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A Crescendo of Budget Problems

A labor dispute between St. Louis musicians and symphony officials reflects the financial difficulties facing 90% of the country's orchestras.

January 09, 2005|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS — When the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra crashed to the brink of bankruptcy four years ago, local residents opened their wallets wide to keep the music playing.

From a $5 bill to a $40-million grant, thousands of patrons gave to rescue the nation's second-oldest orchestra -- one that brought world-class talent to the ornate stage of Powell Symphony Hall. In 3 1/2 years, the community raised $130 million.

Last week, it became clear that it wasn't enough.

Instead of rehearsing Bartok's "The Wooden Prince" with their new music director, acclaimed conductor David Robertson, the symphony's 93 musicians were walking a picket line in a cold rain. This weekend's concerts were canceled. And the rest of the season is in jeopardy.

The musicians are demanding that the symphony dip into its donation-fattened endowment to give them raises. Management refuses, insisting that the fund be left intact to ensure the 125-year-old symphony never again faces bankruptcy.

The impasse here is a reflection of the immense strains threatening orchestras across the nation.

Intense and often divisive contract negotiations consumed three of the nation's top orchestras last fall: Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia. All were settled without strikes.

But analysts say they and many smaller groups are struggling to produce soaring music amid a financial crunch brought on by the high cost of health benefits, a downturn in ticket sales, and the challenge of attracting donations in a still-struggling economy.

Close to 90% of the country's orchestras ran a budget deficit last year, according to Jack McAuliffe, vice president of the American Symphony Orchestra League, a trade association. "The last three or four years have been very challenging," he said.

To survive, both musicians and management have had to give.

Contracts that traditionally set rigid limits on rehearsal times and performance dates have been amended so orchestras can reach out to new audiences.

In Philadelphia, musicians have agreed for the first time to perform on Sundays. St. Louis offers Friday morning concerts, over doughnuts, to attract senior citizens reluctant to drive at night. The New York Philharmonic stages occasional concerts from 5 to 6 p.m.; they're billed as a chance for commuters to avoid the evening rush hour by staying in the city with Brahms or Beethoven.

In a bid for a younger audience, the artistic director of the Chicago Symphony teams up with a local rock-station deejay for preconcert discussions several times a season. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has pioneered flexible contracts that allow for the orchestra to be broken up into smaller ensembles and chamber groups from time to time.

And in this year's contract negotiations, musicians in Chicago and Philadelphia agreed to cut a few full-time positions -- a painful concession in the classical music world, where hundreds of musicians may audition for a single open seat.

"There's a lot of stress among high-level management at every symphony I've talked to," said Arthur Brooks, director of the nonprofit studies program at the Maxwell School of Public Affairs at Syracuse University. "They're really having to think outside the box."

In St. Louis, negotiations on benefits and schedules were largely amicable.

The impasse here, both sides said, is strictly about money.

In the last contract negotiations three years ago, the musicians agreed to take a 10% pay cut and reduce their work year to 42 weeks, including four weeks' paid vacation.

For the next three-year contract, Symphony President Randy Adams has proposed another pay cut, although a much smaller one. He will not release precise numbers, but said the base pay for each year would remain above $70,000.

Adams can't offer more, he said, because the donors who bailed out the symphony with multimillion-dollar gifts insist that their money be used to build an endowment to secure the institution's future.

The musicians counter that the symphony's future depends on attracting and retaining top talent. On a per-week basis, the new contract offer is close to the salaries musicians earn in Houston, Cincinnati and other comparable symphonies. But because those musicians all work 52 weeks, instead of 42, their annual base pay is much higher -- in the $90,000 range.

"I don't believe that the citizens of St. Louis, who gave so much money to save the symphony; or the management, who hired one of the hottest conductors around, really want us to fall so far behind that we become just a feeder orchestra," said Jan Gippo, a piccoloist and chairman of the musicians' negotiating committee.

The gap between the musicians' demand and management's offer is less than $2 million over three years. That's nothing compared with the huge sums the symphony has raised.

But it is enough to stop the music.

The musicians say they won't play until they have a new contract. Adams says he won't negotiate until they resume performances. Ticket holders who looked forward to a winter full of Mozart and Rachmaninoff will have to be satisfied with recorded CDs.

"I'm deeply disappointed," said Tina Ward, a clarinetist. "The community came forward in so many ways for us. I want to be there for them."

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