The Hidden Cost of the SF Symphony Strike
Yesterday I walked the picket line with the striking musicians of the San Francisco Symphony in front of Davies Hall. It was a lovely sunny day and the brass players serenaded us with everything from Bach to Scott Joplin. The crowd was mostly made up of musicians and their family members. There were also some folks from both the opera and ballet orchestras. A couple of members of Local 153 (the musicians’s union in the San Jose area) were also there. There were also some teachers and and at least one teamster there for “union solidarity”. I wish I had seen more media interest, but I am hopeful that the musicians will start to get more of their message out to the general public. It was lovely to walk the line with them and talk about favorite composers, performers, and performances that we have shared while I was sitting in the First Tier and they were playing on the stage or in the pit at the opera.
I also spent some time talking to a retired teamster who came out in solidarity with the striking musicians although he has never heard a live symphony concert. He was there on purely economic terms . . . workers being asked to take a wage freeze while managers get big bonuses. Same story in most corporate settings he tells me. Same thing as what is happening in places like Wisconsin with their union-busting governor leading the charge. No different than a trucking company or a shipping conglomerate, he tells me. True, enough, I’m sure.
But as I was listening to him and thinking about all the various comments to my first piece that focused on just the economics (and in some cases just whether I had the numbers right), I realized that I’m really tired of these arguments. Not everything can be accounted for using a cost-benefit analysis, even though the musicians still deserve a new contract using those terms.
When I worked as an opera stage manager many years ago, the head of the production department used to say, “And there is NO accounting for taste!”. For the most part, a good production often costs about the same amount of money as a bad production.
There really is no accounting for the value of the arts in a city and society. We can certainly rehearse the numbers in terms of impact on restaurants, hotels, tourism, and all those whose jobs exist in those places because there are still some of us who will spend money to attend live music concerts. And much of the mainstream media, owned by big business interests, has only discussed this strike in economic terms and without saying anything positive about the impact of the arts on the local economy either. Even some misguided New York music critics seem to be unable to write about the cultural value of maintaining a fine symphony orchestra at the top of their game in any terms besides money. Arghhh . . .
A growing body of evidence shows that training in the arts and in music is highly-beneficial for children and adults. (I am going to resist posting a zillion links here and just let the assertion stand) And yet music and arts education is always the first thing to go when cuts to schools happen. Music education has become a luxury that only the children of prosperous parents can afford. So when a child in San Francisco schools gets to attend a concert by the symphony or opera and is captivated by the music, they have very few options for exploring that interest if they do not have the economic power to seek lessons and training. And for some of those children, that could be the difference between life and death on the street. I’m pretty sure we’ve missed a few great talents too.
So the potential ruin of a great orchestra at the top of its’ game is just one more loudly-proclaimed assertion that music and the arts don’t matter. They don’t matter because they don’t generate big profits and they only benefit the rich and geeks like me who happen to love classical music and were fortunate enough (and old enough) to have gotten music lessons as a child. But what kind of a society will we be when the fine arts disappear all together?
In Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungen” and Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”, Alberich/Golam must curse love in order to possess the riches and power of the rheingold/the ring of power. This renunciation of love for power sets in motion the destruction of the gods and of the earth/middle earth. The old Norse myths that form the basis for these “big stories” touch on a central conflict in human nature about what matters most. Power or compassion? Wealth or wisdom? Do we retreat or advance as a culture? What matters most to us as a society, money or love?
Speculation is rampant that the Board of Governors of the San Francisco Symphony has some kind of hidden agenda at work in their rejection of the musician’s contract. Or maybe they are simply doing what my new teamster buddy suggests: extending the current union-busting craze to San Francisco. I don’t know and they aren’t talking. What damage might be done to an orchestra at the top of its’ powers with multiple-awards and an ecstatic fan base if this strike drags on? In economic terms, if management (under the direction of the board) continues to stick to the wage freeze and refuses to come back to the negotiating table, I believe their actions will prove to be more expensive just in terms of ticket refunds rather quickly. Their recalcitrance is already having a negative economic effect on the businesses around Davies Hall and with the cancellation of the Spring tour, a negative effect in New York and Washington, D.C.
I would like to invite this group of longtime (and very generous and admirable) arts patrons who serve on the Board of Governors to close their eyes for a moment and remember why they became supporters of the symphony in the first place. Maybe it was a special concert early in life or maybe one they heard just last year that brought tears to the eyes or a moment of joy. I don’t believe any of them joined the Board of the Symphony for solely economic reasons, so why make such a big (and potentially disastrous) point over a relatively small amount of money when the stakes are actually much higher?