Big Issues in Classical Music

Volume 117, No. 10October, 2017

Paul Austin

ICSOM President Paul Austin showing his French horn to a young audience member at the recent ICSOM conference in Buffalo as part of a community event. Photo: Laura Ross

What are the most important issues that the classical music industry faces? That was the main focus of the 55th annual International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians conference, which was held this year in Buffalo. Hosted by AFM Local 92 and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, the conference was attended by delegates from ICSOM orchestras and officers from the AFM, its locals and other player conferences. Buffalo Philharmonic horn player Dan Sweeley, who is the ICSOM governing board member at large, was instrumental in setting up the conference, along with AFM Local 92 President James Pace.

For several years, ICSOM conferences have begun with a service event to support the community of the host city. The afternoon before the Buffalo conference began, ICSOM delegates and members of the governing board performed several short pieces for BPO Kids for Exceptional Kids, a program that focuses upon children with autism spectrum disorders, cancer, and other chronic physical or healthcare challenges. The performance occurred at the Adam’s Mark Hotel in an accessible space that was comfortable for all participants.

The following evening, after a terrific opening reception, the documentary “Composed” was shown in its entirety. Sponsored in part by ICSOM, this film by John Beder (who was also in attendance at the conference) deals with performance anxiety. While only a trailer for “Composed” was exhibited at last year’s ICSOM conference, this year we were pleased to view the entire film. After successful appearances in cities throughout the country this past year, “Composed” can be found in the libraries of our leading music schools today and will be available for purchase on iTunes early next year. (For more info, see

The conference started with a breakfast and orientation for new ICSOM delegates. Among the many first-time attendees, it was a pleasure to welcome three new delegates for the four ICSOM orchestras from Local 802: Sarah Adams (New York City Opera Orchestra), Jason Haaheim (Metropolitan Opera Orchestra) and Leelanee Sterrett (New York Philharmonic). We kept the fourth Local 802 member orchestra attendee, Ethan Silverman (a veteran ICSOM delegate for the New York City Ballet Orchestra) quite busy as a member of ICSOM’s Nominating Committee!

In addition to various welcoming speeches and annual reports, the conference had important sessions to address topics that are of the utmost concern to our membership.

  • ICSOM Counsel Kevin Case and ICSOM President George Brown presented a negotiation workshop to highlight recent settlements and the trends that are occurring within ICSOM orchestras’ negotiations.
  • AFM Legislative and Political Director Alfonso Pollard delivered a report about the National Endowment for the Arts, federal anti-union legislation, the Fair Play Fair Pay bill, NAFTA, and healthcare.
  • AFM Symphonic Services Division members led breakout sessions about internal organizing that allowed our delegates to participate in some guided role-playing activities.
  • ICSOM Counsel Kevin Case and Dallas Symphony Orchestra musician David Sywak spoke about bargaining for healthcare.
  • ICSOM Electronic Media Committee Chair Brian Rood and AFM Director of Symphonic Electronic Media Debbie Newmark gave a presentation about electronic media and the Integrated Media Agreement.
  • There was a session and Q&A about our pension plan led by AFM President Ray Hair, Local 802 President Tino Gagliardi, Chris Brockmeyer, Will Luebking, Bob Behar, Alan Spatrick, Jani Rachelson and Rob Projansky. Two other pension fund trustees – ICSOM Secretary Laura Ross and ICSOM Electronic Media Committee Chair and AFM Strike Fund Trustee Brian Rood – were also present.
  • ICSOM Chair Meredith Snow moderated a panel called “What Does Diversity Mean to our Orchestras?” that highlighted the importance of diversity for our field to stay relevant to our audiences and supporters. The panel also educated the audience about fellowship programs already up and running in our orchestras. Participants included Don Harry (Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra), John Lofton (Los Angeles Philharmonic), Lovie Smith-Wright (AFM Diversity Committee Chair and president of AFM Local 65-699), Michael Morgan (Music Director/Gateways Music Festival and Oakland East Bay Symphony) and Robert Wagner (New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and member League of American Orchestras Board).
  • Cypress Media Group President Randy Whatley gave a presentation called “How to Craft a Community Relations Program for Musicians.”
  • ICSOM Counsel Kevin Case served as moderator for the panel “Back from the Brink,” which discussed how orchestras who have been through long work stoppages have succeeded in repairing relationships and restoring their orchestras to full potential. We heard from Allison Beck (federal mediator), Robert Massey (president/CEO Jacksonville Symphony), JoAnn Falletta (music director of Buffalo Philharmonic and Virginia Symphony), Kim Tichenor (Louisville Orchestra and ICSOM governing board/member-at-large) and Ken Thompkins (Detroit Symphony)

Participants got to visit Niagara Falls on the final evening. It was the perfect getaway for us to enjoy after many intense days of meetings and presentations.

Communication is the hallmark of ICSOM’s existence. In her opening address, Meredith Snow spoke about the importance of our orchestras’ ability to communicate and share strategies. Our committees have become increasingly capable and powerful within the sphere of our individual orchestras. But in creating our own identity, we may have lost touch with what it means to be a union that includes all of our colleagues. Meredith told the audience, “Our union is my commitment to you, to uphold the value of your labor. That is the basis of our Federation. The strength of that union is entirely dependent on our commitment to each other. Our individual actions determine its success. Our purpose here, the purpose of ICSOM, is to help our orchestras and our industry thrive. Our union, the American Federation of Musicians, is the means to that end.”

The Buffalo conference provided so many vital issues for us to discuss and bring back to our membership. Next year’s conference will be held in Cincinnati. We look forward to viewing the newly-renovated historic Music Hall, one of our country’s treasured concert venues.

Paul Austin, a horn player with the Grand Rapids Symphony, is the newly-elected president of ICSOM and a member of AFM Local 56 (Grand Rapids).