SAN DIEGO — Taking what he called a "step backwards" to preserve long-term stability, San Diego Symphony Orchestra Assn. President Herbert J. Solomon, at a Tuesday Symphony Hall press conference, canceled the orchestra's entire 22-week winter concert season.
Solomon cited stalled contract talks with musicians, in which "absolutely no progress" has been made in the past month, as the reason for the cancellation. Musicians rejected the symphony's proposed 11% pay cut. Both sides remain about $500,000 apart on wages and disagree over a package of proposed artistic changes.
Musicians in white-tie concert attire picketed outside Symphony Hall as Solomon said he hoped the players would understand that the symphony "grew too fast and too far over too short a period of time and that we had to take a step backwards . . . "
Bassist Gregory Berton, who heads the musicians' negotiating committee, disagreed: "So they grew too fast. So they're not doing anything this year. I guess this is their year to catch up, huh? If they don't start making the orchestra their primary concern, I don't think they're going to get any community support."
In addition to the season cancellation, 10 symphony staff members were laid off on Monday, symphony Executive Director Wesley O. Brustad said. Five more will be cut by Dec. 1, reducing the staff to 13, down from 39 before Brustad's arrival in September.
"It's a very sad day for us," Brustad said. "It's a strange day for me. This is the first fall in my entire career that I haven't put (on) any shows or concerts.
"It's a whole new game. Obviously, with the cancellation of this season, anything that was on the table--from our side and I would imagine from either side--has to be looked at differently." Brustad indicated that the symphony's final offer to musicians no longer stands as the result of the cancellation.
Tuesday's announcement is the latest development in a series of crises that have besieged the orchestra in recent years.
The cancellation was in marked contrast to the euphoria that surrounded the orchestra only 12 months ago at the festive opening of Symphony Hall. But even the glitter that accompanied the opening was clouded by a $2.1-million debt, accumulated in 10 years of deficit spending.
Within a few months, symphony officials threatened bankruptcy if the community failed to rescue the orchestra.
In an amazing 10-day feat, the community responded by contributing $2.4 million and symphony leaders promised that for the first time in 10 years they would end the year with no debt.
It didn't happen. The symphony underestimated its accumulated debt by several hundred thousand dollars and overestimated its income by $2 million. As a result, it ended the year with an $877,000 deficit.
Tuesday's cancellation was part of a determined effort to end "these roller-coaster twists of financial crises and instability," Solomon said. "What the community requires of us is a stable organization."
Solomon admitted that canceling the season was a calculated risk. The symphony hopes the short-term savings realized by cutting the season will not be offset in loss of good will and community support.
"I would like to believe that the public will support us even more, seeing that we're willing to take a difficult and painful decision when there is no responsible alternative," Solomon said. It would have been "utterly irresponsible" to take a position in negotiations with the musicians that would fail to reduce the symphony budget, he said.
However, Solomon said "we're not sure" that the move will improve the symphony's credibility in the community or know how it would affect future contributions and ticket sales. "We are concerned with the sale of tickets for next season. If we are not performing this season, will there be an adverse effect on our ticket sales for next year? We're not sure of that."
He said the board also weighed the possibility that it would lose key musicians by failing to come to a contract agreement. A drop in artistic quality, Solomon said, "was a risk we had to take."
Talks between the musicians and the symphony board have been under way for more than four months and deadlocked for 30 days. Wages are the key issue, but both sides also disagree over a package of proposals involving auditioning and firing procedures and the scheduling of concerts around San Diego Opera performances.
Until three years ago, the symphony and opera seasons were planned so that symphony musicians could play all of the San Diego Opera performances--earning additional income. Scheduling in recent years has prevented that.
This would have been the symphony's sixth season under Music Director David Atherton. Although Atherton is credited with raising the level of the orchestra's playing to previously unreached heights, he increasingly has come under fire by musicians.