The Journal Gazette
Friday, January 22, 2021 1:00 am

Facing the music

Not too late for Philharmonic leadership to right wrongs

Campbell MacDonald

“Music accompanies the stories of our past, the pages we write in the present, and the dreams we have for the future.”

I contributed these words to a commemorative program book in early 2019, celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic. They reflect a passion and ethos shared by every musician in our orchestra: a duty to serve our community, while nurturing and growing our region's storied musical legacy.

Just two years later, this legacy is at risk. Philharmonic leadership has taken a destructive negotiating position that would degrade our city's orchestra and force musicians to leave Fort Wayne to seek careers elsewhere.

Musicians of the Philharmonic are all too familiar with the challenges faced by American orchestras as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. For that reason, we negotiated pandemic-specific terms in August that included wage cuts of more than 30% and significant scheduling flexibility for the 2020-21 season.

Not content with these accommodations, Philharmonic management refused to go forward with the fall season under the terms we agreed to in principle and insisted we also abandon our collective bargaining agreement, a comprehensive document that has been carefully built over decades.

In September, Philharmonic management presented a draconian multi-year proposal to reduce the number of contracted musicians from 63 to 15, along with a laundry list of musician concessions unrelated to current COVID-19 challenges.

Some of our country's orchestras have reached agreements with musicians that include temporary wage reductions during the pandemic. Many have continued to honor their agreements with musicians and pay their full salaries. But no other orchestra management in the country has taken the Fort Wayne Philharmonic's stance of permanently eliminating 76% of its workforce.

Residents of northeast Indiana must know: If implemented, the proposed cuts would decimate the orchestra, drastically reduce our service to the community, and rob the region of jobs and irreplaceable educational resources.

While musicians remain furloughed, the Philharmonic continues to pay its administration and conducting staff. Following the announcement of a canceled season of orchestra concerts, the Philharmonic continued to produce performances with traveling musicians.

It was these actions, together with management's ruinous bargaining position, that led to placement of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic and its managing director, James Palermo, on the American Federation of Musicians International Unfair List.

We musicians agree with Philharmonic Board Chairperson Chuck Surack (whose op-ed, “Harmonic Convergence,” appeared on this page on Jan. 8) that this placement is a stain on our orchestra's reputation and on our community. The actions taken by Philharmonic leadership to create this stain should be rectified immediately.

The Fort Wayne Philharmonic is in a unique position to weather and rebound from the challenges posed by the pandemic. In addition to the money pocketed by failing to pay musicians this season, the organization sits atop an endowment valued in excess of $21 million and has raised more than $10 million during its current capital campaign.

A vision of progress and resilience for the Philharmonic is imperative for the future of our city's cultural welfare and the economic development supported by the presence of a full-time resident orchestra. This is the legacy established by Philharmonic donors and patrons for more than 75 years. Failing to carry that vision forward is a dereliction of duty.

We ask the board of directors and management of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic to adopt a position that reflects the values of our city's citizens and civic leaders, and recognizes the importance of our professional orchestra to this community. A return to negotiating in good faith will require a retreat from unnecessary demands of cuts and contraction.

Philharmonic leadership should utilize the institution's considerable financial resources to pay musicians a living wage now, and embrace a vision of vitality that ensures the Fort Wayne Philharmonic will grow and continue to serve northeast Indiana for generations to come. 

Campbell MacDonald is principal clarinetist of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic and chair of the Philharmonic Players' Association.

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