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?

The musicians might have been more amenable had they been better disposed to their management and trustees, but in past decade the Orchestra had spent
millions of dollars on a concert hall on which ground hadn’t even been broken. The musicians had seen their board lose $1.5 million to the New Era scandal. In just the past year, Pew Charitable Trusts had withdrawn operating support, citing the Orchestra’s deficit and shaky fiscal strategy, and in August, EMI had chosen not to renew its contract, leaving the Philadelphia without a recording deal for the first time since 1944.

In some ways, the musicians’ predicament was that of all orchestral musicians in the United States, where unionization has priced Americans out of a recording market that has itself been decimated by the invention of the compact disc (whose durability diminishes the need for new recordings); this at a time of flagging ticket sales, an arid funding climate and waning music education in schools. But the musicians here couldn’t help noticing that the Philadelphia seemed even more burdened than its peers. And so, beginning last September 16th, they hit the bricks, and stayed there for 64 days. When the musicians settled on November 18th, they had achieved little more than calling attention to their unhappiness. And even as the settlement suggested conciliation, the musicians’ 54-47 vote undercut notions of any deep-seated unity.

A year after the strike began, and ten months after it ended, the Orchestra is closing the wounds. Some of the musicians who yelled at or ignored Kluger and Benoliel last fall have approached them in private and apologized for their behavior. Players have taken seats on the board and its committees, one of which is crafting a long-range plan that seriously addresses the Orchestra’s adverse circumstances. But an abiding mistrust of Benoliel and Kluger poisons the air. There are still eruptions of orchestral trash talk, as when a string player says of Kluger, “The real issue was his poor leadership and no-win vision.” There continue to be musicians who will say things like, “Maybe he’s trying to achieve something as chairman of a great orchestra that he couldn’t achieve as a violinist." That’s first violin Herbert Light on Benoliel, the former head of Quaker Chemical who has played violin since he was eight. Ouch.

Sylvia Lafair, still reeling from her experience on the European tour, has come to view the Orchestra as "a hornet’s nest." She and her husband were actually one of several attempts to get the Orchestra on the couch. Psychoanalyst Emanuel Garcia had held earlier meetings with Kluger and Benoliel, and four other therapists and facilitators of various stripes have auditioned as well. Even so, no one has been selected, no category of professional agreed on, and even the need for such a person has become a matter of dispute. "I don’t need some outside person to come in and tell me I’m unhappy because my mother did something to me when I was three," said one musician at a meeting in mid-July. Chimed in a colleague: "I’ll be happy when we have recording and broadcasting deals."