Stage Fright

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

She orders a vodka Collins, lights a cigarette, and sighs, joking that she's being driven to drink and smoke, but she doesn't even have health benefits. She's only half kidding. COBRA health insurance costs $175 per month, which, on her current salary of zero, she can't afford.

The job market is particularly tight for flutists, Halay explains. Orchestras typically have forty string players but only three or four flutists.

Auditions are a crapshoot: "You could play for two minutes and go home." They're an expensive risk, too. Players must pay their own way, and for those with oversize instruments, like the bass and cello, an additional airline ticket is required for the instrument. Nonetheless, about 200 hopeful players show up at each of the four or five auditions a year -- usually.

Cellist Steven Sigurdson says his colleagues are 
unhappy and lack the moral support they need to 
thrive: "We're undernourished."
Joshua Prezant
Cellist Steven Sigurdson says his colleagues are unhappy and lack the moral support they need to thrive: "We're undernourished."

For Halay to get a new full-time job, someone "would have to quit," she deadpans, "or die." Then she adds: "Actually I have a better chance of being a conductor. Or a better chance of taking up the viola now," she says, with a sideways smile at a string player.

But she plays the flute, and she'd be playing it right now except that she forgot it at home; because her neighbor dropped her off, she can't go and get it. She has no car in Florida, a predicament particularly inconvenient for an FPO musician. In a season of performances and rehearsals, which are scattered from Miami to Boca Raton, players estimate they drive 18,000 to 25,000 miles a year.

Outside O'Hara's the lunchtime crowd walks by the anemic rally, smiling politely at the musicians who are sitting around in their white union T-shirts. Halay looks at the crowd. The piece she has in mind to play is a crowd pleaser, she says.

A red Subaru slows down to take a flier, and another driver honks. A passerby lets out a supportive cheer: "Yeah," he yells, fist held up in a solidarity symbol, "don't give up!"

Finally someone offers to drive Halay back to her apartment, and when she returns with her instrument, she is contentedly clutching sheet music, like a child with a Christmas present. The wind is blowing, the acoustics are bad; these are the worst conditions in which to play. Still Halay takes to the makeshift stage with Sigurdson, who is providing the bass line. Notes spiral up and down the scale in a loopy tune that brings smiles to the faces of passersby.

The flute trills, chirpy, and cheerful. People gather on the sidewalk to listen, soon crowding the cobblestones. Halay's performance takes off, and the music dips and soars like the birds overhead. Her eyes bulge, her cheeks puff out like a fish, and her lips are pursed in something like a grin. It's showmanship, not showing off. "I can tell you right now that she's the best," violinist Yang Xi whispers to an observer. "Very good technique."

"And guts," adds his colleague Izabela Cohen, with an appreciative nod. "You can hear it in the piece."

What isn't audible is the anxiety. Halay returns to the table winded but uplifted. Her face falls as she admits the acrimonious strike has changed her outlook: "It makes me wonder whether I want to do this for life." Then she pauses, shifts her weight in the green plastic chair, and looks away.

"But I know I do," she decides, "just not here."

Many discussions and negotiations about the strike were conducted via e-mail, so it was easy for dissenters to make known their disagreement with union management. It was the most public labor dispute in FPO history -- and the most vitriolic.

The apex of such furor was music director James Judd's October 18 offer to make up the difference between the musicians' salary proposal and management's offer by giving up his $250,000 salary. Many musicians regarded the gesture with skepticism, even contempt.

Yang Xi claims Judd has a history of making hollow pledges. "Contract before last, James Judd said by [our] next contract, if our salary does not reach [The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra]'s he'll resign. He's still there. Even if they did raise 32 percent this year, we're still behind Atlanta's eight years ago. You just can't help but think they have ulterior motives."

Others suggest Judd's offer was self-serving, meant only to preserve his American conductorship and in turn his prominence on the world stage. A few even suspect it was disingenuous -- he'd be repaid, via a hidden bonus, later on.

Such cynicism is unfounded and out of line, says Smith. "What a disgusting way to respond," he says. "[Judd] doesn't need this orchestra as much as they think he does. There's no reason for him to put up with all this crap, this incredible hatred." In the long run, Smith predicts, he won't: "I can't imagine he'll stay around much longer. I think he'd be crazy to stay much longer, if this is what he has to put up with."

On the day of the first performance following the strike, tickets sold for half price, part of a promotion management called "Save the Orchestra." The public relations campaign irked Cohen. A redhead with a warm laugh and sparkling eyes, she's worked up tonight. "Save the orchestra?" Cohen cries a few moments before taking the stage. "We're the ones who saved the orchestra!"

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