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?

Some musicians are sensitive to the fact that, in the nonprofit symphony business, the people they find themselves pitted against are not profiteers but their own benefactors; in dealing with management and the board, they try to walk a careful line between strenuous persuasion and effrontery. But orchestras are, after all, made up of distinct instruments and personalities, soloists and section players. Over half the corps are strings; the vaunted Philadelphia Sound refers to the velvet that has long been produced by those violins, violas, cellos and basses. In labor matters, however, strings are also historically the most strident. "It’s difficult for us to be openly militant," explains a soloist from a different section, pointing out that most instrument sections have only a few people in them, two of whom might be soloists with individual bonuses and contracts and a reason not to make waves, while the lumpen proletariat of the string sections has less to lose. Peter Benoliel believes it goes deeper than that. "There’s a lot of literature on this," he says. "Much of the frustration in orchestras comes from the string players. They all started with visions of being the next Jascha Heifetz. As they get older, they go to conservatory and reality begins to dawn on them."

It’s easy to see how, as the economic and cultural tides have turned against orchestras, things can get personal. And how, when an orchestra is in crisis — as the Philadelphia was in the latter part of 1996, struggling with the lowest endowment among the Big Five, an abortive concert-hall project, the folly of New Era and the yanked recording deal — the backstabbing and venom can spin out of control. Then Kluger, acting on orders from the board, threatened to take away the full-indemnity health plan and the electronic media guarantee. To make matters worse, management called in Craviso, whom the musicians perceived to be a union-buster. And in a magnificent act of self-mutilation, on the strike’s second day the musicians refused play at the season’s opening gala — the proceeds of which would have benefited their own pension fund. (The previous gala had netted $219,000.) "Every orchestra has an adversarial relationship with management," says a former staff member. "This goes way beyond adversarial. This is a situation that’s sick."

 

A COMMON CRITICISM of Kluger is that he lacks imagination, and in his office decor there is a certain platitudinous element: Post-It notes with inked sayings like “This Too Shall Pass” and “There Is No ‘I’ In Team”; a “Just Do It” bumper sticker; a self-made sign that says “Stop Global Whining.” On his coffee mug, “Whining” is circled and slashed. The screensaver on his computer is a pink text loop that scrolls sideways across a blue filed: “Nike…Just Do It…The Only Constant Is Change…” and, yes, “Stop Global Whining.”