Pneumonia At The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra

As we all know, Hillary Clinton was recently diagnosed with pneumonia and, judging from the news coverage, has passed away.

The media is salivating: how long will it take for Tim Kaine to read all the white papers? which Democrats will choose Clinton’s replacement? will the Sanders camp make their move once the funeral director closes her eyes? I mean, technically Hillary walked out under her own power to greet reporters after an episode of exhaustion on 9/11, but that doesn’t really count because… Because. Her pneumonia is clearly terminal, if only because that’s interesting. Plus, her illness, temporary incapacitation, and ultimate death play into pre-established narratives about her reputation, her personality, and her campaign…plus, a presidential candidate dying this close to the election is fascinating (maybe even fun?) to think about…plus, it’s clickbait, promising the numbers of clicks that until now we thought could only come from coverage of the reality TV star candidate. As Alex Ross tweeted today

interesting

The media is grappling with another death, too. The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra has just gone on strike, and like Hillary, it too has died. Most people would think of an orchestral strike as a bad thing, or a sad thing, but ultimately an eminently solvable thing.

However, the Fort Worth Star Telegram Editorial Board apparently knows better. They’ve already written the orchestra’s obituary less than a week after the musicians called a strike.

rip

I will remember you / will you remember me? / … weep not for the memories…

I’ve always been open with you guys: I’m a slow writer. My friend and fellow Twin Cities arts blogger Scott Chamberlain, however, is as fast as I am slow, and today (at lunch…) he wrote a blog entry about this very editorial. I agree with everything he wrote, and I hope the article continues to gain traction on social media. I don’t mean to come across as a copycat by addressing the same subject now, but I do have additional complaints to air. Maybe Scott was just too polite to bring them up. But after watching the organizational conflagrations in Minnesota and Atlanta, my patience is at its end. I’m done with this kind of bullsh*t, and I’m angry that my anger doesn’t surprise me anymore.

As Scott alluded to, the problems with the Star Telegram piece start with the headline: Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, RIP. So the orchestra is less than a week into their strike…and the city’s newspaper is already writing its obituary? There are so many questions about this that it’s hard to know where to begin. Is the editorial board so naive about how orchestras work that they assume a labor dispute means automatic death? What kind of death do they think occurred? Are they assuming that bankruptcy is on the horizon? Re-organization? Does anyone on the editorial board have any clue of what any of that would entail, legally or financially or morally? Do they understand the implications of a toxic work environment and a regressive (or even status-quo) contract in a season when many orchestras are negotiating progressive ones? Without organizational growth, musicians – many model citizens, and all members of the highly sought-after creative class – will leave the city for other jobs. Does the Star Telegram grasp what that means? Do they even care? What about all the orchestras that have dealt with strikes and lockouts in recent years? Are they dead, too? Or have we been listening to zombie orchestras?

I say to the Fort Worth Star Telegram Editorial Board: you are either being disingenuous for your own purposes, or you did zero research about the granddaddy dispute of them all. Forgive me if you’re a long-time reader here, because if you are, this information is old hat, but for any new readers, here’s the skinny: the Minnesota Orchestra’s musician lockout lasted from late 2012 to early 2014, and no, that is not a typo. During said labor dispute:

  • The esteemed music director resigned, and no one was sure if anyone would take his place.
  • The audience rebelled and formed multiple audience advocacy groups.
  • Patron musician supporters actually met to discuss the feasibility of starting a new group entirely, and even bandied ideas about how to reclaim the endowment.
  • The mission statement was changed.
  • Pretty much every musician who could leave town found a job elsewhere or was actively seeking new employment. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the Minnesota Orchestra came very close to becoming a chamber orchestra.
  • Politicians held hearings demanding to know what was going on.
  • Large donations were recalled.
  • George Mitchell, the man who brokered peace in Northern Ireland, came to town and failed to bring the two sides together.
  • Word came out about how the CEO received large bonuses while simultaneously laying off over a dozen workers. Garrison Keillor even talked about it on A Prairie Home Companion. After this revelation, organizational trust was completely eroded.
  • The fundraiser Symphony Ball was held while the players were locked out, so no symphony was allowed to play there. At the Symphony Ball.
  • A major deficit was run in a fiscal year in which no concerts were played.
  • The city of Minneapolis actually started investigating what to do to take over Orchestra Hall.

I could go on. If any major American orchestra has died in the modern era, it was that one. And yet nowadays the Minnesota Orchestra appears to be doing quite well. It has gone on several highly successful tours; it is releasing CDs to rave reviews; it has negotiated a long-term musician contract extension with modest raises; it has hired several top-rate musicians; it is even balancing its budget. What made the difference in two short years? Simple: a new and universally beloved CEO, board members, and musicians who committed to a spirit of can-do collaboration, buoyed by an enthusiastic audience interested in non-profit governance. In short, the Minnesota Orchestra is alive and well.

Let’s look at what evidence the Star Telegram Editorial Board offers for why this situation is (presumably) so much worse than Minnesota’s.

Several very smart and dedicated people have worked for more than a year on a new labor agreement between the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra Association and its musicians, aiming to continue world-class symphonic music performances begun more than a century ago.

It hasn’t worked.

So to recap: we are to take the paper’s word for it that everyone involved is smart and dedicated, and those people have been negotiating for over a year. And there are even “a few” of them! If the only thing you need to solve a difficult problem are a few smart and dedicated people working over a period of months, why do problems even exist? Where’s the cure for cancer? Or jet packs? I was promised jet packs!

It’s hard to imagine that the FWSO’s death could be at hand, but neither side offers hope. We have only irresistible forces opposed by immovable objects.

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The Fort Worth contract is not being negotiated by a supermassive black hole and a marooned cruise ship. It’s (theoretically) being negotiated by human beings. (I think we even established last paragraph that they are “smart” and “dedicated.”) Smart and dedicated people can compromise, be creative, and make things happen…if they all want to. Or, as Scott mentioned, smart and dedicated people can gum up the entire works. It all depends on what motivates them, and it is laughably naive to assume otherwise.

Scott covered the editorial’s appalling description of the two sides in his entry, so I won’t spend much time on that. But what he says is exactly right. If you condense the editorial board’s sentiments, you see that they describe one side (management) as the benevolent clear-eyed father figure, disciplining the out-of-control children for their own good. The paper calls “their reasoning…believable, their approach reasonable.” The other side, the musicians, “refuse to accept” facts. They are “smarting.” They are sloganeering toddlers who don’t understand fiscal realities and are incapable of understanding The Real World. What’s most obnoxious about this rhetorical approach is that if anyone is a child in this scenario, it’s the newspaper. Their headline alone proves that the Star Telegram knows nothing about how major orchestras work, broader industry trends, or recent relevant history in places like Minnesota. (And Atlanta. And San Diego. And Detroit. And…)

Or…maybe they do. Because I hear rumors that the publisher of the newspaper, a Mr. Gary Wortel, is actually on the board of a major orchestra. Let me check my sources to find out which one.

wortel.PNG

From the Star Telegram’s website; link here

wortel-2

A list of board members at the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra; link here

Oh, that’s right: Gary Wortel is also on the Fort Worth Symphony Board. What a…surprise.

We could have a very interesting conversation as to what the role of a newspaper publisher is and ought to be on an orchestra board. (As Scott alluded to in his entry, Michael Klingensmith, the publisher of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, also happened to be on the Minnesota Orchestra’s board when it locked its musicians out. There is no way of knowing what role – if any – Mr. Klingensmith played in making decisions, but looking back, his presence certainly did more harm than good at the exact moment when the orchestra needed to build public trust the most.) Perhaps Mr. Wortel is a figurehead, unable to chart organizational course at the FWSO in any meaningful way. That being said, I believe that even a figurehead should do his homework, and I see no indication that Mr. Wortel has. If he’s not on his newspaper’s editorial board, he should be aware that they are writing about a non-profit organization that he is intimately involved with. He should maintain personal and professional credibility by instructing all reporters to note the potential conflict of interest in any article that appears in his newspaper on this topic, both online and in print. Also, I can’t believe I’m having to write this paragraph.

*

Here’s a story that sums it all up. I have this friend. Years ago she was a journalist. She took a job at a newspaper. She covered a local strike. She included quotes from both sides. She submitted a story. Her editor called her into his office. “You can’t write that,” he said. Puzzled, too idealistic, she asked why. She was reminded that the two primary purposes of the newspaper were to promote the city to make it more attractive to business, and to support the advertisers who made the newspaper possible in the first place. The newspaper’s neutrality was a kind of dessert: it was pleasant, but hardly necessary.

My friend quit her job.

I hate to think that this is the state of modern American journalism. I really hope it’s not, because I genuinely do believe that the field is filled with smart and dedicated people, all trying to do a good job under impossible circumstances, and I hate to think of them struggling in such a hostile environment. But viewed through that prism – newspapers are not actually here to sell news; their first function is to support the wealthy and to woo advertisers – so much that seems bewildering suddenly makes sense.

What better way to get clicks and earn revenue and foster controversy than by headlining an article with a ridiculous premise? After all, what sounds more interesting: “A Fair, Balanced, and Thorough Examination of the Minutae of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra’s Collective Bargaining Process” or “Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, RIP”? What’s easier to write: an editorial that embraces the lazy conventional wisdom that all orchestras are failing, or one that thoughtfully considers the successes and failures of the recent past?

How are we citizens supposed to intelligently support our non-profits if that’s the way our newspapers write about them?

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Ugh

As for the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, right now, I don’t think it’s dead. I think it’s sick. Maybe with something like…well, pneumonia. If the community takes care of its orchestra, replenishes it with the nutrients it needs (accountability, expertise…eventually money), and somehow fights off the organizational infection clearly already raging, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra will be back. And it might even return stronger than ever.

14 Comments

Filed under My Writing

14 responses to “Pneumonia At The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra

  1. hmunro

    Brilliant post, Emily. You’ve beautifully illustrated the distressing shift in modern media from simply reporting the news to influencing and sometimes even *creating* it. I hope the Fort Worth Symphony will get back on its feet soon and — to paraphrase Mark Twain — prove that “rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated.” Thank you for another great read.

  2. jake

    Emily, I love your enthusiasm for music and support for the arts. Not always having the time and patience to read your whole post, I find myself starting to skim read. May I humbly suggest using a greater economy of words to make a your points even more clear. The bit on Hillary Clinton was too long and a little odd in this reader´s opinion. Thanks for the wonderful pieces from Amsterdam and Finland. The seatmates reactions to a Minnesotan were interesting and remindful of similiar experiences on my part. It is good to talk to strangers, especially in a concert hall!!

    • Thanks for your feedback! I’m 27 and (hopefully) in the early stages of my writing career, so there’s more to learn now than there ever will be again. That being said, I stand by the construction and even length of this particular piece.

      I also wrote and edited this in a feverish three hours on the road. Maybe that’s what you were picking up on. I’m traveling out of state, but I knew I’d deliver stale news if I waited any longer.

    • Amy

      See, Jake, I had very much the opposite reaction. Here is an organization whose health is being both questioned AND undermined by media…the comparison to Clinton’s health being questioned and possibly undermined by the media is timely.
      A rush to judgment is itself an interesting story.
      In FW’s case, the pure gall, the HUBRIS shown by the publisher in this editorial is worth reading. I can almost hear gasps and laughter from Emily’s audience (a la Daily Show) with this material.

    • “Sometimes being impatient (or lazy or bored lol) I find myself unwilling to finish an article I began reading. This is the author’s fault. Respectfully.”

    • David Sanders

      The problem with not having the time and/or patience to read an entire post is that these issues are complex, and what the Fort Worth Star Telegram Editorial Board did by giving such a one-sided and anti-musician biased report was to make it short and simple, not go into the details about what is really happening, not taking the time to really investigate the problems and the ramifications of the union and orchestra-busting tactics that the Fort Worth Symphony is using against the musicians.

      • george

        David, I stand corrected about taking the time to understand the issues, in this case about the DFW Sympony Board vs. the musicians. It is sometimes better to return to an article or post when one has time to comprehend and reflect. Emily H. and Scott Chamberlain have explosed the labor conflicts with five American orchestras. I would recommend that all of thes musical institutions, including the MN Orchestra, take legal steps to become state owned like European or Latin Americn Orchestras as a way to insure funding and public ownership. We lost such an opportunity during the MN ORCH lockout. A bill was presented by Phyllis Kahn in the legislature but went no where after the lockout was settled. Can we really say that the MN Orchestra is out of the woods.

        • I consider myself pretty liberal politically (thanks in no small part to the Minnesota Orchestra lockout), but I would be more worried about government taking over an orchestra than plutocrats doing the same.

          I feel pretty strongly that the Minnesota Orchestra *is* out of the woods…as long as there is empathetic leadership at the top, and an audience that is informed and engaged.

  3. Thanks for the shout out, and welcome to the party! In truth, writing a response goes so much faster when folks use the same (discredited) playbook from labor disputes past.

  4. Sarah

    Hmmm. . . . Wells Fargo (which is no stranger to orchestra boards and lockouts) won’t accept the responsibility for abusive account practices which earned them a $125 mil fine – because it’s the fault of all of those (low-paid pressured) workers. The FWSO board and CEO won’t accept that their management and fundraising have been woefully inadequate and amateurish during a period when other organizations have posted all sorts of gains. Gee, maybe if corporate-types didn’t control arts organization boards . . .

  5. Eric

    Ms. Hogstad, while the content is disturbing, I thoroughly enjoyed your entire post! As a semi-professional musician and life-long (so far) member of the AFM,, I follow reports of musicians labor issues and it seems ALL of the recent problems have centered on Symphony Boards ripping away the musicians means of making a living!! I don’t think the Boards really understand who they are working for!!!
    It’s NOT the musicians of the orchestras working for the board, it’s the other way around!! Without the orchestras & their HIGHLY talented artists, there would be NO reason to have a board!
    Is there a way to fire the board?

    I sincerely hope that IF the board decide to try and hire a new orchestra that NO ONE show up to play and NO ONE shows up to listen!!

  6. HI Emily! I learned to evaluate these Board-vs-Musicians disputes by reading your play-by-play on the Minnesota strike, and that’s the prism I view these things through now, e.g. with Hartford, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and now Ft. Worth. I value your writing on the subject (rather, on ALL subjects you care to write about) more than I can say. I wish you nothing but the best in terms of deciding where to take your talent next, and am really happy to be part of the journey. (I enjoyed your narrative of the ACTUAL journey with the orch. too; the video especially was delightful.)

    I guess I don’t really have anything else to add to that. Looking forward to your next missive on the Ft. Worth ‘sorry saga’ and/or whatever else I find here next visit.

    best always!

  7. You’ve heard the old saw: “Never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel.” Never saw the wisdom in that. Two sides to every story, sometimes three. Thank goodness there is an antidote for ink in the digital age. Your thoughts about the strikes are cogent. Keep on arguing.

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