March 31, 2013
The corn’s a bumper crop
and the music never stopped.
That’s the buzzer that went off on “Family Feud” when a family member gave an answer that was not one of the popular ones.
THERE’S A BAND IN SAN FRANCISCO
They’re high-stepping in this town
Sun went down in honey
They’re a band beyond description
Keep on dancing through to daylight
AS WE KNOW,
there are five elements essential to life on this planet: earth, air, fire, water, and music. You can’t mess with that harmonic convergence or the earth starts to shift off its axis, causing random gusts of gale-force wind, sudden sinkholes, spontaneous combustion, a great wave off the coast of Kanagawa, and a nasty case of dissonance. Me no likee.
I’M NOT FOX NEWS
They don’t have to be fair and balanced and neither do I. The San Francisco Symphony is on strike. That’s yesterday’s news, and I’m not here to ply you with the latest who how what where and when. As I write, an east coast tour was cancelled and the strike’s in its third week. Bummer. I’m not writing this as a journalist, a gonzo journalist, or even a writer–but as a music lover, plain and simple, who depends on this orchestra to feed my soul. They are my lifeline to that which I love most and cannot give myself, the overwhelming joy and power of a live symphony orchestra. That’s what I’m doing at Davies Hall. It’s all about the music. How it s’posed to be, anyway.
IF THE ORCHESTRA IS UNHAPPY,
I’m unhappy. If they feel they’re being dissed, I feel they’re being dissed. If they are being dissed, I am being dissed. However anyone feels about their pay scale and relative place in the scheme of things, we need to be damned proud to have them here. They’re one of the biggest reasons San Francisco gets to call itself “world class.”
AN ORCHESTRA IS A FAMILY
and a city is like a family, and our fair city is the most dysfunctional of all. Colorfully so, gotta give it that, but our families are being threatened by the outflux of quality souls who aren’t getting what they need here. Most of them don’t want to leave, but the tribes formed in the city and forged in fire of Burning Man are being dispersed around the Bay and beyond.
When you’re amongst family, you feel at home, you feel protected in your safe haven, and I’m sure many of us consider Davies a second home. Home as in “all’s right with the world,” as in greeting the sun with a violin, not a picket sign. My orchestra decided to strike, and that’s all I need to know. I stand behind family; I stand behind them.
The attorney for the plaintiffs in this action, the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony, is:
Whachoo got against me, man? Whaddid I ever do to you, man? You don’t even know me. Why you tryin’ to run me outta town? Man? You know, the man. He of the purple satin purse of golden coins. If he throws any your way, it is with a contemptuous sniff, at your feet, so he can watch you scramble for farthings amongst the sewer rats. (Isn’t that Mitt Romney over there?)
Because, Mr. Man, if you ran David Herbert, Principal Timpanist and 19-year veteran of the orchestra out of town, all the way to Chicago, what chance do the likes of me stand? A self-employed writer and seamstress trying to make it in the gig economy in San Francisco? Great big Hollywood HAH!
All I want is to live, sanely, decently, to listen to Bach…and to be able to pay my rent. There’s the rub.
For the purposes of this discussion, The Man will be referred to as Mr. Beale.
WHAT MAKES AN ORCHESTRA GREAT?
It’s the musicians, stupid! The musicians and the Music Director–this symbiotic team of alchemists together create an alternate space where you can leave the linked-in world behind (the rest of it is noise) for a blessed time. Turn your cell phone off? Leave it home! And don’t look at the trumpeters, it only encourages them. I love our Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas, but I’d like to see him up on the podium waving his arms around a stage of empty chairs and see how much music comes out of that room. And isn’t the music the point? S’posed to be. The man needs his orchestra back. We all do.
This orchestra, our opera, our museums, culture and art thrive here because we want to live in a society that offers a diversity of activities, lifestyles, and opportunities that attract the attention of the entire world. Do I give a spit about sports? No. Just as some of you don’t know there’s a world of classical music out there, sports barely enters my radar. Do I begrudge the Giants their salaries? No, they’re a tremendous money-making draw, bringing joy, beer, puking and fistfights to lots of folks because people like to play games with balls, and like to watch other people playing with balls, that’s all there is to it. They like to witness a dramatic conflict that ends in win and loss and cheer or moan about it. A little lifetime in two hours. Human nature. Are sports “worth” more than classical music? In a thriving city there has to be room for both, and it we’re blessed to have more than our share of champions here.
WE LIVE IN AN OVERPOPULATED WORLD
where the lowest common denominator disguised as talent will assuredly be inordinately successful. Justin Beiber, bland as a butter bean, and who once pronounced “the Sistine Chapel” as “the 16th Chapel,” has a net worth of $110,000,000. $110. Million. Dollars. Justin Bieber has done this because an army of screaming ‘tweens would rather spend their parents’ money on pink bubble gum than filet mignon. It’s a pacifier. Keeps them occupied. Obviously, the people who draw the biggest crowds–i.e., those who make most money for other people–are the ones to be paid the most money. So if anyone needs to complain about people richer than themselves, there are far more worthy targets than the civilized symphony members who give this city so much value.
our, or any, orchestra is irrelevant to the average San Francisco resident, like shot-put or the Bible are to me. But if we had no orchestra, much less this one, our street value would go way down. We would be far less rich a city. The Friscotown Musicians are an assemblage of cultured, brilliant, educated superstars, in my world, and I am honored to have them walk among us. And they’re a tourist draw. I am one who would travel to a city just to hear its orchestra. And when I have means, I will do just that, all around the world.
So granted that an orchestra may not be that important to many, perhaps most, people here in San Francisco, but if an orchestra is important to anyone at all, for the love of God, it should be to the orchestra itself! Davies Hall is their home, and home is for the protection of your loved ones, where you take care of them. Home is where you go when you’re troubled and need support. Home is where you stand behind family. If the head of the household, Mr. Beale, won’t do what needs to be done to keep the family happy, without that bond, folks start leaving home. They’re already out on the street.
should be to foster, nourish, and facilitate the orchestra, not indulge in power plays by being “unwilling to offer…an agreement that reflect[s] the success and health of the organization,” as the musicians put it in an open letter to east coast concert-goers, after their scheduled tour was cancelled. Like the President’s Chief of Staff makes his job easier, it should be the symphony organization’s business to make it easy for the players to concentrate on creating great music.
HEAVEN IS A PLACE MUCH LIKE SAN FRANCISCO…
undulant landscape over which the threat of seismic catastrophe hangs: more beautiful because imperiled. Potent yet dormant: the fault lines of creation!” said Tony Kushner in Angels in America,.
EXACTLY! THE FAULT LINES OF CREATION!
That is why we cannot introduce dissonance into our elemental structure: the earth will crack open and swallow us! When the big one hits, that will truly level the playing field, and family will mean everything. Only Uncle David won’t be there. He moved to Chicago…
No one is surprised that basketball players make more than teachers. You know how the world works. You have a skill, you offer a product or service, you are paid money. “They call it earning a living,” as Robert Mitchum once said. The scarcer your skill, the more it is valued, and the more money you are paid, because you’re the only one who knows how to set a tab stop in Word. You don’t have to be told that, and yet some of you are incensed that a musician makes so much more than you–and it’s still not enough!
gave a talk to Ericsson telcom in Sweden, and was paid $750,000. Three quarters of a million dollars for an evening’s appearance. He got $700,000 from a newspaper in Lagos, Nigeria, and $550,000 from a business forum in Shanghai. Half a mil is the low end for his presence at the podium. But out of seven billion people, only five can say “I was the leader of the free world.” NOW SHOW ME THE MONEY! If he gets laryngitis it costs him 5 mil. In 2011 he made $13.4 million. That would pay about 90 people’s $150,000 salaries for an entire year of work. Yet Justin Bieber is worth 3.5 times that. And look at him!
some begrudge these eminently trained, conscientious (and tastefully dressed) players, they who are at the top of their profession, an appropriate San Francisco living wage. Go rail on Clinton or Tom Brady, they could probably pay off the national debt while you scrounge for change amongst the lint in your hoodie pockets. Why should SFS members, whose rental market is twice as expensive as the national average, be making less than LA Philharmonic players, who can find on craigslist a 1-BR “with old Spanish charm,” in Beverly Hills, for $600 a month? Hell, I’ll take it! And they get to run their hands through Gustavo Dudamel’s hair. [Not true - Ed.] There is no such option here.
specifically about this strike, is that if you have a Bay Area mortgage, college-bound children, have worked for a company perhaps a decade or more, have a highly specialized skill that draws people from around the world, and serve as an ambassador for your city which has the highest cost of living in all the land, $141,000 starts to sound paltry. All things being equal, which they ain’t and never will be, I would double everybody’s salary effective immediately. In the rarified world of orchestral music, if you’re not being paid what the market will bear, chances are you’ll soon be packing your bags. Because you’re worth it, and someone else will surely validate that.
[The Mayor suggests that when you might say “He’s got too much baggage,” or “He comes with too much baggage,” to instead say “He comes with too much luggage.” It’s goofier. - Ed.]
If you’re not in their earning bracket and resent it (”why should they…”), it’s not because they are not worth what they’re paid, but because you haven’t done anything to earn being there yourself, according to this world’s values. Robert Mnookin, Director of the Harvard Negotiation Research Project and Steering Committee Chair, Program on Negotiation, says the players “are not getting rich by San Francisco standards,” but have a “decent” salary and compensation package.
called into KQED, having to agree with management, with a cogent argument against the strike:
As compelling as that argument is, this conflict between employer and employees is about the distribution of existing funds within the SFS organization, and nothing at all to do with average San Franciscans. Because guess why?
We’re average! Most humans are ordinary people. The defendants in this action are the Gold Medal Olympians of the classical music world. It’s not about us!
Let them compete on the open market, said another caller–hire former section players from other orchestras. “Plenty of musicians would take that job for far less.”
There’s always someone who will do your job for less! So common there’s even a name for it: China. The China Syndrome is where you can’t ask for what you’re worth, or you’ll have to move to Chicago to make way for your grateful replacement. Inversely, there’s always someone who will pay more for that perfect apartment you have zero chance of getting. (As long as we’re at it call a rent strike too!)
So the orchestra should not expect increases because they make $165,000 and incredulous bystander Debbie Whiner says “most of us would be happy with $60,000″? But how do you think an orchestra attracts star talent? There is no more effective, respectful (and appreciated) way to show appreciation for someone’s artistry than to pay them to produce it.
ISN’T IT CURIOUS
how the Mr. Beales of the world, when cuts are called for, can always find funds for their own raises or bonuses? Of course the Music Director makes more money than the players–Michael Tilson Thomas is the worldwide ambassador of the Symphony, and it is in our interest to keep a well established, award-winning conductor that brings kudos to our city on the podium. But at close to $2.5 million, compared to the senior player’s salary of $165,000, MTT is paid $2,300,000 more, 15x more, than is being paid to some of the world’s greatest musicians, who in conjunction with MTT, make this the Grammy-winning band it is. Seems a bit koyaanisqatsi to me.
Sure, orchestras don’t have the draw of the Superbowl to rake in funds for salaries, but the priorities demonstrated by the allocation of resources weighs heavily toward management and star power. It is not because Tilson Thomas, in the grand scheme of the orchestral world, is overpaid. He is not. If Buster Posey is worth it, he is worth it. His compensation is no doubt commensurate with the upper echelon of the conducting elite, and the only reason a baseball player might make more money is that ball games bring in more money for the owners. It’s the same old story–the disparity in pay scale for workers compared to management, does not compute.
AND WHY HAVE A STAR CONDUCTOR
if not to maintain, challenge and elevate the excellence of our orchestra? So we stand out as a member of the Big Five of the USA. So San Francisco can say, “This is the home of the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director. We couldn’t be prouder.” A local hero, our beloved MTT–such a passionate, enthusiastic, learned and gentle man–I first saw him years ago on TV playing a prepared piano, having no idea he would become one of the most important people in my life–my orchestra’s music director. Why are you interrupting his harmony with discord? Are you trying to lose him too?
Orchestras acknowledge the competition for staff and music directors and pay these salaries, because they lose their principal timpanist when they don’t. It comes down to, do you or don’t you want to live in a city that takes care of its own? Do you or do you not want to live in a city that prioritizes excellence? A city that supports artists and artisans, Chicken John’s City of Art and Innovation, or one that green-lights projects that price working stiffs right out of it? Only problem, when all the worker bees are gone, who’s going to service the Queen? And how will she maintain the hive?
In their open letter to the east coast-tour venues that had shows cancelled, the musicians explained, “We sincerely believe that the cause we are fighting for now will positively impact the level of orchestral music making in America,” saying that fair contracts are important “to attract the best and brightest willing to dedicate their lives to making and sharing beautiful music.”
MUSIC BRINGS PEOPLE TOGETHER,
and you, Mr. Beale, have driven them apart. A life of music is a happy thing, like God’s own birdsong on the sill, a positive life force that builds community. This could be the greatest time of your life, your stint serving the San Francisco Symphony. You’re running an orchestra, a famous cultural institution, not a car wash. These people deserve your highest respect. Instead, like websites who ask for your free content in exchange for exposure, when their website would not even exist without the free content, I wonder if you understand that you’re in the music business and the musicians are the ones who produce the music. Those wooden and brass things you see them carrying, plucking, bowing, blowing into, those are m-u-s-i-c-a-l i-n-s-t-r-u-m-e-n-t-s. Without the people who play them so expertly, there is no orchestra, no show, no box office, and no you. But you have disrupted my orchestra and messed with the natural order of things. Not acceptable.
I HAD JUST COME
from the picket line and got to talking with a fellow at the trolley stop. He admired my outfit and told me, “You give the city a flair.” “Then take my picture!” And we chatted about how hard it is for those with bohemian flair to survive in this hostile economic climate, how many have left over the years. “Tourists come to San Francisco expecting flair, and there won’t be any left!” he lamented. Tourists also come here expecting a world-class, Grammy-winning orchestra. How long before we lose that too? Now Adobe Books joins the lore of the way things used to be, a showroom of fancy men’s purple satin purses to take their place.
AGAIN I ASK YOU:
Whose San Francisco do you want to live in?
Because there is already a goofy contingent of San Franciscans who hold dual citizenship in Goof City. We can all move to our own corner, if you like. Isn’t there a toxic waste dump that’s not yet ready for development?
MR. BEALE, I WANT TO SMACK YOU
upside the haid! Nobody forks with my orchestra! I strenuously object to your epic failure to meet Mr. Herbert’s terms and my settlement offer is this: The symphony members give up nothing. They get everything they want and a 2% raise, today. You, Mr. Beale, are out. The management team is summarily fired (we’ll call in Donald Trump to do it) and replaced by music lovers who don’t operate in a cloud of “cultural disconnect,” as Herbert put it, but whose privilege and honor it is to contribute to the success of the outstanding cultural asset that is the San Francisco Symphony.
FOR WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO OFFER,
Mr. Beale, you yourself, that’s recognized around the planet, that will live after you die? Perhaps you’re blowing the opportunity for it right now. Perhaps it is your highly desirable job that so many would gladly do for far less, to husband and shepherd this great entity and make their working lives run smooth as a California kale-cucumber-avocado-spinach smoothie so they can share their brilliance with the rest of us, not to create conflict and watch them walk away. They need to come on stage proud, with a clear head and relaxed breath and play their hearts out for an adoring public. That is their job. Yours is to facilitate that. You exist because they exist. When was the last time you got a standing ovation in China?
YOU SPEND YOUR DAY
surrounded by people who are among the world’s best at what they do, who high-stepped into this town on horses breathing the fire of passion, devoting their lives to the pursuit of beauty. I had no idea there was backstage strife going on at the symphony–because I always just arrive, if lucky to get it, at my favored front orchestra seat of B103, where “the happy smiling face of the San Francisco Symphony,” Associate Principal Cellist Peter Wyrick (”Me?!” said he), floats above me, frequently sharing some secret amusement with Principal Michael Grebanier.
I just show up, prepared to be wowed by the brilliance of this ensemble and the lives of music they have come to share with us, their audience. It was a match made in heaven, and they have never failed me. They come dressed in formal wear for us, though some of us are in the front row wearing running shoes, because some of us were raised by wolves, and there was no sign of internal conflict because they are consummate professionals; every damn time they sit on down and take me into some sublime realm, as Hesse put it in Steppenwolf.
That, Mr. Beale, is what is going on up on that stage. That’s what your employees are doing, carrying us away on the golden track of the divine. It’s what their work and lives are about. Every individual among them is sharing a skill, for our listening pleasure, requiring a lifetime of training and dedication. They are part of a company that is one the “Big Five” in their field. They travel the world being cheered for what they do, and have picked up their industry’s highest accolade–15 times! Fifteen Grammy awards (including this year) and eight on their own SFS label. ’snot like they’re not doing their job! Are you doing yours, Mr. Beale, because for me, it was to keep David Herbert here.
BUT YOU BLEW IT, MR. BEALE
We lost him. He’s gone. He’s off to join that spitfire Muti in Chicagoland. And he didn’t even want to go. That is the sad state of affairs today. As I write on 3/30, talks have resumed and perhaps you’re all shaking hands even now. But settling the strike does not settle the issues it raises. It is a touchstone for how this city treats its artists–even the top tier among them. If Mr. Beale doesn’t care if David Herbert calls San Francisco home, it’s a bleak outlook for the rest of us. So this is your wake-up call that we are in danger of losing our best and brightest, because they will receive more respect and recognition elsewhere. I suggest you value and hold on to what you have.
Because recognition for professional services is indeed a salary appropriate to your standing, in the community and the world, your cost of living, and comparable to and competitive with those in your field. Would you rather see our players head south to LA? If not, then give them what they need to stay: respect in the form of pay parity with peer orchestras.
Your own orchestra website acknowledges:
And you let David Herbert, one of our Most Valuable Players, our Buster Posey, hit the bricks. That lays like lead in my heart. You done broke it, Mr. Beale. It’s like losing a smart brother-in-law or favorite uncle. One of the key, most loyal members of your organization, “tried for seven months to work out a deal with the management,” he said. “My intention was to stay. But the more I went through the process, the clearer it became that I just would not have the same opportunities here–either artistically or financially–that I would in Chicago.”
Your response: Don’t let the door hit your backside.
That was not a popular answer with this family member.
YOU KNOW WHO YOU REMIND ME OF,
Mr. Beale? One time I was at the laundry, and there was this foul-mouthed old virago badgering a young woman. They didn’t appear to be related as the wicked witch was white and the young one Asian, but she wailed on her the whole hour they were there. Who knows what their relationship was, but the young lady never responded to her and never put up a fight. It was a disgusting display and as they passed me in leaving I told the shrew, “You better start paying this young woman some respect or she’s not going to come to your funeral, y’ole bat!”
Her. You remind me of her. And you better start paying your orchestra some respect, or they won’t play at your funeral!
[Disclaimer: Nota bene–the author has no idea who comprises the management team at the San Francisco Symphony, their names or faces, positions or powers, or any inkling of their daily lives as fellow travelers on the planet earth; all she knows is this: that David Herbert had cause to say to them: “As an artist and an employee I want to be in a workplace where I am valued and supported by management, and where I am considered an asset rather than an inconvenience.” Shame on you, Mr. Beale.]
That is the state of things as they are today!
get off your freakin’ high horse! Come down to our level. We the people. These are sad times for Regular Joes and a hostile environment for flair. But we’re having so much more fun than you!
Goofery: I recommend it.
IN OTHER NEWS
8 Washington? Two words: Fuck you!
The moon went down in money
For the love of God, can we please get back to the music?
copyright Alexandra Jones 2013