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A suspension bridge to nowhere good

0 Robert Levine

The future of the Detroit Symphony may well ride on the DSO board’s definition of the word “suspend“:

The crisis surrounding the Detroit Symphony Orchestra strike hit a new peak Saturday, increasing the possibility that the financially crippled orchestra may not play a single note of music this season.

The musicians rejected management’s final contract offer, and management and the board of directors responded by carrying out a long-promised threat to suspend the remaining 3-1/2 months of the 2010-11 season. Half the season was lost to the 20-week strike already.

Saturday’s developments call into question not only the next few months in the life of the DSO but also next season and beyond. No major U.S. orchestra in memory lost an entire season to a labor conflict, and no one knows what will happen next in the DSO saga.

Management said it hoped suspending the season would allow its guest artists, patrons and donors to move forward and give the orchestra room to start rebuilding parts of its business. Guest artists for the winter and spring were released from contracts and a surge in patron requests for refunds is likely to follow.

Next season’s schedule, which ordinarily would have been announced by now, enters a no-man’s-land with no signed contracts. The ranks of alienated donors and patrons could swell, new subscription income disappears and musicians risk losing an entire year’s pay.

I think it’s worse than that. I suspect that, unless this is settled soon, there will be no “next season.” How can an orchestra raise money and sell tickets for a season that cannot happen without a labor agreement that couldn’t be reached at the point when the parties are, like Holmes and Moriarty, wrestling at the edge of the cliff? If there’s no agreement soon, it seems highly unlikely there’ll be one any time before the normal start of next season. And if there’s no next season, the odds of the DSO returning in anything resembling its current form and stature in the next few years are very small indeed.

That’s why I think the word “suspend” offers a ray of hope, albeit a tiny and dim one. Things suspended can be unsuspended. Things canceled can’t be uncanceled in the same way. It may seem a semantic difference, but such fine distinctions can matter a lot at this point.

But it’s a tiny and dim ray of hope nonetheless. Far more likely is that the skippers of the good ship SS DSO will continue to search for terra incognita, blithely oblivious to the fact that all that’s waiting for them there is a cliff to nowhere.

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