How the Fort Worth Symphony Survived the Strike, Looks to Make a Comeback

One year after the strike, the Fort Worth Symphony looks to start afresh.

It’s Friday — opening night for the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and, usually, one of the busiest days of the week for Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya. He’s usually the first to wake up in his house, taking in the daily news while sipping a cup of espresso. Then the kids wake up (he lets his wife sleep to make up for the days she’s alone with them while he’s away traveling), he fixes their lunches, and the school rounds begin. Tanglewood. McLean. Paschal.

By 10 a.m., he’s ready for dress rehearsal with the musicians. An afternoon of meetings, interviews and picking up the kids from school follow before he’s back at Bass Hall for a 7:30 p.m. performance. And don’t forget meet-and-greets in the lobby.

“And then — who knows if I’m still awake?” Harth-Bedoya said.

It’s a busy day, but one Harth-Bedoya says he’s thankful for. Last year, Fridays were much different. There weren’t any dress rehearsals or performances to get ready for, not with the musicians strike that put symphony concerts at Bass Hall on hold for about three months.

But that was last year. Now Harth-Bedoya and the Fort Worth Symphony are looking toward a new season, new music, a new president and, in some ways, a new start.

“This particular upcoming season, I’ve made a point,” Harth-Bedoya said. “I’ve told the musicians, I’ve told everybody, that 99 percent of the pieces of the music that we are going to play together, meaning they are going to play under my direction, are first-time experiences … They may have played the piece somewhere else or under a different conductor, and I may have done the piece with another orchestra, but we’ve never done it together. That always brings a new element.”

FIRST STRIKE The Fort Worth Symphony had never gone on strike before, according to interim president David Hyslop. Symphony tubist Ed Jones said last year’s strike wasn’t anything sudden, nor was it something that had been planned from the beginning.

“It was not about our personal salaries or our personal welfare as much as it was to secure the future of the orchestra both artistically and, we think, financially,” Jones said. “We’ve stated many times that this is about our ability to attract and attain the very best musicians and maintain the highest artistic standards.”

The issue — the symphony was struggling financially. Musicians had already taken a 13.5 percent pay cut in 2010 following the recession. According to the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra Association, which manages the symphony, the $12 million budget for the 2016 season and future seasons faced a deficit of about $700,000.

The proposed solution — restructure musicians’ contracts, cutting pay and other benefits. One option was a four-year contract that involved a 6.5 percent pay cut in the first year, followed by wage increases in the following years. But the musicians rejected the offer.

Harth-Bedoya said one could feel that something was impending.

“It’s like you’re waving a cape to the bull,” he said. “You can wave for a little while, but chances are, the bull’s going to come and not hit the cape. It’s going to hit you, unless you feel it out. You have to be prepared to be hurt.”

After spending more than a year negotiating to no avail, musicians decided to go on strike. On Sept. 8, 2016, musicians dressed in green and picketed outside Bass Hall, raising signs with “On Strike” written all caps in bold red font. The performance of Dvorak’s New World Symphony scheduled that weekend was canceled — one of several performances that would be canceled as the strike went on.

But orchestra musicians found a way to keep playing. They continued performances under the name “Symphony Musicians of Fort Worth,” playing for Texas Ballet Theater among other events outside Bass Hall.
During the time, Jones said his practice schedule remained relatively the same, spending time on the tuba in the morning and at night before bed. But, because he was part of the negotiating committee, the middle of the day was “filled with phone calls and text messages and emails and meetings.”

“I was actually busier,” he said.

As conductor, Harth-Bedoya said he found himself somewhere in the middle.

“If you put me in the center of the circle, I work with musicians, No. 1, because remember there is no conductor without an orchestra, so I’m nothing from that point of view, without an orchestra,” he said. “There’s the board, who hires me, there’s the staff, then there are patrons, then there are sponsors, then there’s the media, and probably many more. I’m the only one in this equation that’s in the middle of it.”

In the meantime, he found ways to keep himself busy, starting compost-collecting company, Cowboy Compost, among other things (that’s another story that was covered in the April issue of the magazine). But while many orchestra conductors don’t live in the city in which they conduct, Harth Bedoya did, and that meant fielding questions from anyone he’d see on the street.

“I was running into patrons, musicians, board members — at the cashier’s line at Tom Thumb, or shopping for flowers at Central Market, or walking the streets to get Steel City Pops,” he said. “I could not hide myself from what I am as part of the community.”

The best he could do, he said, was listen to everybody.

“I devoted my time to learn more, to study more. I tried to keep lines of communication open,” Harth-Bedoya said. “I tried to keep myself useful.”

The strike would go on through November. Patrons were told to either have their tickets exchanged for a gift certificate or future concert, refunded or converted to a donation. Performances like the Home for the Holidays pops concert and Handel’s Messiah went unplayed, as shows were canceled through the holiday season.

That is, all except for New Year’s Eve.

On Dec. 7, the Fort Worth Symphony announced that an anonymous donor had offered a $700,000 grant to the orchestra, making way for a more desirable contract for its musicians. Under the new, four-year contract, musicians could keep their current salaries for the first two years. Then, in the third year, they’d receive a weekly 2 percent pay increase; and in the fourth year, a 2.5 percent increase. There was a reduction in the number of vacation days, from 35 to 28, but it was enough for the musicians to agree on the terms.

The strike was over.

“[The musicians] were very happy to get back to work and get the music back to the city,” Jones said. “The fact that we were able to do it in such a positive way was such a huge plus.”

On New Year’s Eve, Harth-Bedoya picked up his baton once again and conducted the Fort Worth Symphony in a celebratory concert featuring pieces like Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and a rendition of Auld Lang Syne as balloons dropped at midnight.

In the new year, more change was to come. The orchestra announced that president Amy Adkins would leave the position to become president of the All Saints Health Foundation in Fort Worth (Adkins declined an interview with Fort Worth Magazine), and in her place, an interim director would step in.

That’s Hyslop — a man who knows a thing or two about helping an orchestra out of a jam.

A NEW DIRECTION Hyslop is retired. Sort of. His resume lists CEO positions at the Oregon Symphony, St. Louis Symphony and Minnesota Orchestra. But since retiring from the Minnesota Orchestra in 2003, his resume has listed many “interims”: Interim CEO of the Louisville Orchestra. Interim president and CEO of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Interim CEO at Dallas Summer Musicals.

And now, the Fort Worth Symphony — his ninth interim position.

Helping arts organizations recover from challenging situations has become Hyslop’s focus since leaving Minnesota. His consulting company, Hyslop & Associates, provides services from executive searches to financial campaign planning.

His first week at the Fort Worth Symphony took place at the end of July. One of his first steps was to outline the issues, asking questions like, How did you feel when all of this was going on? What did you learn from it? And what did you contribute?

“We’re not going to kid around about it. The orchestra’s gone through a very difficult year last year,” he said. “One of my jobs will be to listen to everyone, let everybody vent and then try to get everyone going in the right direction and tee it up for whoever comes in here on a permanent basis.”

Aside from logistics, Hyslop said he’s well aware of the emotional wounds that need healing as well. The good thing about the Fort Worth Symphony, he said, is that there’s no long history of labor disputes within the organization.

Overall, Hyslop said he has a positive outlook for the symphony.

“The reality is, to have an organization like this, you need a terrific conductor, you need superb musicians, you need a terrific staff, you need a board, you need everybody going in the same direction,” he said. “And where I’ve seen it work over a long period of time — and you don’t sit around the campfire holding hands, I don’t mean it in that sense — there has to be a shared vision and understanding of where you’re going.”

TO D.C. AND BEYOND The symphony is still in the early stages of its director search, and it will be several months before a permanent one is hired, Hyslop said. Whoever becomes the new director will join other recently hired staff, including associate conductor Alejandro Gómez Guillén and conducting fellow Jacob Joyce. Guillén is responsible for conducting shows outside Bass Hall, such as community and regional touring concerts. Joyce serves as Harth-Bedoya’s assistant, conducting some educational and community concerts.

Financially, 2017 is looking hopeful. On July 31 — the day that single tickets went on sale to the public — the symphony reported a record-breaking sales day, with sales up 500 percent compared to last year’s sales day and 700 percent compared to the year before that. Big sellers were Chris Botti’s trumpet performance in September, the Boyz II Men concert in January, and the gala with violinist Itzhak Perlman in February.

The Amon Carter Foundation also started an initiative called “Play Your Part: 3 Steps to $3 Million,” agreeing to match $500,000 per year in new and increased contributions to the symphony. The goal is to raise $3 million within three years. According to the symphony, the challenge has passed the halfway mark this year and is on track to make its first $500,000 goal.

Additionally, Concerts in the Garden “brought in record levels of revenue, second only to 2016,” according to the symphony.

Finances aside, Jones said the symphony’s future is looking bright musically as well.

“We’re looking forward to starting a period of growth, and I don’t mean just growth in terms of the size of the budget or our salaries, but more intangible things like growth artistically,” he said.

For one thing, the group is getting ready for one of its biggest gigs — a concert at the esteemed Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., set to take place in April. The Fort Worth Symphony was one of four orchestras selected to participate in the 2018 SHIFT: Festival of American Orchestras, playing a program that includes Anna Clyne’s RIFT: A Symphonic Ballet, Bernstein’s Serenade, and Jimmy López’s Bel Canto: A Symphonic Canvas.

“When you walk out on that stage, you’re being compared to the best there is,” Hyslop said. “To come away with a review is tremendous.”

Even with a big performance ahead, the symphony hasn’t lost sight of the now. It still has a whole 2017-2018 season to play at Bass Hall, with works like Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3, Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben and Elgar’s Enigma Variations all on schedule.

And for Harth-Bedoya, that means going back to those crazy Fridays of dress rehearsals and performances with a little picking-up-the-kids-from-school mixed in.

But it’s good to be back.

“I always say that music is something that you cannot touch,” Harth-Bedoya said. “But music can touch you.”