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THE MODERN SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA:
Turmoil, Liberation and Redemption

This article, 1997 by Douglas Yeo, was first published in a Festschrift titled
THE OIL IS OUR WORSHIP: THE WATER IS OUR SERVICE published by
Wheaton College (IL) in May 1997 in honor of the retirement of
Dr. Harold M. Best, Dean of the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music.




No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied;
no matter how much we hear, we are not content.

Ecclesiastes 1:8 (NLT) (1)


As I write these words, the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra have recently agreed to settle a contentious strike. Voting 100-0 to reject their management's final contract offer, they went without a paycheck for over ten weeks, walking picket lines and attempting to elicit support from a public who did not hear music at the Academy of Music for many an evening. The primary reason for their strike: they believed their management was incompetent.

In 1984, John Williams, then conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, put down his baton during a rehearsal, announced to the orchestra, "I quit," and abruptly left the stage. The impetus for this dramatic action: a member of the orchestra audibly hissed after sightreading an arrangement of music made by one of the conductor's friends.

During a recent guest conducting engagement, Cleveland Orchestra Music Director Christoph von Dohnanyi suddenly "took ill" and returned home. When he was seen in apparent good health shortly thereafter, news reports gave a different reason for his hasty departure: he did not feel the orchestra he was conducting was giving him the respect he felt he deserved.


Recent studies have pointed out the fact that orchestral musicians as a group show significant conflicting emotions regarding their chosen profession. (2) In a survey of professional orchestra musicians and workers in other professions in the United States, Great Britain and Germany (3), data concluded that orchestra musicians scored the highest in terms of having personal, self-directed internal motivation. However when asked whether they were generally satisfied with their job, orchestra musicians ranked seventh out of 13 categories, below federal prison guards and just above industrial production teams. The results were even more distressing when asked about whether their job provided personal growth and development, where orchestra musicians ranked ninth.

In a now legendary discussion, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra Managing Director Ernest Fleischmann and New Criterion writer Samuel Lipman engaged in a spirited debate about the health of the modern symphony orchestra. (4) Fleischmann stated, ". . . life even in some of the great orchestras became increasingly frustrating: repetitive or boring repertoire, loss of musical identity, particularly for string players, incompetent conductors, bad hall, not enough money, much stress. No life for a real musician this, with little opportunity to develop as an artist, let alone as a human being. Dissatisfaction, frustration, antagonism, boredom - all these still exist among musicians in orchestras everywhere. . ."

Fleischmann's observations are those of a seasoned orchestra manager; he surely is in a position to watch the actions and attitudes of orchestral musicians on a day to day basis. Since his gloomy assessment of the state of the symphony orchestra, others have attempted to identify why it is musicians seem so unhappy with their lot.

Seymour and Robert Levine have defined a number of stressors that face musicians that cause players to be discontented in their jobs. These include:

All of these can be summed up as the fact that orchestral musicians suffer from a fundamental lack of control in their profession. Regrettably, beyond suggesting that musicians attempt to exercise more control over their work environment (in mostly vague, unspecified ways), the researchers Levine offer scant hope for a significant change from the apparently dismal status quo.

To the outside observer, the prospect of a group of people who currently work at a profession for which they were trained, are paid a comfortable wage, receive up to 10 weeks of paid vacation a year and nightly experience the thrill of over 2000 people rising to their feet shouting "bravo," complaining about their day-to-day work life strikes many as both oxymoronic and silly. "Give me a job like that," some might say, "and I'd be a happy man."

Really?


Present Tense

It was Spring, But it was Summer I wanted,
The warm days, And the great outdoors.

It was Summer, But it was Fall I wanted,
The colorful leaves, And the cool, dry air.

It was Fall, But it was Winter I wanted,
The beautiful snow, And the joy of the holiday season.

It was Winter, But it was Spring I wanted,
The warmth, and the blossoming of nature.

I was a child, But it was adulthood I wanted,
The freedom, And the respect.

I was 20, But it was 30 I wanted,
To be mature, And sophisticated.

I was middle-aged, But it was 20 I wanted,
The youth, And the free spirit.

I was retired, But it was middle age I wanted,
The presence of mind, Without limitations.

My life was over.

But I never got what I wanted.

(Jason Lehman)


The poet eloquently sums up our restless reality. The capacity to find fault with one's lot in life - however good it may seem to an outsider - and expend vast amounts of time complaining about it appears to be a uniquely human characteristic. Going back to our Biblical parents, Adam and Eve, the desire for something more than we have appears to be the first of many temptations faced by men and women. That we give in so easily and are so conveniently self-deluded in thinking that our lot will be forever changed "If I only could have ..... (you fill in the blank)" makes the situation all the more frustrating. Because after pursuing and achieving our professional goals, we still find ourselves lacking.

Mario Cuomo, in a 1984 commencement address at Iona College (New Rochelle, New York), spoke of this harsh reality in a powerful way as he spoke over the students to their parents:


So you think [our sons and daughters] would believe us if we told them today, what we know to be true: That after the pride of obtaining a degree and maybe later another degree and after their first few love affairs, that after earning their first big title, their first shiny new car and traveling around the world for the first time and having had it all - they will discover that none of it counts unless they have something real and permanent to believe in?

Tell me, ladies and gentlemen, are we the ones to tell them what their instructors have tried to teach them for years?

That the philosophers were right. That Saint Francis, Buddha, Muhammad, Maimonides - all spoke the truth when they said the way to serve yourself is to serve others; and that Aristotle was right, before them, when he said the only way to assure yourself happiness is to learn to give happiness.

Don't you remember that we were told all this when we were younger? But nevertheless, we got caught up in the struggle and the sweat and the frustration and the joy of small victories, and forgot it all. Until recently when we began to look back.

How simple it seems now. We thought the Sermon on the Mount was a nice allegory and nothing more. What we didn't understand until we got to be a little older was that it was the whole answer, the whole truth. That the way - the only way - to succeed and to be be happy is to learn those rules so basic that a carpenter's son could teach them to an ignorant flock without notes or formulae. (6)


A popular maker of sports apparel designed a t-shirt with the slogan, "Whoever dies with the most toys - still dies." The uncomfortable truth of the slogan caused them to drop the shirt from their line, perhaps because customers did not want to be reminded of what the writer of Ecclesiastes so insightfully had to say about the matter:

So I hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was grievous to me; because everything is futility and striving after wind. Thus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the fruit of my labor for which I have labored by acting wisely under the sun. This, too, is vanity.

Ecclesiastes 2:17-19 (NASB) (7)


In October 1992, I found myself on tour in South America with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Our most recent collective bargaining agreement had expired in September of that year and negotiations were continuing through the fall in hopes of reaching a settlement. Throughout the course of the tour, many meetings were held among the players themselves and between players and management as my colleagues wrestled with the thorny issues that faced them. Talk of a strike loomed, and bitterness and unhappiness, rancor and discord were palpable forces that faced us daily. As is often the case when I am confronted with a confusing situation, I turned to the Bible for counsel, comfort and guidance. And, as always, I found exactly what I needed.

In a long letter to myself titled, Musings on a Time in Music: Confusion, Contract, Colleagues and Conductor, I groped to discern what God's Word had to say to me about my life. I was aware of the discontent all around me; I had a clear grasp of the issues and saw but a few possible solutions. Yet through all the discord and difficulty, I found myself virtually alone among my colleagues in having sense of both inner and outer peace concerning the situation. I liked playing the trombone; I truly enjoyed (and still enjoy) performing as a member of the Boston Symphony. So what really was at the root of the problem? What could be the solution to our rancorous situation - how could we move from contention to contentment?


What is crooked cannot be straightened,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.

Ecclesiastes 1:15 (NASB)


It is clear that the current turmoil in the modern symphony orchestra world is being evaluated from precisely the wrong point of view. Analysts, as noted previously, look for ways musicians can gain more control over their work environment. Surveys of players seek to find the most "inspirational" conductors, and artistic administrators try to play programs that will both stimulate terminally jaded symphony musicians while appealing to the musical wants and desires of a public that increasingly prefers Pabulum to prime rib.

But Ecclesiastes tells us that we are looking at all of this through the wrong lens. All of our striving is indeed "meaningless" or "vanity." We cannot straighten what is crooked; we cannot correct that which is lacking. My colleagues would be well to consider the words of Martin Luther in his great Reformation hymn, " A Mighty Fortress Is Our God":

Did we in our own strength confide
our striving would be losing.


I see around me such deep unhappiness among orchestral musicians which clearly comes from the consequences of spiritual rebellion. This fact, however, is rarely or ever acknowledged in the constant struggle to assign blame for dissatisfaction. Instead, focus is placed on the work environment, as if were all the problems there corrected, all would be right with the world. Instead of addressing the difficult reality of a confused or vacant spiritual condition and the inevitable consequences of such, many of my colleagues in the music industry concentrate their ire on the incompetent management, the boring conductor, the loud brass players, the lack of inspiration coming from the podium, the lack of personal recognition, the lack of parking near Symphony Hall and unfulfilled job expectations. Thus the forest is lost for the trees.

I have, then, a suggestion.

Man cannot turn back the clock. We cannot recapture the Garden. Sin and rebellion are with us until Christ comes again to redeem His People. But perhaps, just perhaps, the key to redemption in the modern symphony orchestra is as near to us as the sage words of Scripture.

Dream with me. Could we who know the "Truth that sets us free" spread the good news of a new possibility for the symphony orchestra?

The Apostle Paul provides the perfect model for the workings of a cohesive ensemble. While he was addressing the various abilities of members of the Church, there is much that could be applied to the workings of the modern symphony orchestra.

For even as the body is one and {yet} has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I am not {a part} of the body," it is not for this reason any the less {a part} of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I am not {a part} of the body," it is not for this reason any the less {a part} of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired.

1 Corinthians 12:12-18 (NASB)


Consider the impact of these words. Could the model of interdependence and cooperation that Scripture posits for the church be applied to the symphony orchestra? Could we actually deny ourselves the need for personal recognition and instead realize that success can be defined as how the WHOLE interacts and performs, rather than focusing on the individual? Such an orchestra would have players content to perform their role. Conductors content to perform their role. Managers content to perform their role. And all working together as one body, with unity of purpose. No competition, no feelings of lesser worth, no arrogance. Working together. Being willfully submissive one to another.

Brass players simply functioning as feet, section second violinists as hands, oboists as eyes, conductors as ears - and all dependent upon one another for the good of one another.

Imagine, now, the implications of the following:

When pride comes, then comes dishonor
But with the humble is wisdom.

Proverbs 11:12 (NASB)

Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge,
But he who hates reproof is stupid.

Proverbs 12:1 (NASB)

Let another praise you, and not your own mouth;
A stranger, and not your own lips.

Proverbs 27:2 (NASB)

Humility rather than pride. Discipline rather than rebellion. Satisfaction rather than discontent. A radical move from turmoil to liberation.

And as if we need yet a stronger reminder of the need for us to use our gifts, talents and abilities in ways that are pleasing to the Father, could we not consider how the following could change our lives:

For {it is} just like a man {about} to go on a journey, who called his own slaves, and entrusted his possessions to them. And to one he gave five talents, to another, two, and to another, one, each according to his own ability; and he went on his journey. Immediately the one who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and gained five more talents. In the same manner the one who {had received} the two {talents} gained two more. But he who received the one {talent} went away and dug in the ground, and hid his master's money.

Now after a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. And the one who had received the five talents came up and brought five more talents, saying, 'Master, you entrusted five talents to me; see, I have gained five more talents.' His master said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful slave; you were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things, enter into the joy of your master.' The one also who {had received} the two talents came up and said, 'Master, you entrusted to me two talents; see, I have gained two more talents.' His master said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful slave; you were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' And the one also who had received the one talent came up and said, 'Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no {seed.} 'And I was afraid, and went away and hid your talent in the ground; see, you have what is yours.'

But his master answered and said to him, 'You wicked, lazy slave, you knew that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I scattered no {seed.} Then you ought to have put my money in the bank, and on my arrival I would have received my {money} back with interest. Therefore take away the talent from him, and give it to the one who has the ten talents.'

For to everyone who has shall {more} be given, and he shall have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away. And cast out the worthless slave into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 25:14-28 (NASB)


We have now moved from the speculative to the real. When we realize that we are servants of the True Master, we can fully grasp that our gifts are not given to us simply for our own use and enjoyment, or for the gratification of our own fallen egos. Being stewards of our talents necessitates a willingness to be humble and be part of a group that is not perfect; to accept praise and honor for the collective efforts of the many and not demand praise directed to ourselves. Because our talents are not our own, but rather they are entrusted to us by a loving Creator, we dare not use them selfishly. When we think of the significance of the gifts God has imparted to us and how we are both servants of the Master and stewards of those talents, it changes our perspective about what we feel we deserve. Our focus changes from wanting to elevate ourselves and be noticed personally to wanting to serve and help those around us achieve their best, therefore making the whole truly greater than the sum of the parts.

On an equally sobering note, it is clear that each of us will be judged according to how we utilize our unique talents. Will we be faithful and trustworthy, humble and servant-like, diligent and productive? Or will we insist on getting what we feel we are "owed," unwilling to take the risk and humbly serve as a member of an interdependent group? Can we justify our current selfish actions in light of their eternal consequences?

Solomon so eloquently summed up the matter:

The conclusion, when all has been heard, {is:} fear God and keep His commandments, because this {applies to} every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 (NASB)


Our responsibility, then, is to put aside our petty and selfish thinking, to beat down our pride. We must radically utilize our our talents - those abilities God has entrusted to each of us in unique and powerful ways - and move beyond the I to the WE; to bathe our talents in humility. We fail to do so at our peril.

This will not be easy. Years of conditioning among the ranks of symphony orchestra musicians to be untrusting of management, to be suspicious of conductors, and to be unified only in union labor action, will not be undone in a moment. But it is only with an awareness of the destructive consequences of the present course and the realization of the necessity for change that we will dare to risk embarking upon a new path. To move the modern symphony orchestra - which today faces crises of epic proportion - toward this model of cooperation, selflessness and unity will take determined prodding and mentoring from those who understand the eternal consequences of the decision. But it is not impossible. Let us lead by example. With the empowering of God's mighty Spirit, let us, through prayer and exhortation, redeem our orchestras from the self-destructive selfishness that is threatening their ruin.

Footnotes

(1)Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.

(2) See: Hackman, J. Richard, ed. 1990. Groups That Work (And Those That Don't). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; Judy, Paul R. 1996. Life and Work in Symphony Orchestras: An Interview with J. Richard Hackman. Harmony, Number 2, April, pages 1-13.

(3) The study included orchestras in both East and West Germany as it took place before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the re-unification of Germany. Occupations surveyed were airline cockpit crews, amateur theater company, airline flight attendants, beer sales and delivery teams, economic analysts in the federal government, federal prison guards, industrial production teams, mental health treatment teams, professional hockey team, professional string quartet, operating room nurses, semiconductor fabrication teams and symphony orchestra musicians.

(4) See: Fleischmann, Ernest. 1987. The Orchestra is Dead. Long Live the Community of Musicians. An address at the commencement exercises of the Cleveland Institute of Music. May 16.

Also: Fleischmann, Ernest and Samuel Lipman, 1987. Is the symphony orchestra dead? An exchange. The New Criterion, December, pages 38-41.

(5) Levine, Seymour and Robert. 1996. Why They're Not Smiling: Stress and Discontent in the Orchestral Workplace. Harmony, Number 2, April, pages 15-25.

(6) Cuomo, Mario. "Governor Mario Cuomo Speaks over the Heads of the Graduates to the Parents." Quoted in William Safire. Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches In History. New York, W.W. Norton & Company. 1992, pages 932-936.

(7) Scripture quatations marked (NASB) are taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE, 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1977, by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.


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