Bad Play City Pays For Error By Orchestra Management.

Posted: October 08, 1996

To the pain of the silence at Broad and Locust add the frustration of learning that the management of the Philadelphia Orchestra shunned a chance to end the three-week-old musicians' strike shortly after it began.

A rejected back-to-work proposal brokered by Mayor Rendell's office in September would have defused a key issue in the walkout: the musicians' claim that mismanagement has led to a host of fiscal problems that now make it difficult to agree on a new contract.

As spelled out by Mr. Rendell's chief of staff, David L. Cohen, the plan called for a blue-ribbon panel to review the performance of the orchestra's management, while the musicians returned to the Academy of Music stage and talks continued on other issues.

From outside the talks - which, thanks for small favors, have resumed - the proposal seemed a fine way to break a touchy stalemate.

The players' professed lack of confidence in orchestra president Joseph H. Kluger, his staff and the orchestra board obviously doesn't create the right climate for settlement. And it imports to the bargaining table a number of issues hard to resolve through contract fine print.

Unfortunately, the board's response to the offer only underscored how prickly the issue is. Mr. Kluger hit a note more high-handed than conciliatory, saying the orchestra board will not surrender ``its responsibility for evaluating administrative effectiveness to either musicians or any outside third parties.''

As though the idea of inviting a consultant in to evaluate management performance is unheard of in this great land of ours.

And now, as this strike continues to dishearten music lovers, complicate fund-raising for a new performing-arts hall and wound Center City businesses that build their trade in part around the hustle and bustle of the Academy of Music, a question poses itself insistently:

Whose orchestra is it, anyway?

It's certainly not just the board's, nor just the musicians'. It belongs to the community as well, making this labor impasse different from a typical private-sector spat.

As chief of staff Cohen put it, ``The orchestra is something that is important to Philadelphia, to the fabric of Philadelphia, to the economy of Philadelphia.''

And Philadelphia can't stand by as this treasure is tarnished through some closed-circle squabble over management prerogatives.

For an orchestra that ran up a $2.2 million deficit, isn't an independent, thorough review in order? And why wasn't the blue-ribbon proposal brought to the full board?

Some way must be found to take the issue of management competence off the bargaining table. This proposal not only did that, it got the players back to playing music, at least until Jan. 4.

Only a short time before the strike, Mayor Rendell did the orchestra a mighty favor by agreeing to take charge of its faltering quest for a new performing space.

The orchestra board has an odd way of saying thanks. Another mayor might have thrown his hands up in disgust by now. But Mr. Rendell says he stands ready to help settle this damaging strike.

If only management would stop being tone-deaf to the sounds of compromise.

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