Special Reports

MA 30 Profiles in Courage: Ellen McSweeney

December 2, 2014 | By Georgia Rowe

Musician and Blogger

Orchestra musicians rarely make headlines, but Ellen McSweeney came to the classical world’s attention in a big way this year. Writing for her blog on NewMusicBox, the Chicago-based violinist recounted a sorry incident in which she was having a hard time getting paid for playing in the 2013 Beethoven Festival orchestra.  

The article was posted in June, after the Festival announced that it would present its fourth annual event in September. For McSweeney, the announcement was a stunner; she and others still hadn’t been paid for the previous year’s performances. According to McSweeney, she was still owed “in the neighborhood of $1,000.”

McSweeney writes on a variety of music-related subjects; previous posts have carried such titles as “The Power List: Why Women Aren’t Equals in New Music.” But “The Deafening Silence of the Beethoven Festival Musicians” touched a nerve (the article has 3,900 “likes” as of this writing). It cast light on the often devalued status of musicians—who, despite the rarefied image of classical music organizations, remain woefully underpaid. Freelancers, who don’t enjoy permanent, year-round posts with major groups, receive especially small recompense. As McSweeney noted, many musicians, despite years of training and experience, still scramble to make ends meet.

McSweeney’s post didn’t simply reveal the Beethoven Festival’s questionable practices. It also pointed up the responses—or non-responses—of her fellow musicians, who seemed loathe to register their objections. A “deafening silence” pervaded the community, she wrote—one that revealed artists’ vulnerability. “Musicians,” she wrote, “were not only concerned that public complaint might have monetary consequences, but also about their own reputations.”

With her post, McSweeney went out on a limb for all of them. Even as she mused about the consequences of silence—and the fact that the Beethoven Festival eventually hired a whole new roster of musicians for 2014—she put herself at risk. But she felt it was only fair to inform the national music community of the debts that remained unpaid. It was the right thing to do. 

[Post script: the 2014 Festival was cancelled, in no small part from being exposed by McSweeney. —Ed]

Michael Morgan



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