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Detroit Symphony Orchestra returns to form after strike

16 April 11 11:00 GMT

By Petroc Trelawny
Presenter, BBC Radio 3

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) has returned to work after a six-month strike over money, but despite taking a pay cut the musicians - like their city - face an uncertain future.

The 80-odd people gathered in front of me did not look particularly militant.

The women wore black silk dresses, the men sober suits, their ties providing the only splash of individual colour.

They carried their tools, not the spanners of the motor production line, but valuable violins, black lacquered clarinets, highly-polished horns.

Their workplace was not a factory but Orchestra Hall, an ornate, near century-old auditorium with marble pillars, a gilt proscenium arch, and friezes showing classical scenes.

The musicians of the DSO returned to work after a strike that has led to the cancellation of every concert since last September.

The DSO has a formidable reputation, but, like its home city, its financial problems are enormous.

It owes the banks $54m (£34m) in real estate debts. Its endowment fund has been hit by the stock market collapse.

Worth $60m (£37m) three years ago, it now stands at little more than a third of that sum.

Management proposed a radical recovery strategy that included players taking a pay cut.

The dispute became increasingly bitter, and, banned from Orchestra Hall, the musicians started staging free concerts, and using the internet to make their case.

Last year the starting salary for a musician was $104,000, (£61,000). This year players will earn 23% less.

Neither management nor musicians are claiming victory in this dispute.

One veteran cellist, an orchestra member for more than half a century, told me he thought it would be a long time before the wounds finally healed.

But the strike has had one positive effect - the orchestra's profile in Detroit is higher than it has been in years.

Tickets were free for the much-delayed season opening last weekend. The musicians came on stage to a three-minute standing ovation and hundreds of supporters were turned away.

Sense of identity

Detroit needs "good news" stories like the DSO, said Joel Landy, a maverick property developer who lives a few blocks from Orchestra Hall.

He is one of the people who have started the redevelopment of Detroit's mid-town district, an area that still has its fair share of abandoned buildings and boarded-up shops.

"This area was full of prostitutes and junkies when we arrived," he said, "gradually it has begun to change."

A veteran of 1960s peace and civil rights protests, he is not your standard advocate of urban gentrification.

But he is slowly improving his area, by converting a ruined hotel into smart new flats, and opening a restaurant underneath.

He estimated he lost up to 10% of business each week when the orchestra was out.

He said he hated classical music himself, but argued that the orchestra gives Detroit, and particularly his area of it, a real sense of identity.

Mr Landy recalled days when Woodward Avenue, the main route to downtown, was so quiet people would use it for games of basketball.

Now it is getting busier again, artisan bakeries and coffee shops have begun to open, there is even a rumour that Whole Foods Market, the smartest of American convenience stores, is soon to open a branch here.

Uncertain future

As the sunshine of Spring returns to Detroit's wide boulevards, there is a sense of hope.

Patrons at Orchestra Hall speak, a little hesitantly it must be said, of better times ahead, of a corner being turned.

The population is now what it was back in 1910, four years before Henry Ford offered workers a job here for $5 a day.

But in mid-town, population levels are actually rising.

Young, educated Americans are slowly seeing the opportunity of low-cost living the city offers.

"I'm glad to be back in Detroit," said one trendy 20-something at Orchestra Hall.

Wearing a second-hand pinstripe suit with ironic bow tie, he has recently returned from New York, to give "my home a city another chance".

At the concert I attended, the standing ovation subsided, music director Leonard Slatkin walked on stage, and picked up a microphone.

His speech was to the point.

"Welcome home," he said.

The future of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is still far from secure. There is no guarantee supporters will be prepared to pick up the tab for the millions it needs to survive.

Detroit, too, is far from being out of the woods - this week mayor Dave Bing warned that unless radical steps were taken, the city's budget deficit would rise from $155m (£95m) to $1.2bn (£0.7bn) in four years.

At Orchestra Hall, the mood was one of celebration that a great source of civic pride was finally back in business.

Maestro Slatkin picked up his baton and launched the orchestra in the overture to Candide, Leonard Bernstein's opera about optimism.

Never has optimism been needed more.

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