Books: Oboe Jungle

Bach, Beethoven, and Bureaucracy,
by Edward W. Arian, University of Alabama Press, $7.50, 168 pp.

ED ARIAN WAS 26 and still idealistic in the autumn of ’47 when he got the call to report to the Academy of Music and take a back seat in the bass section of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

To a young Curtis Institute of Music graduate, this was the summons to Valhalla, the Rheingold at the end of a 20-year pursuit of a place in the dignified dreamworld at Broad and Locust.

With his wife and infant in tow, Arian lugged his bass violin and little else in his jubilant flight from Denver. He did not, of course, ask questions: When Maestro Eugene Ormandy, godlike kapellmeister of the most successful and prestigious symphony in America, beckoned, who would think to quibble?

Inside a few weeks, however, Arian was playing a slightly different tune. Ever so discreetly, he began asking questions. Like, how in hell was he supposed to feed his family when the Orchestra paid him only 26 weeks a year?

(Get a summer job, he was told. The Robin Hood Dell, if you’re lucky. That’ll give you eight more weeks’ pay before you have to go, hat in hand, to the Orchestra paymaster to plead for an advance against next year’s pay. And there’s an opening at a candy factory in South Philly, you can always get work there, that should round out the summer nicely.)

As his starry-eyed gaze quickly jaundiced, Arian could detect disillusionment among other virtuosos in the frayed formalwear crawling the acoustical walls around him.

Behind the velvet strains of Philadelphia’s lush sound, Arian’s attuned ear picked out more and more flat notes: yawning, as bored fiddlers bowed in unison through Tchaikovsky’s Fifth for the 555th time, making it and every other composition somehow sound like a Viennese waltz; fuming, as the frustrated musicians had to ignore bright, new, time-consuming works to rehearse the hackneyed old crowd-pleasers; grumbling, as they jostled through the night on endless train rides, raced through imperfect recording sessions shackled by the Orchestra’s reluctance to pay overtime for perfection; preening one week for royal receptions and standing in unemployment lines or driving Good Humor trucks to subsist the next.

What Arian first thought was a necessary caste system revolving around the slow climb from the back to the front chairs, he soon came to construe as a needless, deadening, anti-artistic bureaucracy.

In the ’50s and early ’60s, Ed Arian was one of a handful of Orchestra members who collaborated in creating a discordant new element in the once-harmonious world of the symphony orchestra-militant union-ism.

Year after year, they grew more adamant in their demands for a living wage, the freedom to proselytize for the new music and the new audience, for an end to the conductor’s arbitrary power and, indeed, the right by vote to dismiss him. And for years they failed.

It would take nearly 20 years before their bitterness broke into the open and staid concert-goers, in the epochal eight-week strike of ’66, heard the angry song that had formed in Arian’s mind in that candy factory in the sweltering summer of ’48.

In the five years since Arian helped prod his fellow musicians to that drastic strike, there has been little apparent dissension at the Academy of Music.
Now the highest paid band of classical artists anywhere, they receive a $16,400 starting salary, seven weeks’ annual vacation, half-pensions, comfortable travel allowances, a 52-week contract. First chair players can earn $30,000 a year. Nobody drives an ice cream truck these days.

But, according to Arian, this new prosperity thinly masks the raw scar tissue deposited by a quarter-century of dissension. Next year, when the union contract expires at the same time the precious RCA recording arrangement comes up for renegotiation, both the board of directors and the union negotiators will face the same old pains. The ugly wounds could open again, Arian asserts.