Riccardo Muti’s Radical Vision

Much has been made of Maestro Riccardo Muti’s outspoken support for the striking musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – and rightly so. It is a rare thing for a music director to come out publicly on the side of musicians engaged in a contentious dispute with that music director’s own employer. It is not unprecedented – Osmo Vanska, Robert Spano, and Donald Runnicles are recent examples of conductors siding with their musicians – but it is still uncommon. I imagine the musicians of several orchestras that were on strike in the past couple of years have been gazing enviously at Maestro Muti, comparing his actions with those of their own music directors who failed to give them similar public support.

But buried in Maestro Muti’s public comments is something I find even more significant. In a letter to the CSO’s board chair on March 6, 2019, he wrote this statement: “I hope that the board will remember that theirs is not a job but a mission, and that tranquility and serenity will be given for the artists to do their work.”

In that one sentence, Muti presented a striking vision of the role of board members of symphony orchestras and their attitude towards their musicians. In Muti’s vision, a board member above all acts in service to the mission of the organization, which is to present the finest symphonic music to that organization’s community; and to that end, the board member is obligated to make every effort to put the musicians in the best possible position to create that music. That means musicians must be provided with enough salary, health care benefits, and retirement security that they can focus on performing to the best of their ability – thereby fulfilling the orchestra’s mission. Instead of constantly struggling to make ends meet, nervously checking their 401k accounts or debating whether it is really necessary to spend money for a doctor’s visit, the artists are free to simply “do their work.”

I have sat across the bargaining table with enough board members (and managers who must do their bidding) to know that Muti’s vision does not reflect how many board members view their roles or their musicians. Many board members prize financial “sustainability” as the ultimate goal; and they see the musicians as employees – “labor” – who, along with administrative staff, provide “the product.” Consistent with common business practice, they want the “labor” to produce that “product” at the lowest possible cost.

That discrepancy, between Muti’s vision and the reality of what many board members believe, lies at the heart of every labor dispute in this industry. It is nearly impossible to find common ground when each side sees the world in such a fundamentally different way. Sometimes I think it is a miracle that we settle contracts at all.

That doesn’t mean board members are bad people – far from it. They are volunteers, and they wouldn’t be there if they didn’t believe in the mission of a symphony orchestra. Many are dedicated and tireless in their efforts. Indeed, when I hear speeches about “sustainability,” nine times out of ten that board member honestly believes he or she is doing the right thing in preserving the organization for the future. They have been told that is their mission, and they see themselves as fulfilling it.

Similarly, board members may view musicians as workers who make the product because that’s the paradigm they know (and it’s how capitalism operates). They harbor no ill will towards their musicians (mostly), and may sincerely express respect and admiration for them. Muti’s vision, in which the board sees musicians not as a workforce but as artists to whom they owe an obligation, is simply alien to them.

That is often manifested in complaints about how much of the budget goes to the musicians’ salary and benefits. To which I always reply, “where else should the money be going?” It’s almost laughable – a person who is willing to commit their time, expertise and money to the operation of an orchestra is miffed because so much money is allocated to . . . the orchestra. And many orchestras (including and perhaps especially the Chicago Symphony) spend their money on a great many things that aren’t the orchestra at all.

Is Muti’s vision realistic? Not everywhere; many communities simply don’t have the resources. But that doesn’t mean the board members in those communities shouldn’t make the effort. If they believe in the mission of the organization, then providing as comfortable a living as possible for their musicians is inseparable from that mission.

And in cities like Chicago, it isn’t a problem at all. Orchestras in large cities and mid-size cities with significant wealth have the resources (or the ability to obtain those resources). What is needed is the will on the part of many more board members to see musicians not as a line item on the budget, but as the very reason the organization exists in the first place. Owing an obligation to the mission of the orchestra and owing an obligation to the musicians of that orchestra are not two separate concepts – they are one and the same.

– Kevin Case