Without An Angel Donor, The Detroit Symphony Orchestra Could Go Dark

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Detroit Orchestra Hall i i
Kellie Peterson
Detroit Orchestra Hall
Kellie Peterson

There's a big fight going on at Orchestra Hall in Motor City. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra has been on strike for more than a month. Concerts have been canceled at least through Sunday. With no new contract talks scheduled, it's likely more cancellations are on the way.

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra is one of the top 10 orchestras in the country. But it's a top 10 orchestra with a multi-million dollar budget deficit. So to stay afloat, cuts need to be made. At least that much the two sides agree on.

The musicians proposed a temporary 22 percent pay cut. Management wants to cut current players' salaries by a third, new players' salaries by 42 percent, eliminate tenure, reduce the size of the orchestra and require the players to teach and perform outside of the regularly scheduled concert season.

"It's probably the most extreme attack that's ever been made on a major orchestra in the United States," says Haden McKay, a cellist who's been with the DSO for 27 years.

McKay says the cuts management proposed would irreparably harm the quality of the orchestra. "It seems that our management is trying to make an example of the Detroit Symphony as to how an American orchestra in a time of crisis, which may or may not be just a convenient reason, can be completely reshaped."

And he says orchestras around the country are watching to see what happens.

DSO president Anne Parsons wouldn't comment for this story. But board member Gloria Heppner says she doesn't think management’s proposal is really viable.

"Not if one wants to maintain a top tier orchestra it isn't," she says. "We could have a community orchestra, but that, believe me, is not what this is about. We're fighting for the maintenance of a first-class orchestra."

The problem is the fight could go on for a long time, which isn't good news for either management or the musicians. It presents an economic hardship for both.

"If the musicians can remain at a level of solidarity that's necessary to make it past the Christmas holiday," says Drew McManus, an arts consultant in Chicago, "then it's quite likely you could go for the entire season that both sides would be out, so it'd be a fully dark season. I don't think that would be surprising in the least."

Mark Clague, a music historian at the University of Michigan, agrees. He says, "Part of the reason why both sides are so inflexible is that each sees their response as being symbolic and having a domino effect all the way across the industry."

It's not like the DSO got to this point overnight. The orchestra is just one of many Detroit organizations that have been hard hit by the recession. Clague says it didn't help that management decided to cut its development team way down to save money a couple years ago. That meant less fundraising staff. Then there's General Motors and Chrysler. They used to sponsor series and education programs, but can't afford to so anymore.

There's more: "The other critical part of the DSO situation right now is the extension onto Orchestra Hall," says Clague.

The DSO used the interest on its endowment to pay the mortgage on a $60 million building expansion. But the endowment took a huge hit in the recession, so now the DSO has to cut into the principal of the endowment to pay off the mortgage.

The solution?

"I don't know," Clague says. "I mean, I know the musicians hope that — I think everybody hopes — that some sort of angel donor would come in and fix this basically budget imbalance."

It's not unheard of. An angel donor swept in and donated $85 million to save the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra last year. Short of that, the two sides of the DSO have a wide bridge to gap.

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