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.

Gordon is not alone. Elisa Barston, associate concertmaster at the SLSO for eight years, resigned earlier this summer.

"Seeing how poorly my colleagues were treated -- that was the first thing," says Barston, who says she had fully intended to return but left the symphony without securing another permanent position. "The real clincher was that after the work stoppage, I was mailed a contract that in no way resembled any of the contracts I had had previously. I had had a [contractually] guaranteed yearly solo with the orchestra -- that had been in my contract since day one. It was gone, and I got no explanation as to why. None."

Musicians say more desertions are likely to follow. "We were left with no choices," says Amy Oshiro, a violinist. "One consequence is that people will be actively and aggressively auditioning. I don't think anyone can deny it, and I don't think anyone should shy away from that fact."

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."

Interviews with other players confirm that at least nine members are auditioning for other orchestras. Musicians say the number may well be higher, because many will not advertise their job search.

One potential defector is trombonist Gerard Pagano. A ten-year veteran of the SLSO, Pagano has yet to audition.

"I play bass trombone, of which there is only one in the orchestra, so there are rarely auditions to take," says the 48-year-old Pagano. "At this point in life, I have no interest in going and auditioning. But because of what's happened here -- our job hasn't gotten any better in the last few years. [Meanwhile] the Atlanta symphony has steadily been getting better. In the past I wouldn't have considered Atlanta, whereas now I do."

He's far from the only one, Pagano stresses. "If it hasn't rained, it may take a while for the grass to turn brown: There are a lot of people who can't just turn around tomorrow and take an audition," he says. "It may take them a year or two. It also may take five years before you see the effect, because it may take that long to see who comes to replace the people who leave."

Others maintain that the slow bleed has been going on for at least a decade, during which time more than 30 people have left. (Some simply retired -- or died -- but the musicians point out that replacements have frequently stayed for only a few years, then moved on.)

"We grappled with it. But I was basically thinking: I've got a family. This would be one of my last chances, at 39 [years old], to make things a little more stable in the music business," recalls French horn player Robert Lauver, who left the SLSO after the 1999-2000 season to join the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. "Nowadays the only chance to recognize a group's talent is when you're setting the pay scale, but you're also setting up the structure by which incoming talent decides where they want to go. [I left at] exactly the time Don Roth was openly examining the financial situation of the orchestra. It didn't look good."

Says Pagano: "After a while it gets hard to keep your morale up. It feels like rats jumping from a sinking ship."

It's difficult to assess the quality of a symphony orchestra. But some elements are quantifiable. Among them: salary, touring, recording, length of season and repertoire. In all five categories, SLSO musicians say, they're headed in the wrong direction.

With a base salary of $74,000, St. Louis ranks sixteenth among the nation's orchestras. (When the figure is adjusted to account for the shorter season, St. Louis rises to ninth.) By comparison, base salaries in Cleveland, a Big Five orchestra in a similar market, exceed $100,000. Cleveland has an operating budget of $36 million and an endowment of roughly $120 million. The numbers in St. Louis are $21 million and $112 million, respectively.

The SLSO last released a recording in 2000. The orchestra has not traveled abroad in seven years, and its season length hovers at 42 weeks, a fact that weighs heavily on the minds of musicians.

"We don't play a classical concert from May first to the end of the second week -- or even the third week -- of September," says violist Christian Woehr. "You tend to forget you're in the Saint Louis Symphony."

Woehr and his colleagues argue that a 52-week season is important to musicians symbolically: The great orchestras of North America all play 52-week seasons, and without a year-round schedule the SLSO has little chance of penetrating the club.

Finally, there's the matter of orchestra size and repertoire. In 1979 the SLSO boasted 101 permanent players. Today management is obligated to field 90 players, with the understanding that additional musicians will be brought on for larger symphonic works. (Conductor David Robertson's contract calls for four permanent players to be added in the coming years.) A sort of magic number, 100 players give symphony orchestras the rich, deep sound that makes the symphonies of Wagner and Strauss envelop listeners.

But even as the SLSO has operated with at least 90 members, roughly eight of those players are "replacements." This means they don't receive benefits. It also results in a constant churn of newcomers entering the ranks.

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