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IN Music News
January 24, 2006

Viardot Redux from California

Concerts on Sale, with Difficulty

Louisville Musicians to Play Through the Storm

West Bay Opera at Half-Century Mark

Fukawa to Head Crowden

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By Janos Gereben

Symphony China Trip Saved

After 72 hours of intense negotiations between the San Francisco Symphony administration and S.F. Musicians Union Local No. 6, the parties agreed Friday morning to continue preparations for the orchestra's tour of China next week. The agreement to continue with the tour is a powerful signal that a looming strike could be averted, and that a contract agreement may still be possible.

The two sides continue to be locked in difficult contract talks, but have announced "an agreement to perform the orchestra's historic tour of China as scheduled." Just a week before departure, the decision to cooperate avoids a threatened cancelation. The February 9-13 tour includes opening of Hong Kong Arts Festival on February 11, and the Symphony's first-ever visit to mainland China, with an appearance in Shanghai. For details, see www.sfsymphony.org.

At a time when salary figures are at the crux of contract negotiations, no information is available about how much the China tour costs the Symphony. Ticket prices at the Festival's opening concert (with Copland, Mahler, and Dvorák) range from 90 to 700 HK dollars ($11-$90 U.S.).

The festival also features the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, and a coproduction of Don Giovanni by Semper Opera Dresden and Opera Nuremberg. The SFS February 12 Shanghai concert will be the orchestra's first-ever performance in mainland China. Cellist Lynn Harrell is the soloist. Michael Tilson Thomas and the SFS musicians give a day of master classes for Shanghai Conservatory of Music students.

Hong Kong Cultural Center

Shanghai Conservatory

First reports of the tour being in question appeared over last weekend when a memo from the union to the orchestra's 103 musicians came to light. The memo called the administration's last offer "inferior" to contracts at other major music organizations in the country. The union recommended that unless there is a better offer or settlement by the end of January, musicians should not participate in the Asian tour.

Using average annual wage figures, the San Francisco Chronicle reported the "final" Symphony offer of increasing the current $112,320 figure to $115,960, and to $129,220 in the following year. (In Boston and Los Angeles, the annual basic wage average is $121,888; in New York, $118,092; Chicago and Philadelphia, slightly under that — all of them going up in coming years.)

Earlier this week, in response to a Classical Voice request for comment, SFS Executive Director Brent Assink said the administration's "first and foremost" concern is that the musicians "must be provided with a fair and comprehensive compensation and benefit package. We are doing our best to find a solution that gives our talented musicians a contract deserving of our stature as one of the top orchestras in the country and also sets a prudent financial course for the future of the orchestra."

Assink, however, also warned that "we cannot compromise the long-term artistic health of the orchestra by offering a package that is not in keeping with the very real financial challenges and considerations facing the Symphony right now and in the coming years."

David Schoenbrun, president of Local 6, said later that he too is primarily concerned with "not compromising the artistic product that's the most important consideration for the musicians," but he cautioned against a "compensation package that would compromise the ability of the orchestra to recruit and retain the best musicians, in competition with other orchestras."

On Thursday, administration and union spokesmen withheld comment until a joint statement could be issued. As the issue of the China trip became a bone of contention, reflecting the larger problem of the contract, cancelation would have boded ill for the near future, including the possibility of an orchestra strike. Conversely, the last-minute agreement forged this morning to save the tour could be the harbinger of contract talks taking a turn for the better.

The last time musicians of the San Francisco Symphony went on strike, there was significant financial, psychological, and public-relations damage for management and union alike. Beginning Dec. 3, 1996, the strike went on for 10 weeks, even though the immediate cause was something relatively minor: the $40 per week difference between the $150 raise demanded by the musicians' union and the $110 offered by management.

Money was only an apparent reason for a protracted and bitter dispute. The real cause, expressed in mutually vituperative accusations, could not be handled until the two sides went into professional conflict-resolution workshops and retreats — emerging with a new attitude they termed "a model for other institutions."

The result was a settlement, a three-year contract followed in 1999 by a virtually conflict-free agreement on an unprecedented six-year contract — a strengthened "marriage" instead of a bitter divorce. The sky, however, has darkened once again over Davies Hall. Negotiations on a new contract have been going on for some six months now, but a happy ending looks more and more elusive.

Also this week, Tim Paulson, executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO, requested the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to investigate the Symphony's accounting practices, "its refusal to use the endowment for the musicians and its creation of illusory deficits." Paulson specifically cited MTT's $1.5 million annual salary "for part-time work" as a sign that the Symphony, with its $174 million endowment, is "one of the most financially healthy orchestras in the country."

The Council executive director told the Board of Supervisors that the Symphony management, nevertheless, is "proposing a contract that would place the musicians below their colleagues in other leading orchestras such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and New York, and on par with what the financially troubled Cleveland Orchestra pays its musicians."

About the "illusory deficits," Paulson cited the Symphony's reported surpluses between Fiscal 2001 and 2004, but "six months into the labor negotiations, in August of 2005, management suddenly reported its first deficit ($2.4 million) to the operating budget in five years while concurrently adding $15 million to the endowment. In short, management created an illusory deficit during 2005 — which happened to be a contract-negotiation year."


Viardot Redux from California

Pauline Viardot-Garcia was hot stuff in the 19th century — both a famed opera singer and an esteemed composer of songs, chamber music, and operettas. Fast-forward 150 years, and few people know the name.

Pauline Viardot-Garcia

Back then, Berlioz called her "one of the greatest artists in the history of music." Turgenev provided a passionate love affair and three librettos (not necessarily in that order). Dickens called her "extraordinary"; Saint-Sa”ns dedicated Samson et Dalila to her. She created major Meyerbeer roles. Hot, indeed.

She lived from 1821 to 1910, and by the end of the 20th century, she seemed like a footnote in the history of music. Vivica Genaux's singing of four Viardot lieder in Herbst Theater last fall came as a novelty to most people in the hall. But now some of those who remember and champion her are passionate, committed, and action-oriented enough to advance on restoring Viardot's fame.

From Marin county, Ross resident Judy Flannery is driving the project as producer. Viardot aficionado Lotfi Mansouri, former general manager of the San Francisco Opera, is staging consultant. From Alameda, Frederica von Stade is participating. San Francisco soprano Marta Johansen, who had created the one-woman show Salon Viardot, has been doing the heavy lifting in research; she is a partner in Prima Donna Productions of Ross, an important component in the project, originally called Viardot & Friends.

Meanwhile, Flannery & Friends have gone international: from England, Brian Large comes as director, David Harper as pianist. From Paris, actress Fanny Ardant (with a recent Callas film behind her) signed on to narrate. Singers for the project include Anna Caterina Antonacci (but no longer the originally scheduled Nathan Gunn, who has just received the $50,000 Sills Award).

The plan: a 90-minute concert in London's Wigmore Hall on February 27, recorded for CD, and then another performance at the Châtelet Theater in Paris on March 1, taped for international television broadcast and home distribution on DVD. Additionally, the narrated concert will be adaptable to be repeated at various other venues. San Francisco performances are being discussed for next year.

The Viardot Project includes the building of outreach material for schools and libraries. A major collection of Viardot's music from Prima Donna Productions will be published for the use of professional and amateur singers, musicologists, historians, and teachers.

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Concerts on Sale, with Difficulty

Full-page newspaper ads appeared last week and over the weekend, offering all remaining S.F. Symphony tickets for $25 and $50, depending on location in Davies Hall. At about half the normal price, this musical "fire sale" is very attractive, but making the purchase over the Internet is anything but simple.

Classical Voice reader and avid Symphony patron Laszlo Somogyi reports: "Try to buy the reduced-price tickets, but only if your blood pressure is under control. On Sunday, I went online to buy tickets for four performances, but the procedure was so slow that the connection timed out, so I had to start all over again. This time, I got far enough to learn that while tickets were shown as available for the Mahler Eighth, the concerts were sold out. For the Verdi Requiem, reduced prices were shown, but the charge was for the original amount. I repeated the process again, but after an hour and a half, I gave up."

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Louisville Musicians to Play Through the Storm

Kentucky's famed Louisville Orchestra may go out of business, but the musicians will play on. The Orchestra administration has called off negotiations with the union and canceled a planned major fundraising campaign to cover a half-million-dollar deficit, giving an indication of seeking bankruptcy or shutting down operations before the organization's approaching 70th anniversary. Meanwhile, however, the 71 full-time musicians signed a statement pledging to play all remaining Kentucky Opera and Louisville Ballet performances. The Orchestra board expects to hear a report from its bankruptcy attorney next week.

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West Bay Opera at Half-Century Mark

Few small opera companies last 50 years, but that's exactly where West Bay Opera is, continuing with vigor, even without a general director, seven months after the abrupt resignation of David Sloss, who filled that position for a decade. The search continues — see the job description at www.wbopera.org.

Up next at the Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto: Puccini's Manon Lescaut, February 18-26 (with an early preview on February 9), conducted by Matthias Kuntzsch, directed by David Ostwald. The three top roles are double-cast: Olga Chernisheva and Paula Goodman Wilder as Manon, Daniel Cilli and Igor Vieira as Lescaut, Gabriel Reoyo-Pazos and Percy Martinez as des Grieux — four of the six making their first West Bay appearance. See www.wbopera.org.

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Fukawa to Head Crowden

The prominent Bay Area violinist and educator Doris Fukawa has been appointed executive director of Berkeley's Crowden Music Center, having served as interim director since June. The Center is home to the Crowden School and the Crowden Center for Music in the Community.

(Janos Gereben is a regular contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice; his e-mail address is [email protected])

©2006 Janos Gereben, all rights reserved