[Interviewer’s Note: This past Saturday, March 8, the Houston Symphony went on strike to protest a new contract proposed by the Symphony Society, which the Society says is necessary to pull the organization out of severe debt. In the proposed contract, musicians would have faced an 8.8 percent cut in salary, as well as cuts in orchestra size and health coverage. This is the first full strike in the Symphony’s 90 year history, and its first work stoppage since 1976.]
Q: I guess the first question I have to ask you is, why can’t I interview my mother for this? Why do I have to interview you?
Kirk: [laughing] Well, uh, your mom is in a tough position because she’s both a player and a manager.
Q: Right. Do you get the sense that she is —
Kirk: You’re going to talk about your mom in this piece?
Q: I’m just curious. Because I think it’s a part of the story of what’s going on. I mean, ostensibly everybody is out for the same thing — right?
Kirk: Well, there’s kind of a lockdown mentality in place right now. It’s actually a very stressful time for everyone. The musicians are — you might not know this — we had an internal polling about a week and a half ago, and it was determined that over 80% of the musicians are now contemplating auditions for other orchestras, or even another career field, in the event of a long work stoppage.
Q: Oh, wow.
Kirk: And that’s really a shame, because we obviously have something here of very high quality, and to think that the situation that’s evolved here over the last five or six months could — you know, it’s not going to wash all of that away, but —
Q: Is it a viable option for you, David, to audition for other symphonies at this point?
Kirk: I auditioned for the Boston Symphony at the end of January. I wasn’t the oldest guy there, but I was close. You know, some of us haven’t played an audition in twenty-five years, but people are considering all their options. And I can tell you that in my case, if there is a prolonged work stoppage, I will really have to seriously reevaluate whether I want to go back. Even though it would still be a very good-paying job if the plan went through and the job’s base pay was reduced to $63,000 —
Q: Don’t you think that it’s hurting your cause for people to know exactly how much money symphony musicians make?
Kirk: I’ve heard from quite a few schoolteachers who are very resentful we’re out making a public case. I’ve never said, well, pay the teachers the same but give me a lot of money to play the tuba — teachers should be paid more. But to the extent that people are focusing on the salaries, I think they really are missing the point. The salaries are indicative of how the organization views itself, its ability to attract musicians and to keep them here. It’s not about the salary. In a lot of ways it’s easier to become a US Senator than it is to become a tuba player in a major symphony orchestra. There’s actually more jobs for Senators. These are rare positions that are hard to obtain, and of course once you get in there’s a substantial investment in equipment that’s not matched by a movie star, or even someone who pitches for the Yankees — I mean, they don’t have to buy their own gloves and baseballs. Whereas we’ve got people playing in the cello section whose instrument is worth two times what the house they live in is worth. No one is giving that to them — they bought it because they want to sound really great. It’s pretty inspiring to see that kind of stuff.
Q: So you’ve been in the symphony like twenty years?
Kirk: I’ve about finished twenty-one years here.
Q: Can you compare the feeling of the symphony twenty years ago to the way it feels now? I mean, best of all situations, not like, oh, it’s awful ‘cause we’re going on strike.
Kirk: Well certainly, when I first joined, I was very impressed by the performance of this orchestra. But I don’t think that anyone at that time could have foreseen what would develop. I look at where we are right now as a potential leaping-off point for even more accomplishment, but if that’s to occur, a lot of things are going to have to change both in the way the orchestra is supported — to provide a solid financial base for our activities — and in the administration. It’s worth noting that even though the economy is challenged right now nationally, there’s no other major orchestra that’s up against what we’re being asked to do here.
Q: Well, what do you think is the difference between cities like New York or Boston and the city of Houston that makes those cities more able to support the symphony?
Kirk: It’s been said that — particularly in the cities of the East Coast — the immigration patterns at the beginning of the 20th century have something to do with it: you had a lot of people coming from a European background, who were raised with classical music. A lot of people that are growing up in the States now perhaps don’t have the same connection to the European traditions. As you know, in academia there’s been a certain move to discredit the heavy European influence in art and literature and all that — but the fact is, like anything, if there’s quality there, it’s something that needs to be taught to the successive generations as an example of how things were put together and how people can use the quality and accomplishments of past generations to do their own work.
Q: Do you think that there are people in Houston saying, we need to maintain a certain reputation for ourselves as a city?
Kirk: Houston’s had, let’s face it, a lot of bad publicity over the last few years, even recently with that woman running over her husband with her car, and the woman that killed her 5 children in Clear Lake, and then of course Enron, and we have very bad air quality … Houston often has a very poor national image, and I think it’s something people are very aware of. I think another challenge we face here in Houston is the concert hall. We have played many of the great concert halls in Europe, and it’s often been said that people don’t really know what the Houston Symphony sounds like because the sound in Jones Hall is really pretty limited.
Q: I heard it has something to do with the ceiling?
Kirk: The ceiling is basically porous. Also the shape of the hall is an issue — the hall expands, it’s extremely long and extremely tall. If you’ve ever been to Symphony Hall in Boston, it’s basically shaped like a shoebox. Sound has to be contained. Jones Hall is a multi-purpose facility — there were a lot of these built during the ’60s — and it was built to have a lot of different purposes under one roof. But really, a symphony orchestra needs a hall that is specifically designed for the performance of classical music.
Q: I saw the sort of vast emotion that surrounded the city getting a new football team — it would be nice to tap into that civic pride somehow.
Kirk: There’s an old saying about libraries: even if you don’t go to the library, you wouldn’t want to live in a city without one. And the symphony should be viewed the same way. Obviously, a lot of the people that jammed into Reliant Stadium for the Texans games this year are not people who come to hear the Houston Symphony. But there may be a sense that, even though they don’t go very often to hear our concerts, they still want something that represents the city at a high level. We’re actually making a lot of comparisons to good old Dallas up the road. A lot of people would say that the Houston Symphony is a finer orchestra than Dallas is, but just today, Dallas announced that they received an enhancement of 20 million dollars to their endowment. What we’re trying to say is, look, if it can happen in Dallas, it can certainly happen here.
Q: Right, because nobody in Houston wants to think that Dallas has something that they don’t. That’s a good call.
Kirk: I’m trying to think how old you are. You’re probably about twenty-six or twenty-seven years old now.
Q: I’m twenty-seven.
Kirk: So when I joined the symphony, you were about five. I remember seeing you as a little girl.
Q: I, like, lived there. The folks didn’t shell out for babysitters, they just plopped my sister and I down backstage with the stagehands and were like, “Don’t touch anything.”
Kirk: I remember seeing you both back then, and now I’ve got kids that are basically the same age you and your sister were at that time. Which is the older — is Lauren older than you?
Q: No, she just turned twenty-five. She’s studying to be an opera singer.
Kirk: Right, and you’re the actress.
Q: Um, whatever, yeah. Anyway: Let’s say that you fail. And it all goes to hell. And they cut back on dates and they cut back on pay — what happens?
Kirk: At some point, the Society must get its act together and present a clear view for the future that is progressive, that builds on our successes, rather then merely reacting to short-term economic difficulty. The demographics of the city have changed a lot — it’s a much younger city than it’s ever been, it’s a much more ethnically diverse city. But that doesn’t change what we do. We still represent performance of the greatest masterpieces that have ever been written. Just as the plays of Shakespeare are still performed for audiences, the symphonies of Beethoven always will be, because they are masterpieces that continue to resonate for audiences. You know, when we lost the space shuttle Columbia, the musicians got together and we donated a concert. We played the Beethoven Third.
Q: Yeah, I heard about that. And what was ironic — and I don’t like using that word because I never use it right — but what was ironic to me is that the shuttle crash actually happened on the day you guys were staging your first walkout?
Kirk: That is correct. We had planned a lot of protest activities — picketing and all that — and obviously we called all that off, because we didn’t want to draw any attention to ourselves in a time when people were really very concerned about the families of the people who lost their lives. But the memorial concert was tremendous. And in the case of Beethoven, you know, he could plumb the depths of tragedy, but his music always has a heroic element to it — and I think that really summed up what those people gave to us when they went up in the space shuttle, and the way they served all of us. So at a time like that, an organization like the Houston Symphony really shows its true value.