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A Struggling City -- and Symphony

Is classical music elitist? Is going to the orchestra only for the bourgeois? And who cares if a group of high-paid musicians are protesting a pay cut?

These are the questions Detroiters must ask themselves over the next few weeks – because the answers very well may have a long-term impact on whether the Detroit Symphony Orchestra remains relevant to this city. (More on See pictures of Detroit's beautiful, horrible decline)

I recently had a chance to talk to Haden McKay, DSO Cellist and spokesperson for the musicians. This group of 85 musicians is facing a nearly 30 percent pay cut as they renegotiate their contract, which expires Sunday. Negotiations have stalled, and the musicians are going to the public in hopes of getting their version of the story out there. Read more in The Detroit News and about the DSO's struggles in Time magazine.

For McKay and his fellow musicians, the issue is not about pay; they know sacrifices have to be made. It is about the quality of the orchestra, the kind of talent it can draw and whether the DSO will remain a top-notch cultural organization representing the city of Detroit. Just limping through until the “good times” return isn't enough, McKay argues.

“At the end of these negotiations, we want to see some vision for what the orchestra will continue to be after a few years, especially in a recession,” McKay said. (More on See 10 things to do in Detroit)

Brief Interruption: Perhaps you too have taken a pay cut or may have lost your job. Your family may be in peril of losing a home. I'm not trying to make light of that. The past two years have been brutal in many ways. But I want Detroit to have every advantage that a great city should have, and I do worry that losing our world-class orchestra is the start of a very bad situation.

Back to the story: McKay noted in our discussion that Detroit has long suffered from image problems (what a nice way of saying it!). And much of our city's fortunes are identified with cyclical businesses, includes the auto industry. But Detroit has enjoyed decades of positive representation through the DSO. We have one of the best orchestras in the world here.

People know us by our music: classical through the DSO and its recordings; Motown and its brilliant artists; even rap and R&B through guys like Kid Rock, Eminem and many, many more. (More on See pictures of 50 years of Motown)

To that end, the orchestra is only as good as its musicians. And to attract the best – just like a sports team! – you have to offer competitive pay, McKay said. The musicians are more than willing to take pay cut, but there has to be a plan to get the orchestra back off the ground, get wages back up to snuff and keep this organization moving forward. (Hard to argue with that…we love our sports here, and we know that money talks.)

“Don't just plod ahead. You have to be willing to pull out of that,” McKay said of management's seeming desire to lay low until ticket sales, donations and corporate support returns. “Other cities have been through tough times. We have to have some groundwork for the future. You're dealing with something that's taken many decades to build up to a certain level; for short term expediency, it doesn't make sense to compromise.”

McKay remembers a former musical director who said, “An orchestra is not a car. You can't smash it up and fix it. It's a tree, and if you cut it down, you have to plant a new tree.”

He added: “People in the Detroit have access to first-rate music here. It's too painful to see something that was really really good become sort-of good. We (as musicians) expect to participant in sacrifices – but we want to be somewhere at the end.” (More on Read about the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's Civic Youth Ensembles)

Parting thought on my end – if we want these organizations to survive this dark time in our history, we need to get out there. Buy some tickets. Do some fund raising. Talk up our groups. It's something many groups out there also support, like Let's Save Michigan. I'll do my part…

And if you want to get your own take on the story, you can meet with the DSO musicians from 12:30-1:30 p.m. Thursday at Campus Martius Park for a lunchtime meet and greet/concert with park goers and their fans.

“We really want the community to understand the real issues at hand,” said McKay. “We think taking to the streets, meeting people, shaking hands and playing a few pieces for them is a great way to raise the visibility of the issues at hand and we hope people will come out and support us on the 26th.”

In addition, the musicians will also be giving away pairs of free tickets to their upcoming two concerts: 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept.11, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 19, at Kirk in the Hills, 340 West Long Lake Road in Bloomfield Hills. (More on See TIME's special report “The Committee To Save Detroit”)

Footnote: Just wanted to add this quote from Weigang Li, one of two violinists for the Shanghai Quartet. He was in town this past February as part of the Chamber Music Society of Detroit's Two-Week Ensemble Residency Program. He said the following about how he manages to teach classical music to students from elementary through high school:

Our greatest ally is our music because a lot of it is the greatest music of all music. One of the greatest genres is Western classical music. We call it classical not because it's old; it's because it's the pinnacle of something. It's something very special. The kids get very excited and hopefully they'll want to hear it a second and third time. And they'll want to pick up an instrument and learn. … I always believe as a human being if you know music, your life is richer. You should more than one kind of music – good music ideally. The more important thing is if you have music in your life, it's like you have color in your life.

For more information about the DSO Musicians, including updates about their ongoing negotiations with DSO Management, please visit here.

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  • 1

    Someone please enlight me.

    The pay for the musicians seems to be quite high. According to the Detroit News they earn $104,000 per year.

    How many performances do they make? How much time is devoted to rehersal? How many people attend symphony performances?

    All the other local unions have made drastic cuts. Why shouldn't the musicians' compensation reflect the current economic climate? The last two years the symphony has lost $8.5 million. It appears the only variable expense is the payroll.

    What other options are there?

  • 2

    Some of these players make more than a few Lions football players, just kidding. But the make good money.

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