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?

WHEN, IN THE SIXTH week of the strike, Mayor Rendell dispatched his then-chief of staff to mediate, David Cohen immediately saw that the “minuet of collective bargaining," as he likes to call it, had gone woefully awry.

It is common for labor negotiations to begin with a mountain of demands on the table, a huge majority of which both sides soon recognize as junk and swiftly discard, leaving a manageable pile of core issues. But when Cohen entered the picture, he found not ten issues still on the table, nor even 20. Six weeks into the strike, the table still heaved under more than a hundred issues, mostly minutiae on the order of how first-class airplane seats should be allotted, and whether touring musicians should be provided bottled water, the latter of which Cohen came to derisively refer to as "the Perrier clause."

What the veteran mediator was getting a crash course in was the sometimes absurd, always arcane world of symphony orchestras.

A major symphony orchestra is a hazy agglomeration of a large corps of artist-employees, small managerial staff, unwieldy board of trustees and a pampered, jet-setting conductor. Joe Kluger makes around $230,000 a year and is held chiefly responsible by all parties for running the operation; at the same time, he is criticized for not being able to tie his shoes without the approval of all the former and current CEOs and wealthy benefactors on his board. Not that Kluger can always get a clear sense of direction out of the board, some of whose 48 members, says one former trustee, "spend more time getting manicures" than they do showing up for meetings. Conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch, responsible for achieving unity on stage, is, like his counterparts at the other major orchestras, little help off it. A highly paid (more man $1 million a year) absentee star, he spends only 15 weeks of the year with his orchestra before bopping off to lead other orchestras around the world, even as he’s viewed as short on the marketable charisma that orchestras now need to be competitive.

Then, of course, there are the musicians, 105 former prodigies who have been assured of their importance since childhood, only to see the orchestra world turned on its head in recent years. "Musicians in an orchestra are highly trained individuals," observes Ralph Craviso, the hard-line sometime airline labor negotiator who represented management during the strike. "But they’re told where to sit, what to play, how to play it, when to be there, what to dress in. It’s such a regimented group; with so much innate talent, that the way that frustration manifests itself is by their trying to control their environment through labor negotiations."