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

Music Articles

Without An Angel Donor, The Detroit Symphony Orchestra Could Go Dark
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra has been on strike for more than a month now. The symphony faces stark financial challenges and musicians and management remain far apart. After new talks last weekend, concerts were canceled for another three weeks.

Michigan Radio's Jennifer Guerra reports.

JENNIFER GUERRA: The Detroit Symphony Orchestra is one of the top 10 orchestras in the country. But it's a top ten orchestra with a $9 million 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.

Mr. HADEN McKAY (Cellist, Detroit Symphony Orchestra): It's probably the most extreme attack which has ever been made on a major orchestra in the United States.

GUERRA: Haden McKay has been a cellist with the DSO for 27 years. He says the cuts management proposed would irreparably harm the quality of the orchestra.

Mr. McKAY: 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.

GUERRA: And he says orchestras around the country are watching to see what happens. DSO president Anne Parsons wouldn't comment for the story. But board member Gloria Heppner says she doesn't think management's proposal is really viable.

Ms. GLORIA HEPPNER: Not if one wants to retain a top tier orchestra, it isn't. We could always 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.

GUERRA: If the fight goes on for much longer, it isn't good news for management or the musicians since it presents an economic hardship for both. But Mark Clague, a music historian at the University of Michigan, says both sides feel that the stakes are large.

Mr. MARK CLAGUE (University of Michigan): 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.

GUERRA: Now it's not like the DSO got to this point overnight. The orchestra is just one of many Detroit organizations that have been hit hard by the recession. And 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 do so anymore.

Mr. CLAGUE: The other critical part of the DSO situation right now is the extension onto Orchestra Hall.

GUERRA: 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. So the solution?

Mr. CLAGUE: I don't know. I mean I know the musicians hope that, you know, I think everybody hopes, that some sort of angel donor would come in and fix this basically budget imbalance.

GUERRA: 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 gap to bridge.

For NPR News, I'm Jennifer Guerra in Ann Arbor.

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