The Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra (PRSO) is ICSOM’s newest member, and that is something that takes both the PRSO and ICSOM to another level. The former because we have become part of the great family of symphonic musicians working towards shared goals; and the latter to have as a member an orchestra so representative of the diversity that exists in the symphonic orchestra world. The musicians of the PRSO are very pleased and proud to be part of this ICSOM—very happy as well because we have had the opportunity to make contact with friends we haven’t seen for some time and to establish new friendships that will surely last a long time. One reason we wanted to join ICSOM was that we needed better ways to demonstrate our value and strength as artists who are part of the legacy of one of the legendary performers and humanists of the 20th century, the Catalan cellist Pablo (Pau) Casals.
Our orchestra’s history goes back to 1956, when Maestro Casals visited Puerto Rico for the first time. He had come to spend time in the land of his mother, Doña Pilar Defilló. On that visit, Maestro Casals, accompanied by pianist Narciso Figueroa, played facing one of the downtown Mayaguez streets from the balcony of what used to be his mother’s house. Pictures exist of that historic moment, showing people surrounding the maestro from inside the house and gathering to watch from the street. From that moment, Maestro Casals dreamed of founding a symphony orchestra in Puerto Rico. His first step was establishing a music festival.
The first Festival Casals was held in April 1957. For the next 18 years until death his in 1973, Maestro Casals was the central figure not only for the Festival, but for the PRSO and the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music as well. Because of his aura, love, and commitment for music, many renowned artists came to play with Maestro Casals, both in chamber music and as part of the Festival orchestra. Rudolph Serkin and Alexander Schneider were close collaborators during the early years. Renowned Puerto Rican musicians (like pianist Jesus María Sanromá, who played the world premiere of Gershwin’s Rapsody in Blue) joined international artists not only to be part of the Festival Casals but also to become the first core musicians of the Puerto Rico Symphony and faculty of the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music. Notable musicians from that period include violinist Henry Hutchinson (father of our concertmaster, Henry Hutchinson, Jr.), the Figueroa family (who met Casals in Paris while they were students of pianist Alfred Cortot, violinist Jacques Thibaut, and cellist Diran Alexanian at the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris), trumpeter Henry Novak, flutist Peter Kern, Spanish bass player Manuel Verdeguer, the Soni Ventorum Wind Quintet, and French hornist John Barrows.
The miracle of the PRSO came to life in 1958 with Pau Casals as the father and the Puerto Rico legislature as the mother. In that year the legislature signed a joint resolution creating the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra (la Orquesta Sinfónica de Puerto Rico). The inaugural concert was held April 6, 1958, in the city of Mayaguez, the birthplace of Casals’s beloved mother.
Since the beginning, symphonic musicians in Puerto Rico (as in all orchestras) have been struggling not only to receive the respect and treatment they deserve, but also to create the highest level of artistic quality for their orchestra. Pau Casals himself was a great advocate of musicians’ rights throughout his lifetime. Unfortunately, no one since has provided the same degree of leadership to our struggles. Nonetheless, thanks to the devotion and dedication of many of our valiant and heroic musicians, the PRSO 48 years later is the institution that gives our public artistic excellence—whether it may be in standard symphonic fare, opera, ballet, or pops.
Throughout its history, the PRSO has always been managed by governmental entities. Since 1985 we have been under the Corporación de las Artes Musicales (CAM, the Corporation for the Musical Arts). It was created to develop and coordinate programs related to the musical arts in Puerto Rico. In short, the PRSO is a public entity whose funding is provided entirely by budgets assigned by the legislature and the executive branch of government. Another important detail to understand is that CAM not only oversees the PRSO, but also the Festival Casals and the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music.
For 42 years the musicians of the PRSO have negotiated collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) to establish terms of employment in our orchestra. More than 25 CBAs have granted our musicians hard-fought benefits, basic working conditions, and improved salaries. For example, the PRSO has progressed from a two-week season in 1958 to a 52-week season in 2001. Still, until 2003, musicians had to file for government unemployment benefits when he season ended because this, for many musicians, was their only income.
Some of the gains, though, have come through legal battles. Thanks to our legal counsel, Licenciado (Spanish for “attorney at law”) Miguel González Vargas, we were victorious in a court case brought against CAM for denying our musicians a Christmas bonus that, by law, the government gives to all its employees. For decades, management denied us this bonus, alleging that payment would be illegal. Even though there are some distinctions to be made between PRSO msuciansand government employees, the court found that we were elegible for the bonus and ordered management to pay penalties plus retroactive payments going back 10 years.
This was not the last court case we would witness. In July 2005 CAM filed a lawsuit against AFM Local 555. The lawsuit requests the court “to declare that CAM has no capacity in law (ACT No. 130 May 8, 1945, Puerto Rico) under the Constitution of Puerto Rico and is not an employer in such a manner that it may collectively negotiate with the employees of this corporate entity.”
The lawsuit was filed a few weeks before our contract expired in July and about a month before a planned 21-day tour to La Coruña, Spain. After CAM filed the lawsuit, management wanted to wait until returning from the tour to discuss the lawsuit and contract negotiations. The contract had expired, but they wanted us to make the tour without one. The musicians committee jumped in, went into overdrive, and told management that, without a contract, the orchestra would not go on the tour.
There were musicians who wanted to go on tour even under this unprecedented attack; this is something we have to work with. Solidarity and education is something that needs to be developed. As Licenciado Leibowitz said in last issue of Senza Sordino, “there is one more B after Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms that stands for Bread.” After a frantic weekend of meetings, both parties agreed to a one-year extension of the expired contract—just 12 hours before musicians were scheduled to leave on the tour. No executive of CAM accompanied the orchestra to Spain.
This lawsuit is a direct attack on our basic right to bargain collectively. Its effect could be to decertify and kill Local 555 because, if the lawsuit is successful, there will be no collective bargaining and there will be no reason for the local to exist (since all of its members are PRSO musicians). Even our membership in ICSOM is at risk.
When management was asked about the lawsuit, their first answer was that we shouldn’t consider it a lawsuit—they were just asking for “an opinion” from the court. We think that this “innocent consultation” is very damaging for labor relations and is an attempt to put a sword over the musicians’ heads. Quoting our lawyer’s an
swer to the lawsuit, “These proceedings would contravene the constitutional principle of justice, contained in the rule that it is not the function of the courts, nor can they, act as advisors or consultants, to thus avoid that decisions be produced in a vacuum, in the abstract, or under a hypothesis of a speculative nature.”
A further issue has arisen relating to the lack of support shown by CAM for the PRSO. This year, which is the 50th anniversary of Festival Casals, CAM expanded the budget for the Festival while at the same time slashing ours. It found all the funding necessary to import two internationally renowned orchestras and to expand the normally three-week Festival into a five-week event; but the same organization claims that there are no sources of funding for our orchestra.
It is always very uplifting to listen to the complimentary comments made by visiting artists—to mention just a few, Jean Pierre Rampal stressing how well the PRSO plays Mozart, pianist Horacio Gutierrez praising how beautifully the orchestra performed, and Cuban sax player Paquito D’Rivera telling the orchestra how impressed he was about the way were able to change our “mind frame” to play jazz with him. Evidently, though, the same respect for our musicians does not seem to be shared within our own organization.
Recently the principal newspaper on the island quoted the artistic directors of the Festival Casals (probably one of the few music festivals in the world with two artistic directors) as saying that PRSO musicians have myopic intellect—this for denouncing the disparity between the budget size for the Festival’s five weeks and for the PRSO’s 52-week season. They even went as far as questioning the musical ability of our musicians, suggesting that they should be more humble. Such words, coming from fellow countrymen and colleagues, are not only humiliating to our musicians but are an attempt to paint us as opposed to having other orchestras come to Puerto Rico.
They claim that we don’t appreciate the great artistic value of our colleagues and that we would deny the people of Puerto Rico the opportunity to see and hear the best performers music has to offer. They do so to drive a wedge between the musicians of the PRSO and the citizens whose taxes sustain both the Festival and the PRSO. We hope they will not be successful in this.
This is a labor issue, not an artistic issue. Many musicians who hold important positions in orchestras throughout the U.S. have at some point played with the PRSO or have studied with members of our orchestra. These include Guillermo Figueroa, Jr., former concertmaster of the New York City Ballet, Rafael Figueroa, principal cellist Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, his brother Narciso Figueroa, violinist of the same orchestra, Pedro Díaz, English horn at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Ricardo Morales, principal clarinetist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, to name just a few. As Latinos we like very much to make our guests feel at home, and the PRSO musicians have told management several times that we want to interact more with guest orchestras to show them our hospitality. The real question is why money cannot be found to sustain the year-round operation of the PRSO while even more is found for a short festival.
During this annus horribilis, ICSOM has responded to our call for help more than once. Chairman Gippo and President Ridge came to Puerto Rico last December to take a first-hand look at the situation. They were able to meet with our legal counsel, local officers, and especially with our musicians to let them know they are not alone and that ICSOM will help however it can. During that trip, Chairman Gippo also had a meeting with Dra. Evangelina Colón, the executive director of CAM.
Then in March 2006, Chairman Gippo came back to have a meeting with the president of the CAM board of directors, the executive director, their legal counsel, our legal counsel, and José Martin, the president of Local 555 and chair of our orchestra committee. Lenny Leibowitz participated from New York via conference call. Chairman Gippo started the meeting explaining that the lawsuit was not in the best interest of either side. He suggested that a better option would be to form a joint committee with the goal of transforming the orchestra into a self-sustaining, independent organization, and to suspend the lawsuit until a new contract is signed. Management saw the idea as a good one in principle, but the president said that he needed to bring that issue to all members of the board. (This issue was previously discussed in the first meeting between Dra. Colón and Chairman Gippo, at which time she said that she would bring the idea to the attention of the board. It seems that never happened.) At the end of the meeting, management agreed to a joint press release drafted by Lenny that announced the agreement between the parties to pursue the goal of transforming the orchestra into a better organization. A press conference was held the next day by the Local and ICSOM. No one from the board or management attended due to previous appointments. Another press release from the Philadelphia Orchestra musicians in support of the PRSO musicians was also disclosed at the press conference.
We are very grateful for the support Chairman Gippo and president Bruce Ridge have shown toward our situation. We thank our colleagues from the Philadelphia Orchestra for taking time from their busy schedule while they were here for Festival Casals in March to write a press release in our support and on how important collective bargaining is for all symphonic musicians. A special thanks belongs to our beloved Licenciado Leonard Leibowitz who, although not able to be here in person, was, as usual, very articulate in defending symphonic musicians, this time to our great benefit.
Emma Matos is a violinist with la Orquesta Sinfónica de Puerto Rico and is that orchestra’s ICSOM delegate.