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Oklahoma symphonies have played these notes before

Filed by KOSU News in Feature.
December 4, 2012

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The following was written by KOSU’s Quinton Chandler.


This year one by one a handful of symphony orchestras locked out their musicians or closed their doors when players went on strike. Management and musicians refused to compromise on issues of pay and benefits. Two orchestras in Oklahoma have already know firsthand the potential dangers of labor fights and they’ve taken steps to avoid them…

You may remember last year’s NBA lockout, when we thought there might not be a professional basketball season. But, unlike the NBA when one orchestra’s players are locked out or on strike, that doesn’t mean all of them are. Joel Levine, conductor for Oklahoma City’s Philharmonic, doubts his orchestra will fight over contract terms.

“I’m not going to say there could never be a labor dispute between the philharmonic and its musicians. It’s just extremely unlikely because the relationship between them is extremely good.”

A good relationship is important but there’s a bigger story behind Joel’s confidence. The Philharmonic’s success is based largely in lessons they learned from Oklahoma City’s last orchestra.

“The Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra had a business model that did not work. They believed in a full-time business model for the orchestra and they thought they could do it, they genuinely did. It turned out that it was not the right model for here.”

To hire musicians full-time, the Symphony needed to book more performances, to get more performances they needed more fans. More people who wanted to listen to their music. But, Oklahoma City just didn’t have that demand for an orchestra.

“We produce beautiful art but we’re also a business. The bottom line is that there is a bottom line. If you have vastly more product than need you’re going to go out of business…. The full-time model for a symphony orchestra means the musicians get together to rehearse a play 8 times a week. There isn’t a city in Oklahoma that needs to have its musicians get together 8 times a week.”

The Oklahoma Symphony’s ambition led to deficits, pay freezes, and the deathblow…. a season long strike. We’ve seen a similar pattern from Symphonies in Indianapolis, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago…. Michael Wilkerson is an expert on the business side of performing arts from Indiana University.

“There is a productivity challenge with orchestras. You can’t play a symphony any faster than it was originally written nor with fewer players that are necessary to constitute an orchestra. So you have some fixed costs.”

So it’s hard to cut costs for an orchestra. But why are things in these other cities falling apart now?

“Part of what has happened is that the recession of 2008-2010 reduced funding to orchestras. Donations and in terms of invested funds in the stock market.”

Wilkerson goes on to say, managers decided next to fundraising the best way to balance expenses and revenue was to cut salaries. But the musicians reaction clearly says that’s not the best approach.

“It’s really not rocket science analyze how many concerts people want. How can we control our expenses? And we’re simply not going to spend more money than that. However big that is that’s what we’ll do.”

Michael says part of the problem for orchestras is musicians and management working against each other trying to eek out the best deal for their side. Timothy McFadden is a trumpet player and orchestra manager for the Tulsa Symphony. He says that type of standoff won’t happen. Their secret? The musicians are the managers. They pull the strings on and off stage. So there’s less feeling of rivalry and….they don’t vote!

“We talk about the issues until we come to consensus. Until we have agreement in place to move a certain way. The premise of it was to remove the process of negotiations which pretty much every other orchestra has to go through.”

Like Oklahoma City the sullied past of Tulsa’s last orchestra, the Tulsa Philharmonic, inspired their reform.

“In approximately 20 years there had been a strike or a lockout in the mid 80’s. There was a bankruptcy in the 90’s and cessation of operations in 2002. And it left a lot of people with a very bad taste for the organization.”

Another failed orchestra partly because the two sides couldn’t get on the same page. To Tim success is simple, if it serves the community the community will support the orchestra. He says it’s when musicians and management only lookout for their side that orchestras get into trouble.

“You can’t have the organization without the musicians, you can’t have the organization without management setting up the concerts, without a board helping to generate funds. So working together for the benefit of the community and for the benefit of the organization takes out the contention that so often plays in the process.”

The Oklahoma City Philharmonic and Tulsa symphony never want to see another labor fight. They already played that score and they’re moving on. The other symphonies strikes and lockouts are over, but it’s up to them to decide whether they’ll learn and change like Oklahoma’s did.

2 Responses to “Oklahoma symphonies have played these notes before”

  1. Get Real says:

    I found this story incredibly naive and very sad. The story began with a sports analogy, so I'll continue that here. To suggest that major US orchestras like Atlanta, Philadelphia, or Chicago should or could adopt strategies like those of the orchestras in Tulsa or Oklahoma City is like saying that a major league baseball team should operate like a rookie team. There is simply no comparison in the scale or QUALITY of operations. The thought of turning the Chicago Symphony into a pick-up orchestra is indeed sad.

    • Quinton says:

      The story was not meant to suggest other orchestras should copy the Philharmonic or Tulsa Symphony. The take away was supposed to be these other orchestras can adapt. Oklahoma's history shows us two of its orchestras did not change and they went under. Now they've found what works for this state and for their separate organizations. The world is changing around all of these orchestras and they will most likely change to survive. The focus on Oklahoma's orchestras is only meant to make the story relevant to the average Oklahoman.

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