Robert Levine  

A Tale of Two Meetings

Robert Levine
June 28, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

I spent all last week (June 17 - 23, 2007) attending two meetings: the 97th Convention of the American Federation of Musicians in Las Vegas and the 62nd National Conference of the American Symphony Orchestra League in Nashville. They couldn't have been more different.

- Robert Levine

The AFM and the ASOL are, of course, inherently different organizations. The AFM is a labor union; the League is a service organization for the entire field of American orchestras, from youth orchestras to the “Big Five.” The AFM negotiates for musicians; the League doesn’t negotiate for anyone (and only with its own vendors). The AFM’s money comes from individual musicians in the form of membership dues and work dues. The League’s revenue (which is less than the AFM’s, by the way) comes from donations, dues from orchestras, and the annual conference.

So it’s no surprise that the national meetings of the AFM and the ASOL differ both in substance and in vibe. Most conventions of national unions are about governance; who will run the union and under what rules. That’s exactly what the AFM convention in Vegas was about. The League meeting has almost no governance component at all – a pro forma annual meeting and a very short board meeting. But a service organization is really governed by whether its constituencies want, and are willing to pay for, its services. No one has to pay dues to the ASOL, which gives those who do a lot of influence. Musicians working under CBAs are legally required (except in right-to-work states) to pay dues to the union, so the real governance work has to be done formally through the democratic process.

I attended the AFM convention as a voting delegate from the Milwaukee Musicians Asssociation, AFM Local 8. I’ve written extensively about the convention on a blog I started before the 2005 convention called AFM Observer. It’s actually a combination of three blogs: the main one, which is pre- and post-convention analysis and bloviating, one devoted to campaign materials from candidates for AFM office, and a convention diary (which this year only covered the first two days). There are also several other blogs about the AFM and the convention that can be reached via links at AFM Observer. Rather than repeat what I’ve already written, you should go take a look if you’re interested about what happened in Vegas. If you do, please understand that all the content was done on my own time and represents my views exclusively. If you don’t like what I’ve written, don’t blame Polyphonic, or the League, or the AFM, or the American Viola Society – blame me.

What happens at League meetings, if not governance? It’s a combination of networking, learning, and trade show. It can feel like a gathering of the clans; I’ve met people at League meetings I hadn’t seen for years. Not everyone important in the field shows up, but many do. The range of seminars of varying lengths and sizes is impressive. And there are vendors (some with impressive booths) that I had never heard of, as well as the usual suspects (publishers, agents, and the like).

Text The name-change button passed out at the League's Annual Meeting. (click to enlarge)

This year I attended both as faculty (I helped with a seminar on electronic media strategies that was also taught by Joe Kluger and Laura Brownell) and as a member of the League board. The big news out of the conference is that the League is changing its name from the American Symphony Orchestra League to the League of American Orchestras. At the annual meeting they passed out buttons to make the point (see sidebar) as well as presented a very funny country-western song to add a Nashville twang to the message.

The League always has a concert by the host orchestra at its national conference. This year it was a concert by the Nashville Symphony in their new hall. The orchestra sounded great; the hall sounded pretty good. I had been looking forward to hearing the hall ever since I saw it, still under construction, last August. It is a near-copy of the Musikvereinsalle in Vienna in size, shape, and architectural style. It doesn’t quite match that hall’s legendary acoustics, though. In particular I was expecting a little more “ring” to the sound, and I was far from alone in that observation. But, as a friend pointed out afterwards, it’s hard for any hall to provide the kind of impact to the audience that the musicians experience on stage. Having said all that, it's still a very attractive sound, and much better than any of the other new halls I've heard recently.

Because there is so much activity in such a short time, it’s literally impossible to attend everything (and many of the meetings are constituency meetings that are closed). The three most interesting sessions for me were one held for musicians with former San Francisco Symphony CEO Peter Pastreich, the Thursday plenary session called “Engaging Art – A Public Discussion,” and the Saturday morning session called “A Radical New Revenue Model for Orchestras.”

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