Black Friday for orchestras — three strikes, and music’s out – Washington Post

It was a dramatic weekend for the Philadelphia Orchestra. On Friday night, audience members waited in the Kimmel Center for the start of its opening-night gala, until the orchestra’s president, Allison Vulgamore, came onstage and announced that the musicians had gone on strike. (The gala dinner was held anyway.) Meanwhile, across the state, the musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony were picketing; they called a strike Friday morning. And in Texas, the Fort Worth Symphony is finishing the third week of its strike, with no end in sight.

But on Sunday night, the Philadelphia musicians and administration announced that they had come to a tentative agreement. At the Kimmel Center, at least, the music will go on.

Indeed, there has been little reason for hand-wringing about the future of classical music in recent months. Two of the most bitter orchestral labor-dispute stories — the Detroit Symphony strike of 2010-11 and the epic 15-month lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra through 2013 — have unexpectedly turned into renaissances. A couple of weeks ago, journalist and pundit Douglas McLennan, founder of, wrote an article titled, “Some of our orchestras seem to be thriving. Is this a new trend?” But the three orchestra strikes at the same time brought with it the threat of a whole new round of decline-of-classical-music articles.

The truth lies somewhere in between. It’s no secret that the new information age represents a challenging time for large arts institutions. Some have found creative ways to tackle huge hurdles, such as the Arizona Opera, which brought itself from the brink of collapse to financial health within a couple of years (the executive director responsible, Ryan Taylor, was snapped up last year by the Minnesota Opera).

But other institutions have consistently struggled — and the Philadelphia Orchestra has been one of the most troubled. Despite a history of artistic excellence, it has been through a bad strike in 1996, a public falling out with its music director, Christoph Eschenbach, in 2008 and, in 2011, a bankruptcy filing. Not even the arrival of a popular and aggressively populist music director, Yannick N é zet-Séguin, has been able to significantly boost ticket sales or help resolve the budget deficit of several million dollars. Musicians, who have taken a number of pay cuts and freezes, voiced concern that the decline in their base pay was compromising the orchestra’s ability to attract top talent.

Pittsburgh, too, has been facing long-term challenges and a declining audience. With a gifted but micromanaging music director in Manfred Honeck, the orchestra has seen significant administrative changes in the past couple of years; when the new management assessed the orchestra’s current situation it discovered, the orchestra’s board chairman told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “that we were facing an imminent financial crisis.” The musicians argue that the situation is not as bad as management claims.

The bottom-line argument remains largely the same for most of the recent and ongoing labor unrest in classical music institutions. Musicians are in high-pressure jobs that require years of training, the purchase and maintenance of expensive instruments, and irregular working hours, and they want to be compensated accordingly. Management finds that the money is harder and harder to get — depending, of course, on the community. (San Francisco, whose symphony last year signed a contract with base pay of $150,000 a year, is more affluent than Baltimore.)

The Pittsburgh Symphony’s base salary is $107,000 a year, according to the Post-Gazette, and the Philadelphia Orchestra musicians’ is about $128,000. The base pay at the National Symphony Orchestra, for comparison, is $139,260, according to an NSO spokesman. Under the Philadelphia Orchestra’s new contract, the musicians’ base pay will rise to about $138,000 by the contract’s end — still not quite what the musicians were hoping for, although when talks broke down, the two sides were allegedly only half a percentage point apart.

Pittsburgh’s situation is less easy to resolve; the musicians struck after management proposed a 15 percent reduction in salary. Similarly, Fort Worth musicians are striking after a proposal to reduce their annual contracts by three weeks. Still, one could hope that the rapid ending of this weekend’s Philadelphia story might inspire other orchestras to find equally swift resolutions. And in Philadelphia, Simon Rattle will be able to come in on schedule this week to start rehearsing the Mahler Sixth — a good way to put a double-bar line on labor stoppage, and move on.


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