Slime and Slander: The FWSO Email

I’ve had the… um, “pleasure” of witnessing several classical music labor disputes, in a variety of locales, in a variety of guises.  Most obviously, my personal and professional connections to the Minnesota Orchestra gave me a front row seat to observe its near-disastrous, 16-month lockout… but I’ve also been drawn into similar battles in Atlanta, New York, and elsewhere. I thought I’ve pretty much seen it all.

Well, I’ve just witnessed a new low.  I’ve never seen a CEO so openly denigrate members of the community, nor so deliberately and maliciously slander a private member of the public simply to score points in a labor dispute.

I have now.  Let me explain. Continue reading

The Star-Telegram Strikes Again

Wow.

Just days ago, I wrote a blog post on the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra (FWSO) strike—specifically arguing that an article posted by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as “background” was little more than the transcription of the FWSO management’s talking points.  It covered only one side of the dispute.  There was no attempt to show the background of the musicians who had actually called the strike… or for that matter, provide an acknowledgement that they and their side of the story even existed.  I had hoped that the Star-Telegram would rectify the situation, ideally by interviewing the musicians or at least presenting the musicians’ talking points as listed on their website and on social media.

Clearly, my hope was in vain.

Today the Star-Telegram doubled down on its one-sided coverage of the dispute.  It published a jaw-dropping hit piece with the title—seriously—of “Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, RIP.”

I suppose we should be grateful that the Star-Telegram editorial didn’t lead off with the title, “Striking Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra Musicians Break Open the Seventh Seal.”

Again, let’s leave off the particulars of the actual strike…there is no part of this editorial that isn’t seriously flawed.  It is not just a prime example of bad optics; it also displays terrible judgment, provides factually incorrect information, and demonstrates a willful ignorance of broader industry trends.

Not bad for a 350-word editorial.

Let me provide a few examples of why I find this piece so problematic.
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What Went Wrong… with the Media’s Discussion of the FWSO Strike?

“What went wrong?”  A good question.

The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram seeks to ask that question in an article posted today about why the musicians of the Ft. Worth Symphony Orchestra (FWSO) called a strike.

I have a counter-question… what went wrong with the Star-Telegram’s reporting for the strike?  Don’t get me wrong, as a piece of arts reporting, this article provides a solid foundation to understand what’s going on. But there is a problem: critically, it tells only one side of the story.

All in all, this reminds me of the Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute, where even the most innocuous figures put out by management (and similarly re-reported in the media without commentary) were manipulated nearly beyond recognition.  Everything from seating capacity and number of tickets sold to the size of the average donation was shaded as part of a larger PR campaign directed against the musicians. A similar scenario played out during negotiations at the Metropolitan Opera. In both these cases, the numbers put forward by management fundamentally distorted the picture of what was going on in their respective organizations.

I don’t want to throw this particular author (whom I’ve never met) under the bus, but seeing this same tendency play out in Ft. Worth is concerning. Let me explain.

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In Defense of “The Star-Spangled Banner”

Over the last few weeks, our National Anthem has been at the center of controversy—a fact that is painfully obvious to anyone watching/reading/listening to the news.

It began with headlines when San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for The Star-Spangled Banner as it was played before a game against the Green Bay Packers.  He later offered the following explanation for his refusal: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

In the days the followed, others came forward and posited that the song itself was inherently racist, with Jon Schwartz writing the article, “Colin Kaepernick Is Righter Than You Know: The National Anthem Is a Celebration of Slavery” and Shaun King explaining “Why I’ll never stand again for ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’”  A key element of their argument is that the third verse (rarely sung… or for that matter, much remembered today) makes reference to “hirelings and slaves.”  They have gone on to argue that The Star-Spangled Banner was only adopted as our National Anthem relatively recently, so why not chuck it altogether?

I hesitate to say much about Kaepernick’s original protest, other than to note that the issues he raises are real ones, and I support his right to protest.

I do take issue with the resulting discussions, however. I don’t agree that The Star-Spangled Banner is inherently racist, or that the lyrics are fundamentally about slavery.

Francis Scott Key's poem,"Defence of Fort M'Henry," celebrated an implausible American victory during the War of 1812.

Francis Scott Key’s poem, “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” celebrated an implausible American victory during the War of 1812.

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Most know me now as an arts writer or a music commentator, but previous to this I was a historian, and had the pleasure of teaching history at the University of Kansas for many years.  In my time, I’ve seen a great deal of revisionist history; sometimes fresh thinking or a different perspective can help shed new light on a historical topic, but other times it can go too far off the deep end and lose credibility.

I think the current National Anthem controversy is an example of the later. Let me explain. Continue reading

Yet Another Feeble WSJ Article on the Met Opera

Goodness.  I don’t have the time to comment on every weak article to come out on the Metropolitan Opera.  By my count, I’ve missed two that have been published in the last six weeks or so.  But a new one has just appeared in the pages of the Wall Street Journal that absolutely demands a response.  While purporting to celebrate a great financial milestone, the piece goes on a rampage of negativity, punctuated by one jaw-dropping statement after another.

Really? Continue reading

Music for Rio—Celebrating the Music of Heitor Villa-Lobos

The Olympic Games are set to open in Rio de Janeiro—the first time a South American country is hosting them.  In honor of this event, I wanted to share a bit of Brazilian culture.

corcovado-mountain-and-christ-redeemer-statue-half-day-tour-in-rio-de-janeiro-128058.

Brazil is, of course, a major musical center, and has contributed much to the world music scene.  That said, Brazil is most famous for its popular music… dances like the samba or bossa nova.  Brazil’s dance tradition is so magnificent, it’s easy to forget that it has made great contributions to the world of classical music, too.

And while there have been many classically-trained composers over Brazil’s 500-year history, none has had the popularity or impact of Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Composer-Heitor-Villa-Lob-010.

Villa-Lobos is a curious character, with a life of contradictions.  He was essentially self-taught, and had a contentious relationship with standard music theory… yet he always aspired to write symphonies, concertos, string quartets, and Grand Opera.  As a boy he scratched out a living as a street musician in Rio de Janiero but ultimately rose to become a national hero. He traveled extensively, but always kept Brazil in his heart.

He was, quite simply, an original.

Getting to know Villa-Lobos’s music is a bit of a challenge.  He was incredibly prolific, writing more than 2,000 works before his death in 1959.  Given the vast quantities of music, some works feel like they were dashed off in a careless rush or tossed off on deadline.  Moreover, he had the reputation of being musically restless—choosing to jump to new works rather than edit those he finished.  In this, he was the mirror opposite of his contemporary Jean Sibelius, who often revised his works so thoroughly that the works he ultimately published were quite different from those heard at the premiere.

The result is that Villa-Lobos’s works can come off as sprawling, riotous and untamed.

But that is exactly why they are so exciting.

At his best, Villa-Lobos was a master of fusing classical forms with the sounds, rhythms, and instruments of Brazil.  His music literally teems with the street sounds of Rio, from bird calls and African street music to the sound of traffic and vendor’s cries. It is music that explodes with vitality and resolutely refuses to be tamed.  Moreover, he was brilliant at creating soundscapes… pulling sounds out of an orchestra that had never been heard before.

Curious to know more?  Here are some recommendations, grouped in a few key categories. Enjoy! Continue reading

Thinking of Ft. Worth—And the Broader Importance of Musicians

Over the past few days I’ve been hit with a strange sense of déjà vu… as well as an impending disaster.  Both these feelings are tied to the ongoing story of the Ft. Worth Symphony Orchestra (FWSO) and its contentious labor negotiations with its musicians.  Negotiations have drawn on for more than a year, through 29 bargaining sessions, but once again the management refuses to budge.  Once again an orchestra’s management seeks to “right size” its budget through drastic pay cuts borne entirely by the musicians.

Once again an orchestra seeks to cut its way to prosperity.

You’ll immediately understand why this seems so familiar—this ugly scenario closely mirrors similar meltdowns with the Minnesota Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Metropolitan Opera, Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra…

…you get the point.

I was a close observer for many of these battles, and I’ve been horrified that many of the same arguments that animated these disputes are being used in Ft. Worth, too.  Horrified not just because these ideas were wrong, but that they were strategically so ineffective.  For example, Michael Henson of the Minnesota Orchestra and Stanley Romanstein of the ASO tried to impose punitive labor contracts on the orchestra musicians and impose a new business model on their respective organizations, but the community ultimately rebelled against these ham-fisted negotiation techniques, and both Henson and Romanstein were forced out.  Peter Gelb of the Met nearly faced a similar fate; he still holds his job, but is clearly in a weaker position.

Given this record of failure, I’m curious that anyone else would want to try this same approach.

But there’s something else I want to bring up.

Let’s leave off, for a moment, the particulars of this contentious labor negotiation.  Let’s put aside ideas about unions, incompetent management, or the idea of “winning.”

In pushing forth a harsh, punitive contract, the FWSO management is damaging the community as a whole.  And that damage will last even—and especially—if it “wins” this round of contract negotiations.

Let me explain. Continue reading