The Detroit Symphony Orchestra was back

The men and women in black and white come into view in Orchestra Hall on Saturday night for the first time after a corrosive six-month strike, having reached an agreement with management last week.

Detroiters broke up free tickets for the hastily arranged reunion. People stood in the back of the hall and a screen was set up for the run over. Dozens were turned away. Many appeared to be newcomers to the hall, and dress was a mix of ties, bandannas, pearls and T-shirts. Couples clutched hands and some in the audience teared up. Shouts of “Yeah!” and whoops and whistles sounded in the middle of the applause.

“Welcome home,” said the music director, Leonard Slatkin. “It’s been the longest six months,” a period to be and put in the past, he said. “This evening is about celebration. It’s about you.”

The moment was about amazing more than the end of a bitter labor argument. The sounds of music at the hall (along with the Tigers’ victory in their home opener on Friday) were like the chirpings of a bird in the bleak days of late winter. It finally meant some good news in a town so often explained as hollowed out, shriveled up and deserted.

The census figures in March were the latest dark development. They showed that over the past decade the population fallen by a quarter in Detroit, where a fifth of the lots are vacant, and the city’s leaders are knocking down 10,000 empty residential buildings.

At the least the orchestra stays alive, albeit with the phrase “near-death experience” repeated often. Detroiters are used to seeing businesses go bust, leaving workers — on strike or not — without jobs. The strike played out, sometimes cruelly and to a large degree over Facebook, as the governor in nearby Wisconsin sought to cut back on collective bargaining rights, fueling a national debate over the place of unions in society.

The strike ended a dispute over pay cuts that the players said would turn them into a second-class orchestra, along with changes in work rules that they said would detract from the mission of presenting top symphonic performances. Management said Detroit had simply run out of money to pay for an orchestra at its old level of spending. 

A number of other major orchestras — including those in Philadelphia, New York and Boston — are facing or undergoing negotiations for new contracts, and the outcome here will be scrutinized by musicians and their employers.

Despite the Saturday night love fest serious problems remain. Even with the cost savings, the symphony is projecting a yearly deficit of $3 million and labors under a $54 million debt from the music center that was built to supplement its hall, a 1919 gem that seats 2,000 people.

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