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As PSO opens season, extra-musical issues grab spotlight

Thursday, September 18, 2003

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

All eyes will be on the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra when it opens its season this weekend in Heinz Hall, but they won't necessarily be trained on the stage.

 
 

Adding Davis to lineup bolsters his chances here

Conductor Sir Andrew Davis' candidacy to become the next music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra took a big step forward yesterday when he was added to the season schedule.

Davis replaces Pinchas Zukerman in concerts on Dec. 5 and 7 for a program including Strauss' "Ein Heldenleben" (replacing Berlioz's "Harold in Italy").

Davis is the music director of the Chicago Lyric Opera and the former leader of the Toronto and BBC symphony orchestras.

He has conducted the PSO frequently in the past, but the last time was in 1990. Therefore, this substitution affords the musicians a chance to reacquaint themselves with someone who has been mentioned as a possible successor to Mariss Jansons, who leaves the PSO at the end of this season.

   
 

With contract negotiations, financial difficulties and leadership vacancies, the real show is outside the auditorium. It's been nearly 10 years since the PSO has started its season with this much turmoil.

"It is not the ideal way to begin a season," said Melinda Whiting, editor-in-chief of Symphony Magazine. "However, it is not unprecedented."

Management is assuring patrons that the musicians will be focused on playing despite the distractions: "We had no resolution of the negotiations when we were traveling in Europe and there was no effect on the musicians," said PSO president Thomas Todd.

"It is psychological and everyone is worried," said music director Mariss Jansons, who is "hopeful ... and praying" that the season continues beyond the first weekend. "It would be horrible" if the remainder of the season didn't happen.

If Jansons is concerned about the prospects of the PSO getting on stage, he isn't concerned about what it'll do when it's there. "I trust the musicians; they are very professional. The effects didn't show up in our work to this point, and I think it will continue. They come on stage and do their job."

This tune is slightly varied by those who actually have to play the music. "It is our responsibility as professionals to play as well as we can," said musicians' spokesman and horn player Zachary Smith, but "it does cause stress and it caused stress for people on tour. There is a sense of the unknown waiting out there. We are used to playing under pressure, though this is a different type of stress. It is debilitating and it negatively affects ... playing."

The landscape surrounding the orchestra won't eclipse the opening weekend marking Jansons' last season here, but it has overshadowed it.

"Our contract will either be settled by then or it won't," said board chairman Richard Simmons. "You deal with circumstances as you get them."

And the Symphony is facing a host of special circumstances on the eve of its 108th season:

Contract

The musicians' contract was extended from Aug. 31 to Sunday to give stability to the organization during the all-important opening weekend. "The orchestra was in Mountain Laurel and almost immediately left on the European tour; there was no practical time to have negotiations," said Simmons. "It made sense to extend it."

This scenario might repeat itself. Smith acknowledged that a contract might be in place by Sunday. "It is entirely possible that they could go beyond the 21st; we wouldn't stand in the way, if there were progress."

Negotiators for the musicians have scheduled meetings of the entire orchestra for tomorrow and Sunday. Meetings scheduled for yesterday and today were canceled.

As the sides negotiate, other orchestras in the nation are looking on.

"It is the first large negotiation to come down the pike in these recent financial times, so it is being noticed," said Henry Fogel, president of the American Symphony Orchestra League. "People are very interested."

Those observers are wondering if there could be a repeat of the strike the Houston Symphony went through in the spring, which cost that orchestra some key musicians.

"We were structurally out of balance by $2.5 million," former Houston general manager Jeff Woodruff said. "We were spending a couple of million dollars more at least a year than we were bringing in." Part of management's solution was to try to get $1.35 million out of the orchestra's salaries and benefits.

The musicians didn't agree and eventually struck for three weeks. "When they rolled out their proposal, they wanted to have seven unpaid weeks of vacation and share the medical cost," said Dave Kirk, a tuba player and spokesman for the musicians. A four-year contract, ratified April 1, ended up with a slightly better deal for the musicians: $1.15 million coming out of the musicians' side, accomplished with a mix of salary cuts (3.86, 5.75 and 1.47 percent in the first three years) and a raise (5.97 percent over 2001-02 wages in year four), shortened seasons (49-51 weeks depending on the year) and furloughed, or unpaid, weeks.

The walkout adversely affected the Houston music community, and Kirk feels that no orchestra should strike unless absolutely necessary. "Conventional labor wisdom tells you a strike should only be called if there is a sense that the employer is withholding something," he said. "It is not like we went on strike hoping to achieve anything except to protest that this was unacceptable."

On the positive side are recent contact resolutions by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Both renewed before hitting deadlines. The labor agreement for the Boston orchestra, closest to the PSO in size, was for four years. Ratified in August 2002, it has increases in minimum salary, per diem and pension.

In Pittsburgh, both sides would have preferred to wrap up the contract talks before the season, but the extension is not unusual. "Actually, it is pretty common to play and talk," said Fogel. "If there isn't some local animosity that has built up, more orchestras tend to play and talk than not." Obviously, strikes and lockouts are a possibility, but there haven't been many in the last decade, he adds.

Finances

A year ago, Gideon Toeplitz, then managing director of the PSO, told the Allegheny Regional Asset District board the Symphony was in great need of RAD funds because it was facing the possibility of Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Although the bankruptcy claim was later toned down, his comments set off a flurry of disclosures about the orchestra's tenuous financial situation.

By contrast, board leaders Simmons and Todd mentioned nothing explosive when they appeared before the RAD board Sept. 8 to request $1.5 million in public funds -- double what the PSO received last year from RAD. RAD's preliminary budget will be announced on Oct. 1.

Simmons told the board that the increase in private contributions to the PSO has proven that the community wants the orchestra to remain "world-class." He also said the endowment is performing better and that more students attended PSO concerts last season than the season before.

However, RAD board member David Hamstead asked Simmons why expenses are projected to increase by 4 percent this season.

"If you're really sacrificing, I'd expect your budget to show your expenses going down, not up by 4 percent," Hamstead said.

Simmons replied that expenses would be much higher had the staff not taken significant pay cuts over the past couple of years. He also mentioned that the musicians' contract has yet to be negotiated.

"There will be sacrifices; the question is how much and for how long," Simmons said.

In response, Smith said the musicians have been willing to play an active role in addressing the financial shortcomings of the organization. "We have a proven track record," he said. "Last year, each musician gave $1,000 and it generated over $200,000 and, just as importantly, planted the seed for building the annual fund."

This season, Jansons is doing his version of the challenge grant by donating $100,000 to the Symphony yesterday. As the musicians did, he will give a "curtain speech" before the concert announcing the challenge. To match his gift, the money must come from new donors or increased gifts from present donors.

During his tenure with the orchestra, Jansons has made his frustration known about the lack of support, financially and in attendance, for the orchestra, and he reiterated that this week: "If not the PSO, what should be supported?" he said. "If such a great thing exists, why are there such financial problems? The community must realize what the orchestra means. Are they not proud?"

This is not the first time Jansons has given to the PSO. Last fall, he gave $30,000.

Todd said the hope was that Jansons' gift would be an inspiration for others to support the orchestra. The PSO hopes it will match the success of the musicians' matching fund, which generated $325,000 last season.

The good news is that the donors heeded the PSO's call for help last year and increased annual-fund giving by 19 percent over 2002-03. "Going up 19 percent in an economy that has been as down as ours certainly is way above the normal growth," Fogel said.

The bad news is that this growth, combined with the endowment's increase in value due to the market's upturn, was not enough to dispel the PSO's structural deficit (the latter partly due to the fact that the endowment draw is calculated on a 12-quarter average).

"The projected deficit for this year is in the neighborhood of $3 million," said PSO president Todd. But he does not view this increase from last year's roughly $2.5 million assessment as significant. "It is not that much more and it is just projections," he said. "There is nothing essentially new there; it's just that when we first did the analysis it was lower. A budgeting process is fluid."

As he told the Post-Gazette in July, Todd said the board has put a long-term plan in place to address the structural deficit. It will eventually be released to the public but includes everything from cutting expenses to marketing more effectively to increasing fund raising to examining the performance of its endowment.

The Symphony's financial situation mirrors other orchestras' in the United States. "If you look across the board, you will see serious structural deficits in a number of symphonies," said Fogel.

But the PSO's fund raising has under-performed for years. "We are the third-most-philanthropic city in the U.S., but we rank 27th in individual giving," said Leslie Wild Swenson, PSO interim vice president of development. On the other hand, this summer the orchestra was able to raise money to erase a potential cash shortfall.

"We made positive strides last year and want to do everything possible to continue moving in that direction," said Smith.

Managing director and music director

The PSO has been without a replacement for former managing director Toeplitz since May, and it has clearly become a significant problem for the organization. The search is ongoing and many candidates have been interviewed, although Lawrence Tamburri has emerged as the front-runner.

Especially since the new managing director now will serve as the CEO of the company, this position is seen as crucial.

"Everything is on hold until we get good, professional leadership in place," said Smith.

Similarly, many agents for conductors to replace Jansons are not willing to enter serious discussions with the PSO until it has a managing director. Even with candidates lined up this coming season, from Sir Andrew Davis to David Zinman, it is likely the PSO will have to make do without a music director for one or more seasons.


Post-Gazette staff writer Caroline Abels contributed to this report.

Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750.

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