The Arts: The Fractious Philadelphians

A year after the Orchestra went on strike, even psychotherapy hasn’t made the bitterness go away. Can’t they all just get along?

SWEEPING WESTWARD across Europe this past May, the Philadelphia Orchestra played with as much virtuosity as anyone could recall. From Warsaw to Amsterdam to Madrid, appreciative audiences rose to their feet and clamored for more. Amid the Orchestra’s triumphal return to world stage, it was easy to forget that only six months earlier the longest strike in the ensemble’s history had come to a grudging end. No outward sign suggested that the Orchestra was any different, post strike, than it had been before.

Well, maybe there were a couple of differences.

Sylvia Lafair is an Ambler family therapist who has branched out with her husband, Herb Kaufman, to work with dysfunctional organizations. Before the start of the European tour, one concerned board member, Carole Haas (as in Rohm & Haas), thought the strike-riven Orchestra looked as if it could use Lafair’s and Kaufman’s help. So she booked a couple of extra plane seats and paid for the corporate shrinks to accompany the 140-odd musicians, staff, board members, sponsors and devoted subscribers wherever they went.

Some players were receptive to the free therapy. Others were amused. When one of the healers asked principle oboe Richard Woodhams what ailed the Orchestra, he was heard to answer, "It’s very simple. We have a first-class orchestra and a third-class management." (An ex-board member with an equally simple but somewhat different diagnosis says, "The musicians have not accepted the fact that they’re entertainers, not artists. This is not the time of the Medicis.")

But still other musicians put up what a classical Freudian might facetiously term resistance. Partly it was the lingo that grated. "They were like a walking, talking self-help book," principal trumpet David Bilger would say later, still fIushed with the good fortune of not having been seated next to the couple on any flight. Even more irritating, though, was the therapists’ habit of indiscriminately laying their hands on their subjects. It could happen anywhere — at breakfast, say, a flautist with bed-head might be pouring a bowl of Meuslix when he’d feel the warm, empathic grip and hear the soothing words that let him know he had been "heard." In Amsterdam, one on-edge violinist was so bothered by the gesture that he nearly decked Lafair. "Stop touching me!" he yelled, brushing away the arm of the therapist. "Don’t touch me!’"

IT WAS A SIGHT, last fall, 100 of the greatest classical musicians on earth marching down Broad Street clutching polished hardwood pickets crowned with shrill union pronouncements — “Get Real, Mr. Benoliel” and “Kluger Is Kluless” read two of the valentines to Orchestra chairman Peter Benoliel and president Joe Kluger — while curbside, a stereo-appointed Teamsters trailer blasted Mozart and Chopin down the Avenue.

If the Fabulous Philadelphians — made famous around the world by Leopold
Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy — looked decidedly unfabulous as they stood before the Academy of Music spitting invective, their ire was hardly surprising. During contract, negotiations, the board had insisted on two give-backs, refusing to continue the musicians’ full-indemnity health plan and their "electronic media guarantee," whereby each player was assured of receiving at least an extra $6,000 a year, regardless of whether broadcasting and recording income justified it.