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As Symphony Strike Continues, Fort Worth Patrons, Arts Leaders Reflect On Stalemate

Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra musicians have been on strike since Sept. 8.

Fort Worth symphony patrons and arts leaders are reflecting on how the absence of the orchestra is affecting the city right now, and how it could in the future if the strike continues into next year. 

Musicians called a strike on Sept. 8, and the orchestra has canceled all concerts through the end of this year. Union members and management remain at a stalemate over year-long contract talks. 

Gerald Thiel has season tickets to the Fort Worth Symphony. But he and his wife haven’t been back to Seats 5 and 6 in Row A of in Bass Performance Hall in months, after the musicians walked out.

“It’s a big loss,” Thiel says. “It’s hard to imagine loving Fort Worth without a symphony. It’s like, you talk about a city of culture, you have to conclude the performing arts. And the foundation of the performing arts is a symphony orchestra.”  

'It’s simply one of those ways we measure culture'

John Scott, music professor at the University of North Texas, looks at the situation from a global perspective.

“Look around the world, the major capitols of the world,” Scott says. “London, Paris, Rome, New York,  Philadelphia, Chicago. All of those cities have at the center of their cultural and musical life a symphony orchestra. And it’s simply one of those ways we measure culture.”

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Members of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra picket following their announcement to go on strike Sept. 8.

Fort Worth isn't the only city dealing with this. The Philadelphia Orchestra quickly resolved its labor dispute in October. It took a weekend. Pittsburgh’s orchestra strike is still ongoing. Musicians there walked out after Fort Worth musicians were already on strike. 

Scott thinks that’s a shame. And Austin resident Ron DeFord agrees. He routinely travels north for the orchestra’s programming and quality performances. Now, he worries about both.

“It’s a great orchestra,” DeFord says. “And I, over the years, have gotten to know so many of the musicians. And they are drifting off. If this strikes goes on and on, they’re all going to drift away.”

I have faith in finding a solution with the Fort Worth Symphony because an orchestra is not a bunch of individual musicians. An orchestra is an ensemble who can play together. And we need that for the competition.

'The strike is bad for everyone'

Jacques Marquis, president and CEO of The Cliburn, can’t afford the strike to go on indefinitely.

“It would be a disaster if we don’t have the symphony for the Cliburn,” Marquis says. The Fort Worth nonprofit foundation, named for the late Van Cliburn, runs the world-class international piano competition every four years, a junior contest for younger teens and a competition for adult amateurs.  The symphony accompanies competitors in each of these events.   

“The strike is bad for everyone,” Marquis says. “It’s bad for the musicians. It’s bad for the management. It’s bad for the city. It’s bad for the donors. It’s bad for other arts organizations. It’s a bad idea.”

The next big Cliburn International competition is this coming May. Having it without an orchestra is not an option, Marquis says. 

Marquis has been here before, however. Eleven years ago in Canada, he managed a competition. Weeks away from the start, Montreal Symphony musicians walked out. With the clock ticking, Marquis assembled a 72-member, professional pick-up orchestra, just in time.   

“I have faith in finding a solution with the Fort Worth Symphony because an orchestra is not a bunch of individual musicians. An orchestra is an ensemble who can play together. And we need that for the competition,” he says.

'You don't realize that you could lose it'

Karen Wiley believes Fort Worth needs the orchestra for its own well-being. She runs the Arts Council of Fort Worth.

“This is, I think, an important time for the Fort Worth community to see how special Fort Worth is, and that you can lose something that’s very special to you. And sometimes when you have something that’s so wonderful, you don’t realize that you could lose it.”

There’s no way of knowing how many others feel that loss, or how acute it may be. There’s also little indication the dispute that led to the strike will be resolved any time soon. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.