Classical musicians come together

Volume 112, No. 10October, 2012

Bruce Ridge

As ICSOM celebrates its 50th anniversary, symphonic and opera musicians unite to keep classical music in the spotlight

It was a day to remember. On May 12, 1962, thirty musicians from twelve of the greatest orchestras in the world gathered in Chicago to create a new organization, the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM). A larger group, with even more attendees representing more orchestras, met again in September 1962 in Cleveland. The decisions made by those founding members of ICSOM changed the entire landscape for orchestra musicians over the next five decades.

Fifty years later, ICSOM returned to Chicago for the largest conference yet.

In a display of unity and democracy, representatives of ICSOM’s 51 member orchestras, along with many officers of AFM locals, members of the AFM International Executive Board, leaders of the Regional Orchestra Players’ Association, the Organization of Canadian Symphony Musicians, the Theater Musicians Association, and the Recording Musician Association all gathered together to celebrate ICSOM’s 50th anniversary.

1962 was a time of great difficulty for orchestra musicians. There were no full-year orchestras, and annual salaries averaged around $5,000. Orchestral musicians had no job security, no benefits, and no say in the negotiation and ratification of their contracts. ICSOM changed all of that.

Following the success of the Chicago Musicians for Union Democracy in 1961, unionized symphonic musicians across North America united in a way that has served as an inspiration for many generations of instrumentalists.

Ultimately, the musicians of ICSOM won recognition from the AFM, won the right of ratification, and played crucial roles in the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts, the AFM Symphony-Opera Strike Fund, and the audition code of ethics.

These victories were not easily won. The incredibly brave founding musicians of ICSOM faced retribution from their managements, and even the scrutiny of their government. Their phones were tapped, and many paid dearly, becoming victims of a righteous cause.

Even the acknowledgment of the AFM came with difficulty, as the founding of ICSOM came just two years after the 1960 AFM convention had defeated a resolution to create a National Conference of Symphony Musicians.

The unity on display fifty years later was all the more remarkable when viewed in this historic context

It was a tremendous demonstration of the progress that has been made to see representatives from all areas of the AFM gathered together around ICSOM’s message of unity.

The delegates to the conference were greeted by our host, Gary Matts, the president of AFM Local 10-208 (Chicago). What a difference fifty years can make. In 1962 it was a different Chicago AFM local president – James Petrillo – who ignored the needs of orchestral musicians so much that the birth of ICSOM became inevitable.

Today, great AFM local leaders such as Gary Matts, and Local 802’s President Tino Gagliardi, are among the best friends orchestra musicians could ever hope to have.

Despite the incredible success that ICSOM has led in these past five decades, with the resulting increases in salaries, full-time employment, job security, and the elevation of the quality of orchestras in North America of every budget size, all is not well.

2012 has found us in another time of difficulty, where some of our managements are seeking to explain their own failures by quoting faulty data that proclaims the demise of symphonic music and the arts in America.

Managers in some locations are seeking to increase their own income by decreasing the income of their musicians, and musicians are being demonized by the national managerial organizations that should be articulating a positive message of advocacy.

The symphonic field is mirroring the socio-economic environment of the country, where anti-union, anti-worker sentiment and destructive rhetoric is undermining the middle class.

But, we are not losing, and nothing is lost. The nonprofit arts and culture industry in America provides over four million jobs annually, and leads to $135 billion in economic activity for our cities.

In many communities, ICSOM orchestras are the citizens’ most prominent ambassadors. ICSOM musicians spend countless hours every day with America’s school children, educating the next generation through the crucial element of music.

Donations to the arts are recovering from the recession at twice the rate of other charitable giving, and many orchestras have not only survived the economic downturn but in fact have thrived.

The story to be told is not that some orchestras have suffered, but rather that so many have done so well.

Unfortunately, too often that is not the story being told. Negative rhetoric on the part of managers is being used to explain away their failure, as if somehow the future of their organizations is completely out of their hands. It is this destructive anti-worker viewpoint that has led managements and boards to lock out their musicians, and found other orchestras reduced to a size that can only undermine future success.

Even in New York City, the cultural mecca of the world, the beloved New York City Opera – the “People’s Opera” – has been cut to a shadow of its glory by a management that hides its complete lack of vision behind “new model” terminology.

The musicians of the New York City Opera Orchestra are among the greatest in the world. They have always performed at a world-class level, and they deserve a management that can do the same.

In Chicago, we were honored to be joined by some of the legendary founders of ICSOM. Our gathering was a tribute to them, but we hope that our greatest tribute to their vision is that ICSOM is focused squarely on the future. As Abraham Lincoln said, the best way to predict your future is to create it.

As the founders of ICSOM came together in 1962 to form a new organization, so again have the musicians of ICSOM in 2012. We are in the process of creating the American Symphonic Advocacy Project, a charitable organization that will have the ability to articulate a positive message in the media and throughout our communities about the value of the arts and music. We hope to embrace the mission of positive advocacy that many of our managements seem to have willfully abandoned, and we are confident that our audiences are eager to hear the inspirational message that our orchestras provide.

As Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago stated in his proclamation that declared that the opening day of the 50th anniversary conference would be recognized as “International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians Day,” the actions of our founders “undoubtedly had a resounding impact within culture and upon the overall performance of music and music quality throughout the United States.”

The 50th anniversary of ICSOM is a time for reflection and reverence for the musicians who rose up at a time when it would have been easier to stay silent, but it is also a time for articulating a vision for the future, and we must not hesitate to dream great dreams simply because they are hard to achieve.

Just as the formation of ICSOM changed everything in 1962, we are certain that a group of ICSOM musicians, many as yet unborn, will gather once again in 2062 to celebrate the accomplishments of the next fifty years.

Bruce Ridge is the chariman of ICSOM. For more, see