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Global Working Conditions for Musicians: An Unchanged Status Quo
Sergio Escalera, pianist; Cofounder of La Sociedad Boliviana de Música de Cámara; Global Leaders Program alumnus
The fragility of many musicians’ working conditions has become increasingly evident in recent years. Especially in elite orchestras and art venues, COVID-19 made visible much about classical music institutions’ conservative nature, as seen in practices that reflect a common, worldwide systematic problem.
Even as many of our grassroots initiatives declare the importance of supporting musician change-makers—and call for our institutions to actively participate in that support through their practices—the attitude of those core institutions seems unchanged, even after two years on hold. The high global incidence of orchestra dismissals is distressing, as is the non-transparency of some orchestras and conservatories.
This is an issue that directly affects many of the teaching artists invested in local festivals and social initiatives around the world, because oftentimes they are orchestra musicians too. They may depend on part-time conservatory or orchestra jobs not only to make their incomes more substantial, but also to maintain a healthy connection across different musical strata in a specific national or local context.
In recent weeks, orchestras like the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, the Odense Symphony Orchestra, and the Luzerner Sinfonieorchester, to name only a few, announced vacancies that were open only to EU citizens and to citizens from other European countries with high rates of GDP per capita. This requirement has become common across many orchestras and music institutions on the continent. Other orchestras are open to hiring non-EU citizens, so long as they hold a non-temporary residency and an EU work permit. In other words, even top-level conservatory students will not be offered a position if their EU status is “temporary resident”—the default status for most immigrants. They are not even welcome to audition. (The situation is somewhat different in the post-Brexit U.K., where many EU immigrant musicians opted to return to mainland Europe; non-EU immigrants have a better chance there, although it’s frankly acknowledged that this is partly to meet diversity quotas.)
Across the Atlantic, there are contrasting scenarios: while audiences in the U.S. rejoice in the powerful comebacks of the most high-profile orchestras, the situation elsewhere seems grimmer even than pre-Covid times. The Filarmónica de Boca del Río, in Veracruz, Mexico, is a case in point. After having spent almost two years away from their main stage, Foro Boca, and enduring 50% salary cuts since August 2020, 19 of their orchestra musicians reported unjustified termination of employment with no prior notice. These brutal dismissals were a response to their just demands for minimally decent working conditions. To date, they’ve received evasive answers from the orchestra heads about why they were let go.
Why are we seeing this kind of intensified interdiction and injustice in major orchestras—especially after a devastating pandemic that motivated such compassionate words from many of their leaders? In my view, the new decade has brought both economic recession and inflamed political interests, which have combined to produce a more unequal world in terms of rights and access to opportunities. More than ever, the classical music establishment has come to resemble the global socio-political elites. This partially explains the orchestras’ dismissals and their fears of welcoming foreigners into their institutions. Sadly, however, this current juncture is but another chapter in a long story of certain orchestras and music conservatories not supporting their musicians.
If this pandemic was not enough to unveil the truly universal common interest among musicians and the countries that enwrap them, it is perhaps because those who have long attempted to live by that principle have been insufficiently celebrated: amateur orchestras and choirs, grassroots festivals, and other horizontal projects that offer equal opportunities and, oftentimes, equal or better artistic rewards.
Community music-making and amateur ensembles were the foundations of cultural life more than a century ago—they are the origins of our top orchestras and music schools—and they should be our foundations now as well. Perhaps these initiatives offer a window of hope for our generation and its successors; they have always prepared for hardship, and they are fully aware of community needs, local economies, and the fair distribution of work. It is only within this framework that we might finally achieve just treatment and compensation for our artists, with a renewed cultural dynamic that effectively connects the top of the musical pyramid with its base, and makes a transparent and compelling case for supporting musicians well.