As the year winds down, every news outlet from radio to print to television is airing reflections on the past twelve months. In global politics and current events, it’s becoming even clearer that the overriding theme of the year has been the economy. The economic situation has reached into almost every aspect of daily life, and seemingly no field, profession, or demographic has gone without feeling the squeeze. Citizens of the classical music community have felt the pinch too–and in some cases it has been an acute one. The most visible casualty of the economic downturn has been the symphony orchestra. Long regarded as the institution in classical music, established and untouchable, the symphony orchestra as an organization has increasingly fallen victim to the often-lethal cocktail of waning audience interest and waning economic resources. The recent trials of such venerable institutions as the Philadelphia and Detroit Symphony Orchestras have served as something of a wake-up call to the classical music community: it’s time to innovate and fight for the survival of the symphony into the next century. While the biggest, splashiest stories have detailed the struggles of major orchestras, these stories are hardly limited to the few and the proud when it comes to symphonic organizations. Just as the troubles of the major businesses–the banks, the car companies, the investment firms–signaled a red alert for the economy and called our attention to the tribulations that smaller businesses had been feeling for some time longer, the high-profile difficulties of major orchestras are finally calling attention to an economic struggle that has been playing out for sometime among smaller orchestras.
One of these smaller orchestras is, somewhat famous by now, the Louisville Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra has been in financial straits more or less continuously since 2003, when talk of bankruptcy first surfaced. From that point on, the rest, as they say, has been history. The symphony continued to flirt with financial disaster for many years, until the management of the orchestra filed for bankruptcy in December of 2010. Since that declaration, the musicians of the Louisville Symphony have been in what can only be described as employment limbo–the musicians have been characterized as the management as being on strike, but they say themselves that they are willing to negotiate. Either way, the situation has resulted in musicians who have not performed as an orchestra since May and a management that is advertising for replacement musicians. In the weeks after management filed bankruptcy on Dec. 3, 2010, the management requested in U.S. Bankruptcy Court to break its contract with the musicians that ran through last May. Since then, both sides have been involved in contentious negotiations with management over working conditions and the number of full-time players covered in a new contract.
The lead negotiator for the musicians is a violinist from the orchestra named Kim Tichenor. She joined the orchestra in 2000 and has since then become the chair of the musician’s negotiating committee. Tichenor did not become actively involved in the orchestra’s negotiations until 2003′s bankruptcy scare. It was then that she saw her job and the jobs of her colleagues flashing before her eyes, and, although the declaration of bankruptcy was averted then, she and her compatriots negotiated a contract that once again came into jeopardy when it expired in 2006. Tichenor was no professional negotiator or bargainer, and she was not trained as a union representative. Instead, she is an orchestra member who learned her skills on the fly, and she’s leading her colleagues through one of the hairiest financial struggles in modern symphonic history. Tichenor has been lauded as coolheaded and poised by her colleagues on both sides of the negotiating table–in 2006, when presented with a list of musicians to be downsized, she negotiated a new contract that prevented the loss of those musician’s jobs…despite the fact that her name was on the list.
The skills that Tichenor employs in the negotiations have been learned on the spot, as they’re hardly covered in typical music school curriculum. Tichenor’s training is typical of a talented violinist, including studies at the Juilliard School’s pre-college program and a degree from Indiana University with Josef Gingold. Tichenor’s position is a highly-pressured one, and the skills that serve her here are an excellent example to modern musicians everywhere. The frail economy has made many symphonic organizations weak, and the Louisville situation is hardly unique, even if it is more fraught with tension than many others. Nonetheless, there are orchestras of similar size and situation that are thriving in this difficult environment. Tichenor recently returned from a stint playing with the Sarasota Orchestra, and she noted that the concerts were well-attended and that the general environment in the arts community there was one of optimism. Tichenor, like many of the other musicians in the Louisville Symphony, has been forced by the financial lockout to take work elsewhere, and she noted that, upon returning to Louisville, her feeling of optimism and well-being faded in light of the deadlock there.
Tichenor’s position in the midst of the negotiations in Louisville has put her in a position of privileged perspective. As a musician who sees the gritty details of the negotiation process and who witnesses the pitfalls of the current symphonic machinery, she said the experience of working with Louisville Orchestra musicians and management on negotiations for several contracts over the past decade and seeing how other orchestras operate has renewed her perspective of the role of a symphonic musician in today’s America. It has also further refined her view of what it takes for a symphony to stay afloat in this unstable economy. “You just find that the orchestras that are succeeding are utilizing their musicians in new and innovative ways and as a resource in fundraising, community engagement and education,” Tichenor says.
It is clear from Louisville’s example that a failure to work around entrenched differences, combined with an unwillingness to adapt to the times can spell disaster. Many insiders note that the situation in Louisville is fraught with tension and adversarial notes, but the way forward is perhaps in an effort by both sides to sit down and innovate together. Musicians can bring just as much innovation to the table as the management can, and perhaps a dialogue regarding how better to bring music to the community can revive the spirit of the negotiations. The situation in Louisville holds a number of instructive examples for the aspiring orchestral musician–or any musician in this climate. It’s clear that adaptation, innovation, and engagement are the ways forward, and these traits are rapidly distinguishing the successes from the failures in the symphonic world. The take-home point for symphonies and musicians mirrors that of the economic trends: in order to move forward, the music world must adapt, re-invent, and re-consider its approaches, attitudes, and strategies in order to build a stable future for lost orchestras like Louisville.