The Chamber Music Conundrum

Financial Vice Presidents Report

Volume 116, No. 6June, 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

Local 802 has always sought to negotiate contracts with fair wages, reasonable working conditions, health care contributions and retirement benefits. After many decades of activism and countless hours of bargaining, Local 802 musicians currently enjoy a robust variety of collective bargaining agreements that acknowledge those values. Our contracts with Broadway as well as with the major orchestras and ballets, club date agencies and hotels are all a result of union’s largely successful efforts. Those mature agreements reflect Local 802’s long-standing dedication to its musicians.

But most members are surely aware of a parallel performance universe. Chamber music, string quartets, small jazz groups and soloists have all existed outside the sphere of union representation for many decades. For example, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center operates without a union agreement, even though every other Lincoln Center ensemble is covered by a Local 802 contract. Major string quartets operate without the protections of the union. Even the major woodwind and brass quintets in NYC, populated by Local 802 members who faithfully work union jobs elsewhere, exist without union agreements and benefits.

For many members, chamber music is a welcome outlet for artistic impulses not readily available or expressible in other regular employment. At the same time, there is no inherent or structural reason why these artistic endeavors cannot be part of the union universe! Union representation would actually present a benefit to those performers seeking an artistic haven away from routine work. That said, there seems to be a deeper psychology at work when our members play chamber music, one that might be seen as the “personal artistic expression factor.” This means that while our members are union activists when they play in an orchestra, the feelings of union activism become muted when they play in a chamber group, because that kind of performing seems to be more for personal enjoyment and artistic expression. I certainly experienced that dichotomy while I was a performer.

I submit that those contrasts need not be in opposition. There are ways to enjoy the artistic freedom of playing in small ensembles while still enjoying union wages, benefits and job security. We believe that the perceived gap is a false barrier to reasonable working conditions and compensation. Local 802 can assist in bridging that gap.

But then what happens when a company starts as a very small group, then grow and grows, until finally it’s a larger ensemble…but still calls itself a “young, innovative chamber orchestra” or even an “orchestral collective”? What does this even mean? This has happened with at least two companies that we know of: the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and the Knights. Both of these, and many others, assert that they are a special kind of ensemble that’s beyond traditional labels. These companies try to get their musicians to think of them in this way, which creates a barrier to musicians asserting their rights.

This opens up some interesting questions. How big can a “chamber group” be? How small or large can a “chamber orchestra” be? What is a “collective”?

The ultimate arbiters of such questions are you, the musicians. If you play in an ensemble, you might ask: are we “chamber musicians”? Are we “soloists” – all of us, at the same time? When does a chamber music job turn into an orchestral engagement? If this is a “collective,” do I really have a say? Are we part of a larger company that should actually be paying us NYC standards, like union wages and benefits? These are only a few of the questions that can arise when the chamber music characterization becomes muddied.

I should note that groups like Orpheus and the St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble (and, outside of our jurisdiction, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra) all started out small, became bigger, and ultimately agreed to protect their musicians with a union contract, without any contradiction. Now those musicians enjoy wages and benefits that are enormously advantageous to themselves, their families and their careers.

Local 802 relies on its members to address these issues. Please consult with us. Calls are always kept confidential. If you remain silent when you feel your working conditions seem unfair, we can be sympathetic from afar, but we won’t be able to make the necessary connection to help you. We would vastly prefer to help. Call us at (212) 245-4802 and ask for the Concert Department.