Sarah Chang & the DSO

Sarah Chang

Top rank classical musicians are odd beasts. Often child prodigies, intensely focussed, workaholics, wealthy, leading a jet-set lifestyle, and attracting sycophants who may tell them what they want to hear as opposed to the truth.

In recent days Sarah Chang has done herself no favours. A good agent would have seen the storm clouds gathering, at fifty miles, and got their client under cover.

Sarah Chang was due to perform last week with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Unfortunately, the DSO's on strike at the moment, facing a huge assault on their salaries, benefits and work practices, so the concert was cancelled.

Mistake number one: Ms Chang agreed to perform in a replacement recital with pianist Robert Koenig, organised by DSO management. Which would have involved her crossing a picket line, transforming the fragrant Ms Chang into a scab. The musicians appealed to Ms Chang not to undermine their strike.

Mistake number two: Ms Chang refused to cancel and attempted a compromise, asking that proceeds from ticket sales go to the DSO's Musicians' Pension Fund. She would still have collected her fee.

But that pension fund is frozen and, besides, why should DSO management – in need of every penny they can lay their hands on – voluntarily give up their profit? There's no mention of them having agreed to Ms Chang's request. So it was a meaningless gesture designed to cover union-busting activity.

Mistake number three: Ms Chang tried to justify her behaviour with guff about her "commitment to the audience."

Not good enough. Striking DSO musicians are also committed to their audience, more so than Ms Chang.

They live and work in the Detroit community, a city hit badly by the recession. Their strike, in part, is to defend the Detroit audience from having a second-rate orchestra imposed upon it. But Ms Chang just flies in, does a concert, collects her fee, and flies out again.

Mistake number four: Ms Chang, rather than accepting she was wrong to attempt to undermine the strike (and wrong not to be a member of a trade union) blamed "intimidation" when she finally cancelled the concert a few hours ago. People, not unnaturally, have been writting critical things about her on the internet.

If Ms Chang received threatening emails or Facebook comments these are to be condemned and should be passed to the police. But she really can't expect to scab on fellow musicians, moralise about her "commitment to the audience" and not receive some flack.

Ms Chang might like to read up on musicians who are also politically engaged. She's a fabulous violinist but it's possible to do both. Indeed, I'd argue it's impossible to be a truly great musician unless you do.

Daniel Barenboim, for example, has been involved for years in the Palestinian crisis. Pablo Casals, the great Catalan cellist, refused to set foot in Spain while Franco remained in power.

There's more to being a musician than "commitment to the audience."

Why did Ms Chang make these mistakes? Perhaps her agent pleaded with her privately to wind her neck in but Ms Chang felt she knew better. If so, the agent should keep their job.

But if the agent advised Ms Chang to undermine DSO musicians, thereby failing to protect their client from an avoidable controversy, the agent should go.

Pablo Casals