Tag Archives: director


Solidarity and Resolve Essential to CBA Growth, NEA Preservation

by Rochelle Skolnick, Director, Symphonic Services Division and Special Counsel

As a close reader of the “Orchestra News” section of the International Musician might have noticed, orchestra contract settlements over the past year or so have almost uniformly exemplified the “growth not cuts” mantra adopted by the courageous musicians of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra during their contentious negotiations and strike. That growth has, in many cases, been incremental rather than dramatic but is nonetheless notable because it is symptomatic of a certain robust health within the symphonic field.

That health was confirmed by a longitudinal study (Orchestra Facts: 2006-2014) released by the League of American Orchestras in November 2016. Although that report received some attention at the time of its release, the press coverage largely missed one of its most important points. The study shows that, although the balance of funding sources for our orchestras has shifted somewhat over time, each of the funding streams upon which orchestras traditionally rely kept pace with or substantially outpaced inflation during the period measured by the study—with the exception of earned income, which trailed inflation by only 1%.

In the case of contributed income from trustees and foundations, which outpaced inflation by 45% and 13% respectively, the differential was dramatic. Yet, despite the industry-wide vigor in funding streams, expenses—the side of the ledger on which we find musician wages and benefits—actually trailed inflation for the same period, by 2.8%.

I believe that the relatively progressive contracts we have begun to see in the period since the League study concluded in 2014 represent a restoration to musicians of some of what was lost in the deeply concessionary bargaining that occurred post-2008. It’s about time.

But that restoration is not happening simply because managers and boards find it in the goodness of their hearts to take care of the musicians whose creativity and dedication draws patrons to concert halls and inspires donors to write checks. It certainly was not employer beneficence that brought the Fort Worth Symphony musicians back to the stage with a progressive contract after 13 weeks on the picket line. Rather, in every case, it has been the musicians’ solidarity and resolve that has won them their recent gains.

That was so for the musicians of the Fort Worth Symphony and it has been so for the musicians of other orchestras making significant gains, including the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Austin, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Nashville, National, Pacific, St. Louis, and San Diego orchestras, among others.

It will take similar solidarity and resolve to beat back another peril to American orchestras: threatened cuts to governmental arts funding, including the outright elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, contained in the presidential budget proposal released March 16. The $148 million annual budget of the NEA represents just .012% of all federal discretionary spending, yet it profoundly touches the lives of American orchestra musicians and all those they serve.

NEA Funding

That effect is far from speculative or remote. Besides having reached progressive contract settlements in the past year, what do the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Austin, Detroit, Fort Worth, Grand Rapids, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Nashville, National, Pacific, St. Louis and San Diego symphonies have in common? They all receive NEA grant funding.

In fiscal years 2016 and/or 2017, each one of those orchestras received an NEA grant to support one of a wide range of projects, both strikingly beautiful and culturally relevant. Grants went to support “Imagine Your Parks” events connecting several orchestras (including Jacksonville and St. Louis) with National Parks sites; a community engagement program focused on Buffalo’s international community in partnership with Buffalo Public Schools; premieres of new orchestral works written about and to loved ones (Kansas City); the Pacific Symphony’s American Composers Festival, featuring works by living Southern California-based composers; and the National Symphony Orchestra’s Sound Health initiative, which presents live classical music performances at DC-area medical facilities to enrich the lives of patients, family members, medical staff, and visitors.

These are just a few of the NEA-supported programs that expand minds and build connections among diverse groups of people. While abolition of the NEA would have a negligible effect on the federal budget, it would have a devastating effect on curiosity, intelligence, and empathy.

The March 16 budget proposal is only that—a proposal. It will be up to Congress to write the budget. As that process unfolds, I hope you will ensure your voice is heard in support of continued funding for the NEA and the myriad symphonic projects it enables. Tell members of Congress to Save the NEA at: www.afm.org/2017/02/nea/.


At a moment when the voices of xenophobia and bigotry are raised louder in our political discourse than I ever thought possible in my lifetime, the International Orchestra Conference (IOC) taking place in Montreal, May 11-14, offers a meaningful opportunity for American and Canadian musicians to share the experiences of our sisters and brothers in symphony orchestras around the globe. The IOC is a project of the International Federation of Musicians (FIM), the international organization for musicians’ unions and representative organizations with approximately 70 institutional members in 60 countries throughout the world.

The AFM will have a substantial presence at the IOC with AFM elected officers (AFM President Ray Hair, Secretary-Treasurer Jay Blumenthal, International Executive Board member and Local 802 President Tino Gagliardi, and Local 406 President Luc Fortin and Secretary Eric Lefebvre); symphonic player conference leaders (ICSOM Chair Meredith Snow, OCSM/OMOSC President Robert Fraser, and ROPA Board Member Naomi Bensdorf-Frisch); and myself serving as moderators and panelists.

Topics covered will include the public value of orchestras, recorded broadcasts and musicians’ rights; orchestras integrating digital tools; practical aspects of outreach and education; unions’ roles in preserving orchestral institutions; the role of musicians serving on orchestra boards; and bullying and harassment. Other US and Canadian panelists will be Robert Massey, executive director of the Jacksonville Symphony, which concluded very progressive contract negotiations this season; Barbara Haws, New York Philharmonic archivist/historian; and Katherine Carleton, executive director of Orchestras Canada. Discussions promise to be lively and to promote understanding among orchestra musicians across international borders. I hope to see many of you joining us in Montreal.

Alphonse Stephenson

Retired Chaplain Brigadier General Alphonse Stephenson Serves as Maestro

Alphonse Stephenson

Fr. Alphonse Stephenson at the piano with AFM musicians of the Orchestra of St. Peter By the Sea.

Father Alphonse Stephenson of Local 802 (New York City) is conductor and director of one of the most successful small orchestral ensembles in the country. Located in Providence, New Jersey, the Orchestra of St. Peter by the Sea recently marked its 30th anniversary.

It all started on a lark. Stephenson was saying mass at St. Peter’s while serving at St. Malachy’s, the Actor’s Chapel, in New York City’s Theater District. “It’s not really by the sea. It’s pretty much in my head,” he laughs and explains he was thinking of London’s St. Martin-in-the-Fields. The very first concert sold out. “I paid the musicians, gave a check to the pastor for $2,000, and said thanks for turning on the lights,” Since then, he’s helped many parishes, nonprofits, and service organizations realize their fundraising goals. “We charge a fee, play the concert. You sell the tickets and make a profit.”

In 1986, when Stephenson decided to establish an orchestra, he tapped into Local 802 to enlist musicians. The union provided names and a contractor, and all the musicians became signatory on the pension fund. Thirty years later, the 48-member orchestra is a self-sustaining entity that performs across the state. In addition, Stephenson created the St. Cecelia Foundation, a charitable arm, which supports scholarships, private study, and quality instruments for children who display academic excellence and talent.

“A kid wrote me a long letter about wanting to be a doubler on Broadway. I didn’t know how much English horns cost. Eight thousand dollars later, we gave him an English horn. Money comes in, the money goes out!” he says light-heartedly. In a more serious tone, he explains that the athletic kid generally is awarded scholarships. “The kid sitting in the practice room is being ignored. If we can help through the Foundation it’s answering a huge need.”

With such an easy charm and an infectious laugh it’s surprising that Stephenson is a retired Military Chaplain and Brigadier General. “I was in the pit at the Schubert theatre in New York City and somehow ended up in the Pentagon,” he says, adding, “If I had known how nice it was to be a general, I’d have done it right from the beginning.”

He became a chaplain at 39, joining the Air National Guard, and continued to work with the orchestra. When a job in DC came up, Stephenson grabbed it. “It was fantastic,” he says of his career as Assistant to the Air Force Chief of Chaplains at the Pentagon and as Chaplain Brigadier General, and then Director of the Joint Chaplaincy Staff at the National Guard Bureau. “I left kicking and screaming. I just became too old to stay in!”

The military proved to be a life-changing experience. Deployment to the Middle East and an assignment at Landstuhl Hospital in Germany forever changed Stephenson’s worldview. Wounded soldiers were flown directly from the field to Germany so he witnessed firsthand the cost of war—and often reflects on what he saw. “Anytime you feel the weight of the world you see what real resilience is about. These kids were magnificent, their willingness to be of service,” he says.

It adds perspective to his current job. “It doesn’t matter if something goes wrong. Nobody got hurt. If a musician hits a clinker, they look at the instrument as if they got betrayed!” he laughs. “The real challenge among musicians is that we work in harmony with each other, that’s always a challenge. Keep the troops alive—and enthusiastic, no matter what the mission. Show some soul, whether it be military or in an orchestral setting.”

Ordained in 1975, Stephenson detoured into music in 1976 at age 27, studying under Robert Abramson of the Juilliard School and George Schick of the Metropolitan Opera. At a certain stage of one’s life, Stephenson says, “You need to critique your education. Narrow down what you need to learn and go and study with somebody who knows how to do it. They want to pass on what they know.” In 1980, the late Broadway director and choreographer Michael Bennett engaged him as conductor and music director of his smash hit, A Chorus Line, which he continued for seven years, more than 3,000 performances.

Although he’s been retired from the military since 2014, Stephenson is still getting used to not wearing a uniform. Stephenson has a parish on weekends, but for the most part he’s taken on the role of musician full-time.

“It’s been whacky—how did it all come together? How do you run an orchestra for 30 years? You have money, you do a concert; if there’s no money, you don’t do a concert. Admittedly, the orchestra has a strong following, especially during the Christmas season. Amid a full repertory of holiday classics, Maestro Stephenson punctuates the concerts with anecdotes and plenty of humor. For the past 27 years they have performed at Monmouth University. He says, “They gave me an honorary Doctor of Music at their commencement after the 25th year! [It was] a lot more fun than sitting in a classroom!”

For everything he does, Stephenson draws on each of his roles—chaplain, general, and conductor. He says, “The maestro stands between one body making music and the other receiving music. Like a priest, asking them to come with me.”