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Musicians reject Symphony's $1.5 million cutback plan

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

By Caroline Abels, Post-Gazette Cultural Arts Writer

Musicians at the financially fragile Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra were told yesterday by their negotiating committee about a contract proposal by the PSO board that seeks $1.5 million in concessions next season. The proposal has been rejected by the committee, which considers it merely the beginning of the negotiating process.

The issue of where the $1.5 million would come from -- musicians' salaries, benefits, or a decreased number of work weeks, for example -- was not discussed at the musicians' meeting.

According to one player who asked not to be identified, "The mood [at the meeting] was not great, but most people understood this is not what we'll end up with."

Some musicians acknowledged that the current situation bears a striking resemblance to that in 1994, when PSO musicians engaged in contentious negotiations during a year when many symphony orchestras were struggling financially.

Richard Simmons, chairman of the PSO board, declined to comment on this year's board proposal or the 1994 negotiations.

But Zachary Smith, a horn player and spokesperson for the 99 musicians, discussed the $1.5 million figure with the Post-Gazette to correct what he characterized as misinformation about the board's opening proposal.

He declined to speculate on the possible effects of cutting $1.5 million from musician expenses. He said the negotiating committee learned about the board's proposal only late last week, "so it would be premature to say whether it would do x, y or z to the orchestra."

But, he added, "We won't entertain any proposal that sacrifices what we have all worked so hard to build."

Musicians say privately that if significant salary cuts are brought to bear, it would be difficult for the PSO to recruit highly talented musicians, and many current PSO musicians would leave. A few PSO players are already seeking work elsewhere, although musicians move around during good economic times as well.

The PSO is facing an $800,000 cash shortfall this year and wants to stave off a $2.5 million structural deficit next year. In addition to cutting $1.5 million from the musicians' budget, the board wants to achieve $1.8 million in increased fundraising next year to address the deficit.

Smith said it's unusual for the musicians' negotiating committee to present the board's first proposal to all of the musicians, "but we felt that in this [financial] context, it was the only fair thing to do." The musicians' are members of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 60-471, also known as the Pittsburgh Musicians Union.

A similar situation at the Houston Symphony recently ended with musicians agreeing to cuts following a three-week strike. Through furlough weeks, changes to the health-care plan and a decrease in orchestra size achieved through attrition, the agreement saves the orchestra $1.15 million annually in musician expenses. Before the strike, management had proposed a savings of $1.35 million in the musicians' budget.

The circumstances surrounding the current PSO negotiations are similar to those in 1994. That year, negotiations began soon after Lorin Maazel announced he'd be leaving the orchestra. Current music director Mariss Jansons announced last June that he'd be leaving.

In 1994, musicians said a two-year freeze in their salaries -- which management was proposing -- would hamper the PSO's efforts to attract a good music director and top players. Musicians are saying the same things now about possible salary cuts.

In addition, the orchestra world was almost as jittery about finances in the early 1990s as it is now. Following a nationwide recession, Time magazine asked in 1993, "Is the American Orchestra Dying?" The St. Louis Post-Dispatch stated, "The American symphony orchestra is in deep trouble."

PSO musicians and management narrowly averted an opening-season strike that year by agreeing to a two-year wage freeze followed by a 24 percent wage hike. Between 1994 and today, the average base salary for an average PSO musician has climbed from $64,000 to $90,220.

The last time PSO musicians went on strike was in September 1975. That strike lasted two months and took place during the last season of longtime music director William Steinberg.

Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod contributed to this report.

Caroline Abels can be reached at cabels@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2614.

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