Use of Low-Wage Student Orchestras Poses a Challenge to the Union

Guest Commentary

Volume XCIX, No. 9October, 1999

Sato Moughalian

Recently, I called Vice-President Mary Landolfi for her advice on an incident that I felt might be of general concern to union members. She responded immediately and subsequently asked me to write about the issue of organizations that are now attempting to replace professional musicians in long-standing union jobs with low-wage student groups. In some cases, these groups are being assembled with the cooperation and active encouragement of their respective conservatories.

I had learned that the Barnard-Columbia Chorus, which had for many years engaged a professional orchestra twice a year, would be replacing it with a student group contracted from the Manhattan School of Music. Despite the very small scope of this particular job, Landolfi felt that this situation reflected a disturbing trend on the New York scene, and that the issues involved should once again be brought to the attention of Local 802 members. (The same issues were described very eloquently by contractor Jon Taylor in these pages a few years ago, with reference to the Paul Taylor Dance Company.)

I have played this engagement for about 10 years and, since 1995, have been contracting this orchestra, drawing players from ensembles such as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the American Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, New York City Opera Orchestra, and faculty members from the three major conservatories in Manhattan. These musicians brought a profound knowledge of the great choral masterworks, and a commitment to enriching the learning experience of a very bright group of students. They were pleased to work with these young people, who also represent the future of classical music audiences, and a number of them played for the chorus on a consistent basis.

In June, Music Director Gail Archer abruptly informed me that the services of this orchestra would no longer be needed, since she had made arrangements to replace them with a student orchestra from the Manhattan School of Music. She is on the faculty of both institutions. In fact, she said, this would not be simply a student orchestra since the instrumental students were to be paid for their work, making it, in her words, a “professional engagement.”

Certainly, one can make an argument regarding the value of using student instrumentalists to accompany a student chorus. However, the very different approach that she had taken in the past – the use of a top-flight orchestra to help to push the student chorus to the highest possible level – seemed to work most successfully. In fact, in 1998 Dr. Archer had ambitiously recorded a difficult contemporary work for chorus, soloists and chamber orchestra for release on the CRI label with highly-polished results.

The scenario she has created will not only place the student chorus and “student” orchestra on different levels, but will pit the instrumental students, the future professionals of Local 802 and the AFM., against an older group of players (including some who are currently on the Manhattan School of Music faculty) who have been playing this job as a long-standing professional engagement. In essence, the students are being asked, for very low wages, to replace their own teachers and their future colleagues. That is the crux of the problem – the divisiveness that is being created on many levels – which I am convinced is harmful to the students’ future professionalism.

While students are naturally eager for opportunities to perform, I am convinced that if they fully understood the implications of this type of situation they would not be willing to be used to replace professional musicians and to undermine professional standards. I am aware of two situations in the last few months where students have refused to take part in efforts to replace professional freelance orchestras. The Metropolitan Opera Guild was forced to cancel its production of Rossini’s Il Signor Bruschino when students at Mannes College learned that they would be taking a job previously done by the Metropolitan Opera Guild orchestra. Also, the American Opera Musical Theatre Company’s production of Iolanta at Town Hall was finally presented with a single pianist, after several efforts to pull together a student orchestra failed.

I hope that Local 802 and particularly its members who come in contact with very young musicians will expand their efforts to reach students with the message that it is in their own future interest and the interest of the current members of Local 802 to share the goal of protecting and promoting professional standards. More students need to understand that, by supporting the union and its members, they are helping to ensure that their own future professional lives will be secure and fairly compensated.

We must also reach out to our colleagues who teach in the music schools of New York. They have an important role to play in dissuading school administrations from assisting employers in their efforts to secure low-wage musicians to replace professional players.

Our success in such a campaign can help ensure that music students, who are in fact already members of the larger community of all musicians, have the brightest possible future in a competitive profession. I hope that all 802 members will see the value of such efforts, and give them their wholehearted and thoughtful support. ð

Vice-President Mary Landolfi will describe Local 802’s plans to address the problem outlined in this article in the next issue of Allegro.