Last updateFri, 15 May 2015 4pm

Absences among state orchestra startle many faithful concert goers

Administration spokesmen may put a positive spin on it, while musicians decry it and point fingers at their director. But nobody can deny that the face of the Jalisco Philharmonic Orchestra (JPO) has changed significantly in the past few months.

“When you go to a concert now, you hardly recognize anyone,” said Nury Ulate, a distinguished flautist with the orchestra for 24 years, who left recently.

Outside observers have estimated that half the musicians looking out at audiences from the stage of Teatro Degollado are new and say they are dismayed at how many prominent players are gone. But JPO General Manager Arturo Gomez says that since 2013, when an administration program to retire older musicians began, out of the 64-member orchestra, only 14 have left.

“Four of them went to play in other orchestras,” he said, “and the others retired.” 

Gomez listed some players who have left, such as Luis Cardenas (second violin), Adrian Griffin (trumpet), Aurelian Ionescu (first violin), Robert Nelson (viola) and Federico Palacios (trumpet), 

He noted that 2013 was when the administration began a program of retirement for musicians over 65 years old and with 20 or more years with the orchestra. Canadian Marco Parisotto started directing the JPO in 2014, said Gomez, and thus did not begin the program. “Before 2013, the musicians weren’t old enough to ask them to retire.”

Gomez stressed that the JPO administration can’t force anyone to retire. “They want to leave. We haven’t fired any musicians. They made their own decisions.” 

He observed that, between two pensions available to retired musicians, they can earn about twice as much as their pre-retirement salary. “Retirement is very attractive for them,” he said.

Gomez used the JPO’s familiar violinist and concert master, 60-year-old Sava Latsanich, as an example. “He still has five years before he can receive a state pension. But he wants to leave. He’s tired. He has other plans. So we’re working with him to see about retirement.”

But some retiring musicians paint a less-than-rosy picture.

“I wasn’t ready to retire,” said a 70-year-old musician who played with the JPO for 27 years and is in the process of retiring. “A lot of people are unhappy with Parisotto,” he added, noting that he is having bureaucratic problems with his retirement — problems which Gomez admits are a reality.

As for musicians leaving for reasons other than retirement, some express anger and outspokenly blame unwelcome changes on Parisotto. Since the fall of 2014, some musicians have complained openly about what they view as his heavy-handed pressure. They held public meetings to announce their criticism, for example, of being forced to sit out concerts (with pay) while new musicians were invited to take their places. (Employees in Jalisco have strong rights as laborers, but some musicians said at the time that they did not want to continue to work in a contentious, critical environment.)

A younger musician, 50-year-old Ulate, regarded by peers as an excellent flute player, has left, at least temporarily, because “the director didn’t want me in the orchestra,” she said.

“He told me in a meeting with [Culture Secretary] Myriam Vachez and Arturo Gomez that I was a bad musician and a bad person.” Since the meeting, Ulate has been playing flute with the orchestra in Sinaloa, Culiacan, and working at the Jalisco Secretary of Culture.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future,” she added.

Orchestra watchers also note with alarm that veteran violinist and assistant concert master Jolanta Michalewicz has been moved from her first-row seat. But Gomez pointed out that the shift was simply one of Parisotto’s routine artistic decisions, perhaps intended to give younger musicians more experience.

Gomez said that the process of musicians retiring and leaving continues at the moment. “Today we took out two more musicians who want to retire. By June 1, six more will leave.”

The orchestra has invited many new players as replacements, he added, but there are 17 spots now vacant that still have not been filled by permanent players.

“We want to raise the pay, so that good quality musicians will be find it attractive,” he added.

Meanwhile, local Spanish-language newspaper Milenio this week announced the reactivation of a labor union among orchestra employees, including musicians and administration workers, after ten years of inactivity. The initiative was formalized before the Federacion de Sindicatos de Jalisco (Jalisco Federation of Labor Unions), with about 40 musicians on board, the paper said. In their announcement, the activists brought up many of the complaints mentioned above.