Stage Fright

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

In comments as crisp as their black-and-white evening attire, Cohen and others speculate about what conductor James Judd will say to the audience. "He better not make any speeches," snarls one. Others assert that he won't. After all, he said little at the tearful first rehearsal after the strike ended, and players sent numerous e-mails urging him not to mention the strike.

Xi takes a swig from a can of Lipton's Brisk Ice Tea because, he jokes, he's about to perform a brisk piece. He says the musicians are determined to play their best, to impress the audience, and to show that they have integrity.

A preperformance hush settles in, the sense of expectation broken only by the creaking of a crocodile Fendi bag being snapped open. A woman extracts her cell phone and checks to see if it is turned off. (It is.)

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."

When Judd steps on stage, his leonine mane of wavy gray hair shines in the lights. He smiles widely, graciously and, in his proper British accent, mentions nothing explicit about the strike, only discreetly notes the program is "perhaps not what you expected." He introduces Beethoven's "Pastorale."

After intermission the players return to give a spirited rendition of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The piece is familiar even to those who dislike classical music, in part because a disco recording based upon it -- Walter Murphy's Fifth of Beethoven-- was included on the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. It is classical composition's answer to rock 'n' roll and appears to invigorate both performers and audience. The audience gives a full minute's standing ovation, which doesn't surprise Sigurdson. In fact he predicted it -- a polite, if Pavlovian, response.

On stage, players' emotions did not translate as rage. In fact their mood didn't seem to affect their performance at all, a fact musicians attribute to professionalism. To Smith their demeanor is a baffling anomaly: "I used to be amazed at how fabulously they could perform after saying [angry things]. Sometimes they'd be within hours of some sort of acrimonious situation."

At intermission on opening night, an elderly man leaned toward another. "I think the musicians got what they wanted, right?"

They both shrugged. The salary earned by a violinist means little to the people who pay to hear his music, just as the wage of the worker who sewed your Dockers is irrelevant to their function as pants. "I think [musicians] assume people care more about them than they do," Smith sighs. "That's the sad reality -- the public does not give a damn. They don't."

But symphonic music is at once a product, like the pants, and a process; the labor required to make it is not hidden away in some foreign factory, it's displayed on stage. Making the mode of production visible not only adds value to the music, it's integral to its worth.

What it's worth, for a base-level Philharmonic member, is now $38,220 a year.

Classical music is once again for sale in South Florida, but only time will tell if the public is buying it. Florence Nelson, symphonic services director for the American Federation of Musicians says the long-term impact of a strike hinges on participants' ability to put it behind them. "A lot depends on how both sides end the strike," she says. "Do they shake hands and go back to business as usual?"

For the FPO latent animosity is business as usual. Many players say they're looking for other jobs, but in the competitive industry, it could be years before they find them -- if they find them. Ill will has doubtless tainted the orchestra's reputation: "If someone asks me if they should audition for this orchestra," says one long-time member, "I'd say, "No, stay very far away.'"

In an effort to make sure the audience doesn't stay away, FPO telemarketers called ticket holders a few days after the first performance, quizzing them about their interest in music and offering friendly banter. One employee closed his call with an entreaty that sounded ominously like a plea: "Don't give up on us."

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