What *Does* it Take to Be a Professional Orchestra Musician?

Same song, different verse… yet another round of labor disputes is rippling through the world of classical music.  Earlier this month the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra went on strike, and today the venerable Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra went on strike too. [Edit: Scant hours after this posted, the musicians of the great Philadelphia Orchestra also declared a strike… although it was resolved 48 hours later.]

Something I’ve noticed… each time news of a strike, lockout, or even difficult negotiations breaks out, there’s a chorus of people unfamiliar with the business of running an orchestra who, after hearing a couple of sound bites bandied about in the press, decide musicians are wildly overcompensated.  Again and again, these people ask, “Where can I get a job with 10 weeks paid vacation, full benefits and $70K, $100K, [or whatever the so-called ‘inflated’ salary is that’s been ripped out of context and floated around by the press]?”

When we’re lucky, these folks are asking this as an honest question.  When we’re unlucky, it’s simply a sarcastic retort meant to belittle the musicians.

A few thoughts. Continue reading

Book Review: “Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks”

A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks
By Q T Luong (Forward by Dayton Duncan)
Illustrated. 456 pp. Cameron + Company

This new book by Q T Luong, a photographer featured in Ken Burns’s series, The National Parks, is a glorious birthday present to help us celebrate our park system’s centennial year. 

* * *


Back in 2009, I (like many others) was completely swept away by Ken Burns’ magisterial series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. There were so many admirable parts of the series, but two things in particular have stayed with me.

First I was how it humanized the parks—it wasn’t just a 12-hour collection of gorgeous images, but a study in how we’ve thought about, and even fought about the parks. Along the way, it focused attention on the long and distinguished line of thinkers, writers, and photographers who have helped us understand these natural treasures and what they mean to us, such as John Muir, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, or Ansel Adams. The series brought us face to face with these luminaries, giving us a chance to get to know our National Parks through their works.

The other point that resonated with me was how skillfully the series told the story of ordinary (and not so ordinary) people who were completely transformed by their experiences in the parks. People like Stephen Mather, or even Teddy Roosevelt himself, wandered into these natural wonderlands at some critical point of their lives… and never really left.  In seeing these transformations, we were transformed ourselves.

Toward the end of the program we were introduced to a person who embodied both these ideas: photographer Q T Luong.  Mr. Luong was a relative newcomer, someone who was first drawn to the parks in the early 1990s; but once he experienced them, he too was hooked.  More than that, he was moved to capture the essence of the National Parks and share them with a larger audience… to transform how we saw them.  Inspired by the long tradition of American landscape photography, he decided to embark on an unprecedented, multi-year project to photograph all the national parks with a large-format camera.

Now, some years later, the project is complete… just in time for the National Parks’ 100th birthday.  Mr. Luong has gathered the collected photos into a new book, Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks, due to come out October 1.  And in a word, this book is spectacular. Continue reading

The 10 Greatest Works of the 20th Century

A while back, I ran across an interesting tidbit on my Facebook feed: Pierre Boulez’s list of the 10 greatest works of classical music in the 20th Century. Boulez, for those who aren’t immediately familiar with him, is a hugely influential/controversial composer, conductor, performer, and writer who has long been associated with the avantiest of avant-garde music.

I was intrigued to read his top 10 list—as he was at the epicenter of 20th Century music, his insights are invaluable. But in looking them over, I found myself in disagreement with several of his choices.

Naturally, I decided to come up with my own list. Continue reading

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


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.
Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.


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 and lose credibility.

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