By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
Sipping from blue plastic cups and nibbling from a potluck spread of cheese, tabbouleh, raw vegetables, and dip, Raimondi's guests look like any group of young professionals at a party, except for the conversation, that is. They talk animatedly about the contract they have just signed with the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra.
They are musicians, and they are angry. Despite a front-page headline in the day's Sun-Sentinel proclaiming a "season of healing," their wounds are fresh and raw. They just played Beethoven's fifth and sixth symphonies, but cheerful feelings on arriving at a five-year contract agreement are few and far between.
Cut loose from their ties and tails and fueled by beer, wine, and a postperformance rush, they lash out at conductor James Judd ("Not a nice man," says one. "Megalomaniac," insists another) and FPO chairman and Miami Herald publisher Alberto Ibargüen. ("You better know what you're up against when you're up against Ibargüen.")
One musician scoffs at the idea that they are embarking on a season of healing: "Now that I've played the Fifth, I feel so much better," he says, scorn boiling in his voice. "I'm as mad as I was when I went on stage."
Still, he was on stage, not on strike. When the monthlong stoppage was finally settled October 25, musicians got a 30 percent pay raise over five years and South Florida, which has long battled an image as a cultural backwater, got a reprieve.
And nobody really was happy. In many ways the contract was just another cease-fire in a bitter, decadelong battle. On Friday, December 8, executive director Elizabeth Hare announced her resignation. The 20002001 season of the Florida Philharmonic is now under way, but trouble lingers.
If the strike had ended the FPO, it would not have been the first time a labor dispute silenced classical music in South Florida. In the early 1980s, the Miami-based Florida Philharmonic -- no relation to the present-day FPO -- folded in the wake of a strike. Although the labor dispute was not the first Philharmonic's death knell (it was beset by debt and eventually went bankrupt), memory of the disbanded group nonetheless cast a pall on the FPO's 2000 contract talks.
The first Florida Philharmonic was started by University of Miami president Henry King Stanford in 1964. Stanford believed the region would support the University of Miami Symphony, then a quasi-professional group. So he stopped subsidizing it. Comprised of faculty, students, and some professionals, the Greater Miami Philharmonic soon began performing. At first it flourished. Philanthropist Maurice Gusman bought and remodeled the old Olympia Theater in Miami for the orchestra, and the place was renamed the Gusman Philharmonic Hall; it's still one of the city's best-known buildings.
Gusman then plowed through a string of orchestra managers until 1977, when a man named Norman Blankman took over as president. Hoping to draw support from fast-growing Broward and Palm Beach counties, he changed its name to the Florida Philharmonic. The public didn't respond well to the music or the name change, and the orchestra fell into debt until bank executive Marshall Harris took over in 1980. Although Harris and others raised enough money to keep the organization afloat, trouble arose when musicians demanded peer review before a musician could be fired.
After 17 months of negotiation and a five-month strike, the orchestra was folded by an 18-to-1 vote of the board July 21, 1982. Not surprisingly management blamed workers. "The musicians have caused this," orchestra president Harris told The Miami Herald. "They committed suicide by not accepting our proposals, and actually it was a very small group of players who forced this situation to a head. They thought they would get yet another offer, but enough is enough."
Three years later the Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton symphonies were joined. The resulting new FPO was a marriage of old and new.
The old Fort Lauderdale Symphony had been founded in 1949. In April 1983 Joseph Leavitt, former executive director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, had come aboard. He was the one who masterminded the merger, even as he quelled rumors of it.
The Boca Raton Symphony Orchestra was newer, founded by trumpeter Paul McRae in 1982. McRae was a veteran of labor disputes. After enduring two strikes as a member of the Rochester Symphony Orchestra in the 1970s, he left the RSO and his musical career for more stable work. He took a job in real-estate marketing and moved his wife and two children to Florida. But word of mouth about McRae's musical talent led to an audition with the Fort Lauderdale Symphony, and McRae, who hadn't played in years, won the job. Six years later, when the first FPO folded, he gathered its remaining players, along with some freelancing colleagues, and built the short-lived Boca Symphony.
After the merger Leavitt became intent on building the new orchestra into a strong organization serving, and being supported by, three counties. Said to have opposed the joining of the two groups, McRae left to conduct the Greensboro Orchestra in North Carolina. (He later abruptly resigned from Greensboro and returned to real estate.) Conductor James Judd joined this new FPO in 1986 and the following year took on the role of music director. He attempted to persuade management to refrain from budget cuts that would affect the orchestra's performance.
By 1998 the orchestra was struggling financially. Musicians played without a contract for two months. During this period, which musicians called "play and talk," they narrowly approved a contract that froze wages for a year and increased them by 4 percent in the following 12 months.
At 33 years of age, Andrew Lewinter is trim, well-spoken, and clean-cut. He unexpectedly won his first professional position as a French horn player 14 years ago while still a college student. His doctor father and librarian mother were classical-music fans and concertgoers. They had a subscription to the New Jersey Symphony and would often go to New York City for shows.
Though his parents never pushed him to play, Lewinter was awestruck by the sound of a Brahms symphony. The appeal was simple, even visceral: "I loved the music." To Lewinter, then a sixth grader, the trombone's fluid movement looked as good as it played: "I just liked the slide."
The school band needed a French horn, though, so he dutifully took up that instrument. By high school he was riding the train into New York City from his hometown of Westfield, New Jersey, to attend Saturday classes at the Juilliard School. He knew he wanted to become a professional musician, and when the time came to apply for college, he knew exactly where he wanted to go: Northwestern, to study under Dale Clevenger, the principal French hornist for the Chicago Symphony.
During his sophomore year at Northwestern, Lewinter learned of an audition in Tampa, Florida. "Just to see what would happen," he says, he saved up the money from his job delivering pizzas to buy a plane ticket and hotel room and prepared to audition alongside 70 other French hornists.
He told no one where he was going.
"I actually got the job," he says, a hint of disbelief still fresh in his voice. "Great day."
Lewinter left Northwestern for a $12,500-per-year gig with the Tampa-based Florida Orchestra. He joined the FPO two years later. "And I've been a professional musician ever since."
During the strike Lewinter, who represented musicians as co-chair of the orchestra committee, never mentioned that he became injured or in players' parlance "busted his chops." After all, the overuse injury isn't the reason he's on leave (he took one year for personal reasons), and he didn't want to call attention to himself. However, the season's grueling schedule includes daytime rehearsals and evening performances and may run eight days in a row. Sometimes musicians play a children's concert in the morning and a regular season program in the evening. This puts stress on players, particularly brass and woodwinds, and can ultimately affect the quality of the music.
"Playing an instrument is like playing a sport," Lewinter says. "The body has limitations. Overuse injuries are very common. A lot of people don't understand that. If you had Nolan Ryan pitch for 40 hours a week, Nolan Ryan wouldn't be Nolan Ryan."
There are two triangles in an orchestra. One is a percussion instrument, the other is love. When the conductor seems smitten with the little violin and viola, the cellos get jealous. Poor cello, she wants to play, too! "Cellos and basses get ignored in rehearsals," laments Steven Sigurdson. "It's the assumption that violins have the melodies, and they have to have the notes down."
Sigurdson, admittedly, is biased. The son of a flutist and a ballet dancer, he has played the cello in the FPO for 13 years, and here, among the students in his cello and bass class in a small, windowless room at the New World School of the Arts, turnabout is fair play.
It's Halloween, a few days after the strike's end has been declared, and outside Miami-Dade Community College's downtown campus, where the New World School is located, the sky is gray and heavy with clouds that give way to a soft drizzle. A monk slinks down the sidewalk while an elf in lime greenstriped tights and pointy, Keebleresque shoes lugs her bass onto the elevator.
Upstairs six students ranging in age from 14 to 18 straggle in several minutes past the class' starting time and remove their basses and cellos from padded cases. Algebra problems are chalked on the old-fashioned blackboard; fluorescent lights flicker through ceiling panels overhead. The students leaf through yellowed sheet music to Haydn's Symphony no. 101 in D Major, "Die Uhr."
The name means "the clock," and it's prescient. When the students start playing, time seems to stop; for 20 minutes they repeat a single bar of music. At a precious pause, another student, wearing a ruffled black skirt and high-heeled patent leather sandals, comes in, taking her time as she picks her way through a jumble of music stands and plastic chairs. She stares blankly; Sigurdson stresses the importance of at least appearing to hurry.
"Learn to kiss up," he says good naturedly. "It's all part of being in an orchestra." The students start again, but it's no better. Finally Sigurdson stabs his arm into the air in frustration, and bows screech to a halt.
They are sliding their bows too quickly across the strings and in doing so run out before the note is played; "bow ratio" is the name for it. Sigurdson urges them to use the bow with discipline, savoring every centimeter of catgut.
"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."
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.)
Confusing as well was the emergence, weeks into the strike, of another issue awkwardly referred to as "nonrenewal language." The contract clause, which refers to the musicians' ability to elect and reelect 13 of 15 representatives on the peer review board, was brought up by management the day before the strike and ultimately became the final sticking point. The issue was often characterized as a job-security concern, because the clause strengthens musicians' representation during employment review and diminishes the possibility that a player can be fired arbitrarily, a factor which some say affects a musician's ability to perform.
Management wanted to force musicians to rotate these positions; musicians insisted on controlling their representation without interference.
To some members of the public, the emergence of the issue weeks into the strike made it appear musicians were shifting ground. Lewinter says management first allowed musicians their choice for the board, then took back that offer during October 16 contract negotiations, which is the reason it did not surface sooner.
Explains Mariusz Wojtowicz, a slight, bespectacled violinist with a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard: "Tenure to most people is a foreign concept. When you're on stage, the fear element can't be there. People need a sense of security. Believe it or not, they need to feel a sense of family."
Striking musicians remained stalwart. "The reason the musicians are so strong this year is everybody's fed up," says violinist Yang Xi. "[Management] uses scare tactics, they inflate figures. As soon as musicians sign the dotted line, you can count on it, there's money to spend on public relations, management."
To Lewinter the 1998 wage freeze implied a gentleman's agreement that a substantial raise was forthcoming. When their contract expired this year, musicians felt they shouldn't have to negotiate for what they believed had already been assured. "It seemed to us a betrayal of two years ago," Lewinter said. "During that wage freeze, they balanced the budget. It was time to make good on their promise."
However, music critic Tim Smith, who spent 19 years at the Sun-Sentinel before taking a job in April at The Baltimore Sun, says the FPO must spend more on administration because -- unlike many similar orchestras -- it serves three counties. "It's easy to complain about the salaries on the administrative side," he says. "It's been one badly managed administration after another."
Finding an administration skilled enough to handle the iconoclastic behemoth is nearly impossible. The departure of Hare, the executive director who is leaving at the end of the season, will result in a gaping hole in orchestra management. Though musicians viewed her largely as a go-between in the negotiations, she was a peacemaker. Now they fear her position will be filled by someone far less competent.
"It's a big monster of an organization," Smith adds. "It's like nothing else in the country. You could get the New York Philharmonic's general manager, and they wouldn't have a clue how to run this orchestra."
While poor management has cost the FPO plenty of money and missed opportunities, Smith says administrators also faced the possibility of layoffs. "There's been people who lost their jobs on the management side, and there's never been that on the orchestra's side."
Kristin Halay didn't bring her flute, and now, on a muggy Wednesday in October at O'Hara's on Las Olas Boulevard, she's starting to regret it.
For Halay, the newest member of the Florida Philharmonic, the noontime protest being staged outside is a chance to perform in public, something she hasn't done much lately. She arrived in Florida from Eugene, Oregon, just one day before the strike began; she is on a one-year leave from the Oregon Symphony. She's never rehearsed with the FPO and hasn't even received a paycheck, though she has played as many free community concerts as she can, for the practice.
Halay plops a cell phone, her only phone, on the red-checkered tablecloth, so as not to miss calls from Oregon, where management has offered to fly her back for performances. She's fortunate to work there, she says. "Oregon has the same-length season, better benefits, and they play in one concert hall." A change of scenery, the Florida sun, and proximity to East Coast auditions prompted her to accept the one-year position; her experience with the strike has made her doubt that decision.
Had the FPO season been canceled, she would have returned to Eugene, forfeiting the deposit she put down on her Fort Lauderdale apartment. She shrugs. The place is empty save the bed she bought for $180 at the Salvation Army and a used dresser donated by another musician.
Halay is fair; her dark brown hair glints reddish in the sunlight. Wearing silver rings, an amber pendant, and earthy sandals, she seems like a creative-writing TA at a West Coast liberal arts college -- until you hear her talk. Halay, who can often be found sipping from a stainless steel Starbucks coffee mug, speaks passionately about music. "I have this really wild little piece with just simple, simple F major arpeggios," she says, smiling enthusiastically. It would be great to play here, on the sidewalk, she adds, if only she had brought her flute.
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.
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!"
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.)
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."