Stage Fright

Musicians of the Florida Philharmonic were none too pleased by the settlement of this fall's strike

"Become unwilling to use up your bow," he exhorts them. "Make it impossible."

They continue, but he stops them again. "It's so out of tune, I can't believe it," he says. "It's so pathetically out of tune."

He's right. Students look at him, then the floor. A small, fair cellist, about 15 years old, tucks her long, straight hair behind giant, gold hoop earrings. Besides being out of tune, they are having trouble beginning at the same time. "You're running on stage," Sigurdson explains with paradox characteristic of a movie director, "but don't hurry."

When not performing or practicing, violinist Yang Xi 
likes to work on his Honda Gold Wing and listen to 
country music
Joshua Prezant
When not performing or practicing, violinist Yang Xi likes to work on his Honda Gold Wing and listen to country music
Though she has a contagious sense of humor, the 
strike aggravated flutist Kristin Halay: "I just don't know 
why management seems intent on destroying this 
orchestra"
Joshua Prezant
Though she has a contagious sense of humor, the strike aggravated flutist Kristin Halay: "I just don't know why management seems intent on destroying this orchestra"

Sigurdson is big, like his instrument, with a big voice that reverberates through the tiny classroom as he sings out each note con brio. His mop of shiny brown hair is slicked back from his freckled forehead; it looks like a conductor's hair, but that's misleading. "I don't want to conduct," Sigurdson tells the class. He wants them to learn the intimate art of breathing in unison. "I want you guys to listen to each other and play chamber ensemble."

At long last they almost nail the opening notes, and Sigurdson allows them to sail through the passage. It's sweet relief for a listener, as it surely must be for the musicians, but time's up, and they still haven't gotten it right.

"Let's do it again," says the elf girl.

Sigurdson turns to her, a startled look on his boyish face. "Again?" he repeats.

"Yeah," she says with certainty. "I'll do it three more times."

After class the elf bassist goes upstairs with several other students to a large, dimly lit practice room where the school's orchestra director, Alfred Gershfeldt, stands on a stage, a surreal scene before him. A princess is playing the flute. A sexy bunny holds a violin. Her ears bounce with the music, keeping time like a metronome. Gershfeldt blinks and picks up a baton. The music that began in fits and starts downstairs now unfurls with full orchestral power -- for a while, anyway. Then, it is as if a string were pulled from a tapestry. Things begin to unravel.

He cringes at the French horns, which are miserably, ear-splittingly out of tune. In brown-tinted glasses, a mandarin collar shirt and crisp gray-green slacks, Gershfeldt knows a lot of things he doesn't discuss with the 30 or so students before him, for example, that professional musicians like Sigurdson just settled the strike.

Do the students know this?

"I wish," he says. It's hard enough getting them to concentrate on their own music, particularly as they get older, with schoolwork, dating, sports, and after-school jobs all vying for their attention. He's already lost some of them. Out of every 100 or so of these students, only one or two will become professionals. More than musicians, his class will comprise the next classical music audience. Maybe.

A toy rubber duck squeaks from the back of the room, and Gershfeldt ends his instructions with a cheerful reference to the holiday. "Let's play Haydn," he sighs with a wry smile at the French horns. "It's scary enough."

They begin again. Meanwhile, framed in a grid-patterned sliver of window, the outside teenage world plays out too but in silence, like Dawson's Creek with the sound turned down. Boyfriends are kissing their girlfriends, who are trying to keep their Halloween costumes from falling apart, as cans of Pepsi tumble from a vending machine down the hall.

Inside the building Haydn's clock is ticking as it did in 1758, which is to say as it ever has, more or less.


On September 24, the day before the season was supposed to start, FPO management presented a one-year contract with a 5 percent salary increase. It was too little and too late. Bolstered by a strike fund of $25,000 accumulated over the previous year in anticipation of contract talks, the musicians' union rejected the offer, stating their refusal to "play and talk."

The two sides disagreed on the scale by which the musicians' wages should be compared. Then a Miami Herald story explained the musicians were paid $36,400 for working only 22 hours per week. Players say this formula, which was based only on actual performance time and didn't include practice, misled the public and contributed to their image as spoiled and uncooperative.

The musicians' union argued their contribution to the success of the FPO is undervalued. Lewinter notes that the FPO plans to increase its budget in 2001 by $1.4 million, but only 17 percent of that will go to musicians. "We seem to be a low priority," Lewinter says, "The hall has their charge, the electrician has their charge, and we get what's left over."

With the help of a paid management consultant, the musicians made a salary proposal based on data from the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians. ICSOM is affiliated with the American Federation of Musicians and the AFL-CIO; its lead counsel, Leonard Leibowitz, represented the musicians during the strike.

Previous negotiations taught union representatives to set the starting point in salary talks high, Lewinter says. Musicians proposed a 32 percent pay increase largely to illustrate the chasm between their peer group and their own pay scale. This strategy backfired, though. What was meant only as an illustration of the going rate was construed as an inflexible and unrealistic demand. (Management also argued FPO's endowment is a tiny fraction of 19 comparable ICSOM orchestras.)

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