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Silent Treatment

A report from the front lines of the symphony strike

By Giancarlo Davis

The weather over the Civic Center this day seems fit to inspire a somber prelude to a piece by the Finnish composer Sibelius: skies seemingly clouded in purgatorial grays, occasionally bursting forth with a squall of icy raindrops. Elegant banners portraying the profile of San Francisco Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas shudder like neon apparitions.

At the keening of the twelve o'clock siren, the striking musicians emerge, bundled up in scarves and heavy coats, their instruments slung in front of them like marsupial infants, to begin their ponderous circumlocutions around the darkened Davies Symphony Hall.

Their signs carry such slogans as: "We make the music," "Support the musicians," "Honk for the Music" and "Bring the Music Bach." Aside from the musical puns, they're not all that different from the placards one might see at a gathering of striking steelworkers.

But one major difference separates this bunch of strikers from their more blue-collar counterparts. The usual chants that accompany a traditional picket line ("the people united," "what do we want ..."), echoing via the atonal squawk of a megaphone, are nowhere to be heard among the musicians, who instead sweep about in ironic, deliberate silence.

This withholding of sound finds its unfortunate echo in the negotiating rooms, where the nearly two-month-old strike still hangs in apparent deadlock between union negotiators and the symphony's management, following a near-miss settlement Jan. 28. "Nobody's listening to us," asserts striking bass player Brian Marcus. "Management doesn't understand what the musicians have to go through."

So, as negotiations drag on, the strikers continue their silent rounds. But though on first glance the entire scene appears as a high-art parody of the century's more famous industrial conflicts, each side is as serious as the autoworkers of Flint or the mill owners of Lawrence, Mass. Symphony management has brought in a labor relations consulting firm notorious for encouraging a hard-line against unions. (It helped Eastern Airlines eliminate its unions before the airline itself went under.)

And for their part, the striking musicians, assisted by volunteers, have organized a series of benefit concerts at Old First Church, Old Saint Mary's Cathedral, and the Noe Valley Ministry to both raise funds for their action and fill the vacuum left by the silence at Davies.

But all is not silent on the Grove and Van Ness front. On this gray afternoon, a new, atonal music chimes in to support the strikers' efforts, in the form of cheers from passersby and honks from automobiles. Even a music-loving teenager gets into the act, screaming out the window as her schoolbus passes by. Her words reach the picket line in the strange, doppler-shifted sounds that issue from moving vehicles: "We need your music!"

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From the February 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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