Que sera, sera, Sarah.

For 25 years, the eminent violinist Sarah Chang has established herself as one of the superstars of the classical music world. I’ve always admired her phenomenal abilities and genial personality, and have sat next to her countless times as CM with various orchestras since we first met about 100 years ago at Juilliard. Now she’s been the victim of harassment and abuse. Or maybe not.

For those of you just tuning in, Ms. Chang was the scheduled soloist for the opening weekend of concerts with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, appearances that were canceled when the orchestra went on strike last Monday. Last Thursday the DSO management announced that she would instead play a recital on Oct. 11 with the pianist Robert Koenig, and all tickets for the canceled weekend DSO concerts would be honored. Having been replaced by a violin and piano recital, the DSO musicians reacted predictably on various social media sites and other outlets, and promised to picket the concert. ICSOM, the AFM, and the DSO Musicians also sent formal letters to Ms. Chang and her management, Opus 3, urging them to reconsider her decision to play, and hundreds (if not thousands) of people all over the world posted messages overwhelmingly (but not entirely) unsympathetic to the notion of a replacement recital by Ms. Chang.

Friday, Ms. Chang wrote on her twitter page that she “has requested that proceeds from the ticket sales be donated to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Musician Pension Fund.” It is not clear what those proceeds would have been or where they would actually go, given the expenses of the concert, the fact that the concert had a major sponsor, ticket exchanges, and that under their rather punitive “plan B” contract proposal, the the DSO management has apparently “frozen” the Pension Fund. Ms. Chang’s publicist confirmed that she would receive a fee for her performance. On Sunday the DSO players held a (previously scheduled) self-produced concert of their own. Chang’s recital thus also created a competing event of sorts, although perhaps some patrons might  have attended both.

Late Sunday night, Ms. Chang decided to cancel the recital, citing “physical threats and career intimidation”. Initially, no source was given for any threats, and both Detroit Symphony CEO Anne Parsons and Chang’s manager Jenny Vogel declined to give specifics. In an article today, the firestorm of social media comments was examined further, with Ms. Parsons referring to one particularly harsh email or phone message to Ms. Chang; she didn’t know which, or who was behind it. She also characterized the online response as “bulllying”, without determining “who was behind it”. The article also mentions “experts” who helpfully explained “the Internet’s power to spread a message to tens of thousands of people in a matter of minutes”. The New York Times weighed in yesterday and included a quote from Ms. Parsons as well: “She has crossed other picket lines,” Ms. Parsons said, attributing the information to Ms. Chang’s manager and saying she did not know the specific instances. “I would not call her naïve.”

I followed this pretty closely over the weekend, canvassing as many sites as I could that had running discussions. What struck me most was how generally civil the comments were, considering the emotions involved. Of course there were exceptions, but nothing I could possibly construe as seriously threatening. Particularly notable was the tone of the letters from the AFM, ICSOM, and the Detroit Musicians to Ms. Chang, all of which were extremely courteous and respectful. Of course, perhaps Ms. Chang’s private emails and phone messages were another story, but she’s not commenting publicly. Drew McManus details the social media impact and much more in an excellent piece here..

Now, if a truly intimidating or threatening message or post was received by Ms. Chang during all of this, that’s very serious, and clearly the authorities would have to intervene and go after those responsible. I can only assume this is happening now. But so far, it appears that the DSO and Ms. Chang are mostly upset because, well, lots of people got really angry at them. If your definition of “harassment” or “bullying” is people criticizing you for replacing a DSO concert with a violin and piano recital, crossing a picket line, and getting a nice fee in the process, then maybe you’d agree with Ms. Chang and Ms. Parsons. Then (evidently) the only option is to cancel, become a victim, and blame everyone for voicing their opinions.

In my experience, this is a truly unique sequence of events . Typically, high-profile soloists and conductors stay far away from these types of situations, for obvious reasons. Obvious to most of us, anyway. Why she would want to insert herself into this whole picture is an interesting question, maybe one for her management. Ms. Chang is not a member of the AFM, and of course is free to play (or not play) wherever she chooses. And she certainly has the right to implicitly agree with the management’s position in what everyone agrees is a contentious and potentially fatal labor situation. The stakes are high- this strike is a result of failed negotiations involving fundamental issues with implications for the entire industry, and certainly even the survival of the DSO is a question. And despite what anyone says or thinks at this particular juncture (and no matter which side you are on), the only way forward is for a meaningful dialogue to occur (preferably soon), with tangible concessions from both sides. Sooner or later, that’s always how it ends.

It’s unfortunate that the DSO management and Ms. Chang chose this approach over all other options: simply rescheduling the orchestra appearances, playing a concert in a nonpartisan location with neutral financial interests, or any number of other scenarios would probably have had a more positive (or at least more palatable) effect overall. The ramifications for Ms. Chang are by no means clear. Since canceling, she’s received a generous outpouring of support from lots of people previously accused of “intimidation” and “bullying” on sites like facebook. However, my informal polling indicates that a great many orchestral musicians have a very different perspective now, and given the choice, might opt for the Leroy Anderson festival instead of another Mendelssohn with her. But time will tell, and we don’t often call the shots on soloists anyway.

Over the past few days I keep thinking of the stereotype of orchestra musicians constantly complaining about soloists that just plow ahead without listening to anything else around them. It’s rare these days, but still happens once in awhile, I guess.

18 thoughts on “Que sera, sera, Sarah.”

  1. I appreciate your well written and reasoned comments, Frank. This is a precarious moment for the DSO and all of us musicians are touched in some way by the outcome. Soloists would do well to appreciate the magnitude of the current situation in Detroit. Thanks for writing this.

  2. Frank,

    Thanks for a thoughtful and well-reasoned post. What is saddest about this situation (and all such situations) is that there ARE “sides.” I don’t personally know any of the people involved, as I’m sure you do, but having gone through a milder episode of this at the MSO many years ago I can state positively that there are good people on both “sides,” that both “sides” care about the future of the DSO, and that neither is without blame or responsibility in this impasse. We must all keep them in our thoughts and hope for a solution that will bring music back to Detroit.

    • Hi Andy,
      Nice to hear from you. I’m glad that MSO chapter occurred before I got there, but I remember a certain bitterness that went on for awhile. I have no doubt that the effects of the dispute in Detroit will linger for years to come and will affect both “sides” profoundly.
      Hope all is well out there in WA-

  3. Having chaired an orchestra committee through a strike that was quickly settled when a scheduled soloist refused to cross the picket line, I’m struck by Ms. Chang’s attitude of separatism – not only is she not a member of the AFM, but, apparently, doesn’t identify with other musicians…

    • Stephanie,
      Thanks for your comment. Having worked quite a bit (and closely) with Sarah over the years, I think she does certainly identify with musicians in a great many ways. But obviously not here. My experience is that soloists and chamber musicians who have not had much experience working in professional orchestras are obviously disconnected from that world to a certain extent, and tend to minimize the effects of events like the labor dispute in Detroit. What’s interesting in this case (among other things) is that Sarah Chang basically makes her living from working as a soloist with orchestras, and still didn’t grasp the totality of what was happening. Nor (apparently) did her handlers.

  4. Some people, particularly union members, seem to always think that if there is a dispute between the union and the employer the union has right on their side, and also that the union represents all of their members. Nothing could be further from the truth. The idea that somehow the union’s motives are pure and that the people are om their side has been severely eroded over the years as we have seen union violence and intimidation become commonplace. I have no doubt whatsoever that Ms. Chang received threats from people sympathetic to the union. Anyone who does not believe that they would resort to such tactics is simply not living in the real world. We have seen the evidence and we need to understand that these kind of “tactics” are part of the reason that our economies are struggling…..but the unions don’t care…they just want to win, at all costs.

    • Hi Jack,
      Thanks very much for your perspective. I am in no way suggesting that either the union or management is entirely “right” or “wrong” in either this situation or any other labor dispute. What is clear is that they need to have a dialogue and try to work something out, preferably sooner rather than later. And this episode didn’t help anyone.
      As for threats to Sarah Chang directly tied to anyone sympathetic to a union, no one has (publicly) presented any evidence that I’m aware of, including the DSO management or Ms. Chang. It could very well be that there are some investigations going on and there is a need for discretion. As I said in the piece, that’s serious stuff and the appropriate authorities would need to handle it, and they should.

  5. Thanks for a well written article, Frank. Jack, as an officer in an AFM Local from the West side of Michigan, I have to tell you that violence and intimidation are not our strong suits. We are just musicians who would rather be on stage but realize we need to act together to have any chance of earning enough money to be able to afford to continue being musicians. Half of the musicians own instruments that cost as much or more than their homes because that is the quality of instrument necessary to compete for and keep orchestral jobs. Our union leaders are musicians who have been elected by those they represent. The musicians may not all agree on every issue, but the negotiation issues brought to the table by the musicians in most orchestras are agreed upon by the majority in advance, and all ARE represented.

  6. Actually,..I have to disagree with your statement that: “What is clear is that they need to have a dialogue and try to work something out”. This presupposes the idea that a solution needs to be worked out. What I know is that I, and I am sure, a majority of Detroiters, do not really care if a solution is worked out or not. For all most people care the orchestra can be disbanded.

    • Hi jack,
      Thanks again for your comments.
      This is a different issue entirely, and not really the focus of the article. Other people are much more knowledgeable than I about these things, but briefly:
      The Board and management of the DSO are legally bound to look after its interests, which of course includes shutting it down if necessary, or doing whatever is possible to keep it operating and solvent (it is part of the rather unique business model of some non-profits that the musicians ultimately do not have that power). In that sense it’s just like any other business you (or other Detroiters) aren’t interested in or don’t care about. That’s your feeling and your choice, even if it means Detroit would lose one of the few things left the city can actually claim as being of supreme quality (and I don’t mean the Pistons). Incidentally, if the orchestra goes down it affects lots of other businesses and jobs, many of which would also probably disappear (everything from restaurants to parking guys to people working at the hall, and of course the people teaching music to kids of all ages all over the region- gone). There are many other financial aspects to this that most people really don’t understand, but that’s also another discussion for some other time. Suffice to say that (in general) well-run cultural institutions are a huge economic engine for most cities, as well as improving the overall quality of life for those that have a different viewpoint than yours. And if they have a choice, the vast majority of for-profit businesses locate and flourish in places that have a vibrant cultural life for their employees.Those are two of many reasons why every major city and business center in the world has a robust cultural landscape- concert halls, museums, and (yes) orchestras. But I agree with you- there are a lot of people in Detroit who couldn’t care less if the symphony went away tomorrow.

      I personally think it would be a terrible loss for the city if it the DSO disappeared; it would actually be catastrophic in ways I think most people cannot possibly conceive of right now. And for what it’s worth, I don’t believe the orchestra can go on as it is now; with the monumental issues involved (financial and otherwise), it seems obvious that it will be a very different institution if and when a deal is reached.

      The DSO is a highly regarded institution (maybe outside of Detroit) that is also a multimillion dollar operation that is probably not yet at the point where it absolutely cannot go on. So I assume that the two sides haven’t given up yet, and are legally bound to negotiate in good faith until they decide they can’t get a deal, and even then there might be some options left. That’s what I meant by the quote you cite above.
      Thanks for reading all this…

  7. Thank you for the energy and clear thinking you are putting into this, Frank. I am surprised you have not called out Jack Plant on his comment: “The idea that somehow the union’s motives are pure and that the people are om their side has been severely eroded over the years as we have seen union violence and intimidation become commonplace.”

    What instances are there that make union violence and and intimidation commonplace ‘over the years’? Particularly recently? We are not speaking the 1886, are we?

    Frank, your replies have been very eloquent. Keep it up and thank you.

    • Greg,
      Thanks for the kind words and your comments. We could all have a long dialogue on union issues pro and con, but that’s not really what the article was about. I personally wouldn’t agree that union violence and intimidation are “commonplace” nowadays, but it’s a stereotype that dies hard.

  8. Frank,

    I’m impressed with your response to Jack Plant above. That is one of the best summations of the effect of the Arts on a community that I have seen, and the response was very balanced and restrained. Unfortunately Jack is right that the majority of people in a metropolitan area know little and care less about the Arts in their midst. What is far more frustrating to me is that very few civic leaders seem to get it.

    You asked how things are going in Tacoma, and the answer is, generally very well. The orchestra is part-time and artistically solid, and so far we have been able to replace revenue lost due to the recession: corporate contributions with individual, subscriber income with single ticket sales, and so forth. And it demands constant vigilance.

    I have great respect for our larger brethren in the major orchestra world who maintain full-time salaried orchestras, own and operate concert halls, mount lengthy subscription seasons and extensive community engagement programs. I know how complex running a small regional orchestra is — and running a major orchestra is UNBELIEVABLY complex.

    When a situation becomes this polarized, it is easy for each side to demonize the other. Management may dismiss the musicians as greedy and naive, and musicians may call the management incompetent and blame it for the dire financial situation. The truth is usually much more complex. Yes, sometimes musicians are naive about the financial realities (I’ve never known any to be greedy). And yes, there are huge variances in the competence of orchestra administrators. But neither is the enemy of the other.

    I don’t personally know Anne Parsons or any of the DSO people and so I’m not expressing an opinion one way or the other. But as a 25-year administrator, I can say with confidence that running an orchestra well in the best of times demands the highest degree of vigilance, passion and competence. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be in Detroit right now!

    We must all send every ounce of good will we can muster their way, to all concerned — musicians, Board and management — and pray for a solution that allows the DSO to continue. And hope that all can remember the advice of Steven Covey, seek first to understand, then to be understood.


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