Fogel’s Flub: CSO Tries Hardball, Players Call Strike

Chicago Symphony Orchestra executive director Henry Fogel said in interviews last week that he was surprised by the musicians’ strike that canceled opening night and cast a pall over Daniel Barenboim’s debut as music director. But the musicians don’t see any reason for surprise. “Fogel simply misjudged our negotiating committee,” says CSO trumpet player George Vosburgh, one of the nine musicians on the union’s negotiating team.

Sad as it is, the CSO strike is a telling example of what can happen when an arts organization becomes so concerned with the bottom line that it ignores the concerns of its workers, the creators of the artistic product. Until now, Fogel has prided himself on never having taken a strike in his 13 years as a top orchestra executive. (Before coming here he served at the New York Philharmonic and the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington.)

Fogel declined comment on the negotiations, but musicians say the three-year contract he put on the table asked the players to pay for a large portion of their health insurance, the cost of which has been increasing at about 20 percent a year. The musicians calculated that such a change would amount to a $2,000 give-back in the third year of the contract. Agreeing to Fogel’s health insurance demands, say negotiators on the musicians’ side, would also have set a dangerous precedent for future contract talks at other major orchestras, where according to the musicians’ research all health insurance has traditionally been paid for by the employer.

The CSO players were in no mood for give-backs after seeing Fogel spend liberally in other areas to make Barenboim happy in his first year on the job. They point, for instance, to Fogel’s decision to take John Corigliano’s Symphony no. 1 on a European tour, a choice that, according to the musicians’ calculations, added about $200,000 to tour costs for additional percussion instrumentation and ten more musicians. “We’re not telling Fogel how to spend his money,” snorts Vosburgh, “but I don’t think he had to take that piece to Europe.” Fogel also raised the budget of the Civic Orchestra, the CSO’s training orchestra, from $400,000 last year to more than $600,000 this year.

The musicians and their legal counsel say Fogel knew mid-summer, when negotiations began, that orchestra members would not play without a signed contract. Fogel also knew the issue of health insurance could easily prompt a walkout, but apparently decided to test the musicians’ resolve. “This has been an educational experience for Fogel,” adds Vosburgh.

The strike is the second blotch this year on Fogel’s otherwise strong record at the CSO. Earlier this year he found himself on a shaky limb when a vocal segment of the orchestra’s board of directors came down hard against a new performing arts center for the symphony and the Lyric Opera, a project Fogel had vigorously campaigned for. Now the strike has left him at odds with his musicians and raised concerns about both his negotiating skills and his long-term strategy for managing the orchestra. “He’s displaying what is for him a new style of brinksmanship,” says Michael Greenfield, the musicians’ counsel, who helped negotiate two previous CSO contracts with Fogel.

When he arrived in 1985, Fogel quickly transformed the CSO into a tightly managed business, cutting administrative staff among other things. Like a good corporate chieftain, he ended seasons with financial surpluses, while music director Sir Georg Solti garnered accolades for himself and the orchestra around the world. Fogel’s administration was recognized last year by Business Week magazine, which named him one of the five top arts administrators in the country. (Lyric general director Ardis Krainik, who has followed a similar strategy within her company, was also on the list.)

But rising costs, coupled with the need to maintain the orchestra’s glittering image, have begun to take their toll. Fogel wound up the last fiscal year barely $3,000 in the black. Faced with a recession that will undoubtedly eat into ticket sales this season and the same rising insurance costs plaguing other corporations, Fogel and his board apparently opted to try to pass some of their costs back to the unionized workers.

If this were a strike at a widget factory, Fogel might have been able to hire replacement workers willing to accept his demands. But musicians aren’t easily replaceable, and Fogel, alas, can’t dismiss them en masse (the way Ronald Reagan, for example, did the air traffic controllers). So he’s going to have to find another way to reconcile their demands with the needs of the corporation. Executives at other arts organizations are sure to be watching what happens.

Early this week Greenfield said that if the strike is not settled by the time you read this, it might last for two or three months or more. Such an outcome could leave the orchestra’s image badly tattered and make it a lot harder for Fogel to patch things up.

Film Fest Surprise: Barbra Backs Out

It’s final: Barbra Streisand won’t be coming to the 27th annual Chicago International Film Festival. When the festival opens on October 11, it won’t be with a retrospective of her film work but with the American premiere of a Twentieth Century-Fox film called 29th Street, about the first winner of the New York state lottery, directed by George Gallo and starring Danny Aiello, Lainie Kazan, and Anthony LaPaglia. Festival director Michael Kutza said negotiations with Streisand began to break down after Columbia Pictures moved the opening of her new film The Prince of Tides from September to December to put it in stronger contention for the Oscar race. Then, when an article in the September issue of Vanity Fair knocked Streisand for not making personal appearances to raise money for AIDS, Streisand grew concerned that a film festival appearance would make her appear self-indulgent. Adding salt to Kutza’s wound, a videocassette retrospective of Streisand’s films and life is expected to go on sale in December in conjunction with the release of The Prince of Tides.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.