, who simply avoid [Adams]."

Ranking symphony orchestras is neither an art nor a science. It is a parlor game. Nonetheless, there is wide consensus in the world of classical music that the U.S. has historically boasted a Big Five -- the orchestras of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago. (Although orchestras in San Francisco and Los Angeles are making an increasingly persuasive argument that the club should be expanded to seven.)

St. Louis, meanwhile, has always been seen as the Seabiscuit of symphonies. With its fiercely loyal players -- some of the world's greatest among them -- the orchestra is known for its elegant sound, subtle blending and flexibility. On any given night, the SLSO stands shoulder to shoulder with the world's greats. On some nights, the St. Louisans will tell you, they surpass them.

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