MID-APRIL 2011: The Nightmare Ends

MID-APRIL 2011: The Nightmare Ends
April 15, 2011 leonard slatkin

It took six months, interminable meetings and ultimate patience, but the strike that beset the Detroit Symphony Orchestra finally ended. After maintaining a self-imposed silence, I was able to greet my orchestra with the simple words, “Welcome home.”

Not that the two days leading up to the first rehearsal were all that easy. We had learned that there were massive negotiating sessions taking place over the weekend, and when the two parties emerged, the basis for an agreement had taken place. Although it remained for the membership of the orchestra to vote on ratification, everyone agreed that the best medicine was to get back to the Orchestra Hall stage as soon as possible.

There were just nine weeks remaining in the schedule, at least if one counted the subscription concerts, pops and other single events. This week would have seen the conclusion of a three-week Beethoven Symphony cycle. Clearly that would not take place, as I was now only available for two weeks. We all agreed that the first performances needed to be one of healing and contrition, so two free concerts were put on instead.

There was much to do before the first rehearsal. The previous day, we spent the entire time working out exactly what would happen for the remaining weeks. It was important to get a grasp on what the contract would allow. There had never been any attempt to have the musicians doing anything other than performing as members of the DSO. All the talk of clerical work and unpaid chamber music simply disappeared. What remained, however, was a beginning of a new chapter in the orchestra’s storied history. We would be going out in the community on a regular basis.

Please understand that our home base is one of the finest concert halls in the world. The acoustics suit my taste and temperament as if I had designed the hall. It is warm, favors a rich sound and has plenty of dynamic contrast. It is also not as big as most of the major concert venues in the U.S. This is a facility to treasure and there is no thought as to abandoning it as our place of residence.

But our constituent audiences, as well as most everyone in the orchestra, live in suburban communities. In order to reach and expand our public, we must go to them, for the time being. This was made evident with the orchestra members’ self-produced concerts that were held during the strike. They made it possible to build a new audience, one that felt more comfortable in their own backyards. Our goal will be to play several series in these neighborhoods and invite them to come to our house as well.

In relatively short order, the programs for the rest of the season were set. All of the scheduled guest conductors were still available. It was decided that there would be a $20 charge for all tickets. The hope was that filling the house for each performance outweighed the need for immediate cash from the box office. The only exception would be the concerts that signaled our return. These would be free and on a first come, first served basis.

During the first four hours when this was announced, phone lines were flooded. More than 6,000 requests came in at that time. We had to shut the hot line down for a short time. The general rule of thumb for non-paid events is that you give away about 1/3rd more than there are seats, allowing for no-shows. None of us realized that the demand and the actual number of people in attendance would be close to equal.

Selecting the program for this concert was not too difficult. It needed to be celebratory and familiar. The Candide Overture was the logical start, followed by a John Williams work entitled Summon the Heroes. While we were gone, the world lost many people due to ongoing strife, environmental disasters as well as personal tragedy. We needed to honor their memory and Barber’s Adagio for Strings once again was put into service. Gershwin’s An American in Paris rounded out the first half.

Staying with the American theme, we presented the “New World Symphony” as the main work, finishing up with Copland’s Hoedown for an encore.

At the first rehearsal, I insisted that there be no speeches to the orchestra. Nothing from management or board, although many chose to come and greet the orchestra members personally as they filed in to the Max. Most of the musicians seemed relieved to be back, with some skeptical about what was to be faced. I held a press conference 30 minutes before going on stage.

After a few housekeeping chores from the personnel manager as well as the spokesperson for the musicians, it was my turn. My words were simple: “Welcome home”. We launched into the Dvorak and the familiar sound of our hall once again came alive. This rehearsal was mostly for purposes of getting reacquainted, so not much detail work seemed appropriate, although we would go into fine tuning mode once in a while.

The downbeat felt like the most important I had ever given.

Rather then going up to my dressing room, I spent the intermission talking with some of the musicians on stage. They spoke about the hardships that were endured during the layoff. Some who had performed with other orchestras commented on how wonderful it was to be back in our hall, with acoustics that allow each musician to hear one another. By the end of this single rehearsal, a few members said that they were tired. I took this as a good sign.

The contract itself still needed a ratification vote from the membership. This was completed the next day and we were now officially back in business. But it was also clear that some of the tensions that surfaced during the negotiations were still in the air. The agreement is quite concessionary on the part of the musicians. Now the onus of responsibility falls to the board, as they have to come up with money for salaries, paying off the huge debt to the banks, and building a sustainable endowment.

Although it was already a power packed week, I took the time to attend two concerts by local ensembles, featuring members of the DSO. The first was a group called New Music Detroit. Their program was held at the Detroit Institute for the Arts, and was jam-packed. Terrific performances all around. Just before our concert at the Max, another DIA event featured the Cut Time Simfonica, headed by one of our double bass players, Rick Robinson. Once again there was a sizable audience and a most enthusiastic public.

The doors of the Concert Hall opened at 6 and an hour later, most of the seats were full. An overflow crowd of about 500 jammed into the Music Box, and would witness the event via closed circuit television. Because more tickets were issued than we had seats, a few disgruntled patrons had to be turned away. They were given vouchers for future concerts.

In the manner of most American orchestras, our concerts begin with the orchestra on stage and the concertmaster making an entrance. For this occasion, I asked them to do it in the European manner. 10 minutes prior to the starting time, the stage was cleared and the members of the orchestra hung out in the backstage areas. No announcements were made and at 8:05, the doors opened and the musicians filed in.

You would have thought that Kid Rock had stepped on stage! The ovation that greeted our players was unlike anything I had ever seen or heard for a symphony orchestra. It was clear that this audience was not only welcoming the orchestra back, they were showing support and love for each and every one of the musicians. It took at least two minutes before the orchestra could tune.

My role was not only to conduct, but also serve as host and commentator. Remarks were kept to a minimum, as I wanted to have the music take center stage. The only acknowledgement of an audience member took place before the Gershwin, when I introduced Rocco Landesman, chairman of the NEA, to everyone. He received a hearty welcome, and Detroit now had a strong advocate in Washington.

In many ways, this concert was a reminder of what had been missed, but more important was the signal that we were back in business and moving forward. All of us are in uncharted territory as we find our voice. On this night however, there was no question about the newfound relationship between the orchestra and its audience.

Under the new contract, we can be much more flexible as regards media. The Sunday performance would be broadcast on radio, available as a stream on the Internet and televised that evening.

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