The Return of the Utica Symphony

Person playing the viola

The Utica Observer-Dispatch reported this morning that the Utica Symphony Orchestra might return for a concert in Spring 2015, following an agreement with American Federation of Musicians Local 78. Some of the details in the article might cause your jaw to drop, mainly that the fundraising target for a single performance is $30,000. Does anybody think this is a good idea?

I’m not convinced Utica needs a professional (union) symphony. There has been some discussion on this blog about the economics of putting on shows in Central New York, and it seems generally accepted that local actors and singers will perform free, and backstage technicians will accept tiny stipends, while those who play instruments expect to be generously reimbursed.

Now, it must be noted that I am writing as a critic, a director, an actor, a singer, and a backstage technician – not as a member of a musician’s union. But I’ve worked with these professional musicians and I’ve attended their performances. Some are more talented and professional than others, but as a group they are certainly not more skilled than any other performers in town. It has been suggested that “scarcity of resources” demands a higher price, but that same scarcity applies to good actors, singers, and technicians, and we see the same ratios of great/average in those disciplines as we do with the Utica Symphony. I’ve long suggested that a community orchestra is the way to go – give me a group that plays for the love of playing, and isn’t counting the minutes until their next wine and cheese break.

I directed three productions this year. If any of those had been forced to hire union performers or technicians, the shows would not have happened. The same can be said for Players of Utica, and every amateur theater production in town. The two productions I worked on at the Stanley Theater had to use union stagehands (neither hired musicians), and both lost money.

Before I go further, I want to make it clear that I’ve paid everyone involved with all of the shows I’ve produced. I believe we need to move beyond the idea that participants in community entertainment should donate weeks of their time with no financial reimbursement. But I haven’t yet been able to pay anyone more than $80, which might cover a single union musician for a single rehearsal. That’s part of my point – musicians are taking more than their share, and demanding even more.

I have worked on the Mohawk Valley Ballet’s Nutcracker for 25 years. When I started, we had live music provided by the Utica Symphony. It was glorious, and I remember filling the 3,000-seat Stanley Theater for every performance. In recent years, the Ballet has used taped music – the symphony costs $60,000, which would more than double the production budget. (Significantly, Utica Symphony Board of Directors President Gustave DeTraglia has said their next concert probably won’t be at the Stanley, because they don’t expect a large-enough crowd.)

Between 1990-2000, I provided lighting at the Stanley for orchestras from around the world, including the Utica Symphony. Utica’s musicians were never particularly interested in showmanship – although they wore black and white formal attire, they would sit on stage as the audience entered, and some kept instrument cases and purses near their seats. Many objected to lighting they felt was in their eyes, reasoning the audience was there to hear them, not to see them. (Which still baffles me.) I remember a few great concerts and many average concerts – about the same batting average Players of Utica achieves with a volunteer corps.

Anecdote time. I remember another American (union) symphony that wouldn’t enter the Stanley Theater to rehearse or perform unless the temperature was between 69-72 degrees F (LOTS of space heaters running for hours). Contrast that with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. It was February, and we had a typical mid-winter snowstorm that day. The musicians arrived on time, but their instruments and concert attire were delayed; those finally arrived at 8:05 (for an 8:00 curtain). I will never forget seeing those musicians changing their clothes in the alley behind the theater, and re-tuning their instruments throughout the concert as they warmed under the stage lights. I’m betting the musicians weren’t union, but they loved making music, and they didn’t complain about lights in their eyes, either.

My concern with the return of the Utica Symphony is that it might steal resources from other groups that also need money to survive. The Observer-Dispatch quotes Utica Symphony development director Rocco Garro, “It can involve anything from a single person donating $2,500 to a business donating $5,000. I know we can reach a goal of $30,000 to put on a performance.” Last I knew, the Symphony on its own was drawing about 500 people for a performance. (They draw more when appearing with other groups, such as pop/rock band Chicago.) Donations at Garro’s suggested levels would benefit far more people if applied to Players of Utica, or other community performers. Coincidentally, today I noticed a poster for the Clinton Symphony Orchestra, performing on Sunday, December 14. Adult tickets are $30 ($10 for students), which is practically unheard-of in Central NY. (The Mohawk Valley Ballet had a top price of $27 for its Nutcracker at the Stanley.) Musicians, I get it – you’ve studied and practiced. I dated a musician, and she never let me forget that her skill trumped mine. But let’s work together. Cut out the union shit and stop thinking you’re the only performers who matter.