Today is the deadline for Louisville Orchestra musicians to return to work. The orchestra board says it will begin replacing the players if they do not sign on by the end of the day. This comes after a year of talks for a new contract broke down. The two sides were close to a deal earlier this month, but again sparred over how large the orchestra should be. Orchestra CEO Robert Birman declined to be recorded, but says if the players agree to cut the ensemble to 55 players by June 2013, talks will resume. Otherwise, 50 replacement musicians will be hired.
Those replacements may be hard to find. The American Federation of Musicians will levy fines on any of its roughly 90,000 members who play without a contract in place.
“This orchestra is too revered. People are not going to displace them. The plan they have just is not workable,” says Bruce Ridge, who is head of the AFM’s Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, which includes the Louisville Orchestra musicians. ”No great guest artist or conductor is going to want to work for an amateur replacement orchestra.”
“I’ve gotten e-mails and phone calls from musicians far and wide,” says musicians’ negotiating committee chair Kim Tichenor. “The musicians across the country are very well aware what is going on here in Louisville and are completely appalled.”
Birman says he’s aware of the risk, but adds that the move could also be the last chance to preserve the orchestra under a financially sound model. Birman has previously said disputes like this diminish community interest in the orchestra. But he says no orchestra has tried to replace players like this, and the only other option is to liquidate and close. Naples, Florida has a nonunion orchestra.
Consultant Drew McManus has been analyzing the dispute on his website, and writes that finding replacement players will be difficult, but not impossible.
Financial pressures may bring some existing musicians back and there may be some with political convictions that dissuade any concerns about potential blowback associated with performing in an orchestra on the AFM Unfair List.
But it is highly unlikely that the organization will find enough musicians of sufficient quality in the face of concerted protest and boycott efforts nor is the process likely to produce the sort of inviting environment that will attract ticket buying patrons in sufficient numbers.
Can the LO make it through no man’s land? Yes, but it is highly improbable that the end result will be worth the anguish. Perhaps more importantly, the institution has no chance of launching a new orchestra capable of generating equal or greater levels of support from patrons and the donor community.
Early in the dispute, the musicians formed a separate group called Keep Louisville Symphonic to perform fundraising concerts. Tichenor says she’s not sure if KLS would try to become a fully-fledged orchestra if the official orchestra hires new musicians.
“Our number one priority is to be musicians of the Louisville Orchestra. It is feasible that if things do come to a point where the orchestra does not want us any longer, we will have to figure something out,” she says.
The musicians will perform holiday fundraising concerts this year for members without insurance. Tichenor says those concerts may not be under the Keep Louisville Symphonic name.