Backstage Pass

By: Charlie Huisking

Ever since the long, acrimonious contract dispute between the musicians of the Sarasota Orchestra and its management was resolved, people keep asking me who won. The obvious answer is that the Sarasota-Manatee community won. Because now the staff, board and musicians can again focus  their energy on presenting the concerts and educational  programs that make […]


asset_upload_file296_30743.jpgEver since the long, acrimonious contract dispute between the musicians of the Sarasota Orchestra and its management was resolved, people keep asking me who won.

The obvious answer is that the Sarasota-Manatee community won. Because now the staff, board and musicians can again focus  their energy on presenting the concerts and educational  programs that make the orchestra such a vital and respected force.

But the settlement seems to be a clear victory for the musicians. True, they got only a two-year deal, not the three-year pact they wanted. But the 41 full-time musicians will take only a 2.5 percent pay cut this year, rather than the 8 percent cut management pushed for in the original offer.  

The agreement also calls for the musicians to be involved in the Sarasota Music Festival for the first time, as they had wanted. And dozens of management’s proposed changes in working conditions were dropped from the final document after objections from the musicians.

The musicians didn’t regain a seat on the orchestra board, as they had hoped. That’s a shame, because clearly there’s a lack of trust and a failure of communication between management and the musicians. That trust needs to be restored, or we’ll be in the same situation in two years.

The musicians also won the battle of public opinion. They set up a terrific Web site that explained their position in detail and offered point-by-point responses to management’s arguments. Perhaps that’s one reason the pro-musician letters to the Herald-Tribune and other publications vastly outnumbered those favoring management. Fairly or not, management was perceived as coldly corporate and bullying, particularly after they threatened to sue the players individually if they went ahead with a free concert/informational meeting.

Of course, management said they were only trying to be responsible stewards in difficult times.   Because of a drop in donations and state grant money, the orchestra had to withdraw $515,000 from an emergency fund last season. Even before the settlement, I heard the organization is prepared to withdraw another $400,000 this year, leaving only a couple hundred thousand in reserve.

But management didn’t get much sympathy for its hard-line position, particularly when management’s salaries became a flashpoint in this dispute. Four top staff members made $100,000 or above in 2007-08 (though senior staff took a 10 percent pay cut this year). CEO Joe McKenna made $192,000. According to data on the musicians’ Web site, he earns a higher percentage of the orchestra’s budget than do any of the CEOs or executive directors at 11 U.S. orchestras with comparable budgets.

In an interview before the settlement, McKenna told me management’s salaries weren’t out of line when compared with a broad spectrum of orchestras. McKenna and the board now need to do a better job of relating not only to the musicians, but to their audiences and supporters. During this dispute, it became clear that the community feels passionately about the orchestra, and doesn’t want harm to come to it. But too many people have told me they feel alienated from the organization’s leadership.

An Emotional Solo

Even under normal circumstances, violinist Daniel Jordan would have been excited about his upcoming first Masterworks solo appearance with the Sarasota Orchestra. But that it comes after his recent bout with thyroid cancer makes it an even more profound experience.

The 36-year-old Jordan, the orchestra’s concertmaster since 1998, noticed a lump on his neck in August. The diagnosis: a malignant tumor on his thyroid. He missed the orchestra’s opening Masterworks concerts while undergoing two surgeries.

Now, his prognosis is for a full recovery. But a few months ago, he wondered whether he would be physically and emotionally ready to perform Bruch’s demanding Scottish Fantasy on Jan. 8, 9 and 10.

“But it was important to me to have this performance as a goal to look forward to while I was going through all of this,” Jordan says. “And it was a great motivation for me to keep positive and stay in shape.”

When conductor Leif Bjaland asked Jordan what he’d like to play in his solo turn, he immediately thought of the Scottish Fantasy, a sumptuous piece that incorporates Scottish folk tunes.

“It’s the first piece I remember loving when I started playing as a child,” Jordan says. “I would listen to a Jascha Heifetz recording over and over. It’s full of simple, beautiful melodies. It’s one of those pieces that have such a purity of sound. It has always given me goose bumps.”

His brush with cancer “has certainly given me a different perspective,” Jordan says. “It’s made me appreciate my family and friends and co-workers more; it’s given me a new appreciation of what a great life I have.”

A member of the musicians’ negotiating committee, Jordan was as involved as he could be in the recent contract dispute with management. He had strong opinions about what he called the unfair proposals from management, but his soft-spoken, thoughtful nature made him a calming force.

“We feel we have to stand up for ourselves, but nobody wants to do anything to damage an organization we love,” he said before the settlement. “We are hopeful that by bringing to light the issues that we have, we’ll actually make it a healthier organization in the long term.”

For more information on the Masterworks concerts, go to sarasotaorchestra.org.

Red-Carpet Treatment

I’m awarding an honorary Oscar for Promotional Savvy to Jeanne Corcoran, the dynamic director of the Sarasota County Film & Entertainment Office. In October, Corcoran arranged for eight accomplished Hollywood producers to check out Sarasota as a possible location site for future projects. The visit was part of her mission to make film and television production a significant economic engine in Sarasota.

The Hollywood contingent, whose credits include Spiderman, Hannah Montana: The Movie, Julie & Julia and The Departed, got a land-and-sea tour of the area’s diverse locations, from bayfront mansions to deserted beaches and wilderness areas. They also met with the area’s government and business leaders.

“It really was a home run,” says Corcoran, who took the Sarasota job in 2007 after managing the Nevada Film Office in Las Vegas. “People had their eyes opened about the possibilities in Sarasota.”

Another purpose of the event was to educate local leaders about what it takes to attract productions. One inducement is tax rebates for a portion of location expenditures, which Florida offers to a limited degree. “But there are so many more things that can make a difference, from waiving permitting fees to offering free use of vacant public buildings,” Corcoran says.

The filmmakers noted that Sarasota has one major drawback—a lack of soundstages for interior shooting. But Corcoran says the producers toured the 15,000-square-foot Robarts Sports Arena and felt it could be made to work until a permanent facility is constructed.

And it turns out that construction of a soundstage is on the wish list at the Ringling College of Art and Design. President Larry Thompson told me he’s interested in exploring a possible partnership deal that could benefit not only the college but the wider community. Corcoran says she’d love to see the day when some of the Ringling students who get Hollywood jobs after graduation might have the chance to stay here and pursue their careers.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must note that I’ve been impressed with Corcoran since we were students together at Cardinal Mooney High School. In fact, she played Juliet in a low-tech film of Romeo and Juliet that I made as a school project. And by the way, we filmed inside Cà d’Zan, and without a permit fee.

Don’t worry, Jeanne, even can we add 4 words? though your performance was terrific, I won’t embarrass you by posting clips on YouTube.

Visionary Thinking

Congratulations to arts and tourism leaders for thinking big and deciding to create a new cultural festival with that $1 million bonus they received from the Sarasota County Tourist Tax program.

The money was available this year because of a change in the county’s accounting process. The arts groups could have pushed to divide the money among themselves through a grant process. That’s the way the arts portion of the tourist tax revenue is normally divided.

But it’s so much smarter to pool the money to create something with more dramatic and long-lasting impact: an arts festival that could attract visitors from around the country and enhance Sarasota’s reputation as a cultural tourism mecca.

The success of the first Ringling International Arts Festival in October shows how much excitement and attention an arts festival can generate. That festival focused largely on visiting performers and artists, which is fine. But hopefully the new festival, still in the early planning stages, can use local organizations as the framework from which to evolve.

I loved the passion of Russ Crumley at the Tourist Development Council meeting where the festival was approved. “By creating this festival, you allow us to slay the uninspired mind, dance on the grave of boredom and sing at the funeral of a lingering recession,” said Crumley, who left his position as executive director of the Sarasota County Arts Council in October.

Crumley deserves immense credit for stepping in quickly when, initially, it looked as if the $1 million was going to be earmarked only for cultural tourism marketing. He galvanized the arts community to jump on the festival bandwagon.

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