Goodbye, Long Island Philharmonic

Part of orchestra’s failure was that the board failed to listen to musicians

Volume 116, No. 4April, 2016

Tom Olcott
Tom Olcott is the financial vice president of Local 802 and the supervisor of the union's concert department

Tom Olcott is the financial vice president of Local 802 and the supervisor of the union’s concert department

Well, wouldn’t you know it! Remember how my column last month expressed cautious optimism about the freelance concert world? I wrote about some recent Local 802 deals that showed progress in wages and other conditions. I wondered if the recent toxic economic environment had actually abated enough to encourage donors to resume a robust support of nonprofits. For evidence, I submitted the New York Pops contract, which provides wage increases for the first time in several years. It seemed to be a strong indicator of an economic and funding recovery, a recovery that might benefit the freelance concert world in general.

Well, the day I submitted that article to Allegro, I received news that the Long Island Philharmonic had ceased operations. That news was actually not surprising to me. The Long Island Phil had been limping along for a number of years, without clear administrative guidance or realistic funding goals, much less any success meeting those goals. But the news also had a deeply personal, and, frankly, depressing effect. You see, I had served as principal trombone of the Long Island Philharmonic since 1982, ending only in 2011, when I assumed the role of financial vice president here at Local 802. My last professional performance as a trombonist was with the Long Island Phil…and the last piece was the “Stars and Stripes Forever” march.

The Long Island Philharmonic went out of business in February. Management consistently ignored advice from the musicians. Photo via

The Long Island Philharmonic went out of business in February. Management consistently ignored advice from the musicians. Photo via

I was also one of the first members of the Long Island Phil committee, which strongly defended musicians’ rights and was dedicated to the orchestra and its musicians. Most recently, that committee included Jay Shulman, John Babich, David Read, Valerie Levy and David Creswell. Over a number of years, the committee made many suggestions to management about marketing, fundraising, peer orchestra collaboration, board rejuvenation and successorship, and more. None of these suggestions were ever followed or given much credence by the failed management hierarchy. Our continuing efforts to steer the orchestra’s management towards a sustainable future were never accorded much attention. Would there have been a different outcome for the orchestra if the committee had been respected? Could the board’s actions have been better directed if they had acknowledged the committee’s expertise and experience? We will never know. Years ago, this orchestra contemplated a 20-week season. Now it has nothing. What a waste of talent.

The larger issue is this. From a business point of view, musicians should be seen as an asset, not a liability. Some orchestra board members have always rejected that premise. We’re not just talking about the Long Island Philharmonic – also look at the defunct Brooklyn Philharmonic. It is surely clear now that orchestra board members who reject the offer of assistance and advice from its own musicians do so at the peril of their own existence.

Organizational collapse is impossible to predict, but it is never inevitable. The practice of empowering and listening to musicians needs to be the new paradigm for orchestra outreach, credibility and even survival. Orchestra managers must honestly commit to their artists. This could lead to new funding models that might actually succeed. Mission statements need to be taken more seriously and they must actively supported by everyone in the organization – including board members, managers and musicians. That means you, Local 802 members! The contrary, head-to-head management position, our current reality, could not be more dysfunctional and self-destructive, not only to the business but more importantly to the survival and vitality of our art form. The obligation of all of us to unite and support our art could not be more striking when we are all witnessing the unconscionable collapse of our employers.

Understand as well that these points apply not just to a 37-year old institution like the Long Island Philharmonic, but also to newer ensembles, even ones that don’t enjoy Local 802 collective bargaining agreements. Ensembles that consider themselves to be operating under a new paradigm with no “managers” or “leaders” should take a second look at their structure. Do you play for an ensemble like this? If so, do you have a pension? Do you have health insurance? Do you believe a 401(k) or personal investments are viable substitutes for the AFM pension plan?

Finally, even though your ensemble may be “collaborative,” are you actually an empowered participant in strategic decisions? If not, maybe you should think about calling Local 802. We can help you assess your ensemble’s structure and give you suggestions that might ultimately increase musicians’ pay, benefits, respect and power.

Local 802 always looks at the bigger picture. We want our ensembles to survive, and that means supporting structures that are beneficial to both musicians and management. We even want to help with fundraising. But we cannot do so alone, and certainly not if orchestra board members ignore the expertise and input of our musicians. We all have a chance at survival if there is mutual respect. Without that, our future is up in the air. Look at the big freelance orchestras that were prominent a decade or two ago and that are now absent. Every one of those orchestras that are now out of the picture or close to it employed immensely intelligent, talented and dedicated musicians whose voices were ignored. When managers disregard those expert voices, they contribute significantly to the current degradation of a once-vital artistic scene. Let’s find the better way forward.