After a spirited discussion on April 22, the members of the Chicago Symphony overwhelmingly approved a small package of contract modifications. The package includes a temporary 2.5% reduction in base scale (for 104 consecutive weeks), temporary changes in the hiring of subs, two additional free concerts in the next two years, postponing the filling of four vacancies, and one small change to tour conditions. Significantly, it also adds a new fifth year to the contract. There will be a 4.5% increase in base scale for the added year ($90/$30 split, with a total increase of $120 per week). Every member will also get one additional paid release week.
These changes were a result of a process that started in January, when CSO management requested a pay freeze to help with budget problems caused by the general economic downturn. While the CSO has not seen a decrease in ticket sales yet and annual giving remains strong with a projected decrease of only 3%, the endowment (and hence the available draw) is severely impacted by the recession.
Members Committee Chairman Steve Lester says that, in discussing the union’s response, four basic principles guided their thinking: (1) Modifications would be temporary. (2) Reductions would be targeted (no reopening of their contract). (3) There should be some form of recognition for any temporary reduction (fifth year). (4) The Chicago Symphony Association must provide complete information regarding staff salaries and hiring (which are frozen), program costs, revenue, etc. So far, the Association is complying with these requirements. While the members have never modified a contract before, given the extreme situation in Chicago, the Members Committee believes that these modifications not only help preserve the health of the orchestra but also demonstrate a commitment by the trustees to maintaining the orchestra’s position in the world.
The Chicago Symphony’s September 2009 tour to Europe, which is funded with dedicated sponsorship, is proceeding on schedule. With the recent release of the CSO’s eighth CD on CSO Resound (Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé and Poulenc’s Gloria, with Bernard Haitink, conducting), all of their media plans are also moving ahead.
Problems began appearing in the Philadelphia Orchestra during August 2008. That is when then-President James Undercofler, due to budget concerns, cancelled the August 2009 European Festivals tour and the Global Concert Series over Internet2. (This was prior to the U.S. economic meltdown in late September 2008. Both tours had been scheduled for the 2008–2009 season.) The musicians have four seats on the board of directors, and board documents throughout the fall traced the unraveling of orchestra finances. The chief reason for the current economic trouble is that approximately 90% of the endowment is donor restricted. Of the unrestricted portion, $10 million is collateral for the line of credit (which is very close to its limit). The little that remains above that amount may need to be used over the summer of 2009 to cover the substantial per diems for the Vail and Saratoga festivals in July and August, respectively.
Orchestra Committee Chairman John Koen explains further that the Association typically relies on cash from subscriptions coming in late February and March to cover operating expenses until the season begins in mid-September. This year, subscriptions are down approximately 20% compared to last year (a far greater decline than the 8-10% drop experienced by many of Philadelphia’s peer orchestras). The staff was cut 20% in mid-March. This was followed by further cost-cutting measures, including asking guest artists and conductors to reduce their fees, limiting entertainment expenses, and restricting travel for conferences.
The orchestra committee kept the musicians informed, and their overwhelming response was that they wanted to do their part to help the institution survive and continue to flourish. The musicians, Local 77 President Joe Parente, and attorney Susan Martin met with the CEO and certain of the staff over the course of two months to find a solution that would not permanently damage the musicians’ stature but would address the financial crisis they found ourselves in the middle of.
Instability in the leadership of the institution has also caused problems. There is a public perception that the orchestra is drifting, although, thankfully, as the New York Times and others have noted, not artistically. There has been an interim board chair since January 2009, and the post will not be filled permanently until the September 2009 election. There is also an interim CEO. The CEO search continues but appears to be drawing toward a conclusion. Finally, there is also an ongoing music director search, but there is a very good expectation of concluding it by January 2010. So the leadership problems should begin to resolve in the near future.
A six-month lockout of the musicians of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra began on June 1, 2008. This crisis occurred before the national economy fell into deep recession. In fact, the stock market crashed a week after contract terms were settled last September. In hindsight, there is no doubt that the whole season would have been lost had Columbus musicians not settled at that time. Even with that settlement, the orchestra did not resume full-time employment until last January. With the recession in full effect by then, the financial situation was much worse than anticipated due to the slashing of wages and benefits by 25%, without future restoration.
According to ICSOM delegate Mike Buccicone, there is little change in either management or board personnel to report at this time. Even with the huge cuts, another six-figure deficit is expected at the end of the season in August. Morale has fallen to its lowest point as musicians all struggle with these cuts. Several musicians have taken long-term leaves of absence and have either found other jobs or returned to college for retraining in other professions.
Despite all of this, concerts have been well attended and enthusiastically received by audiences. The musicians are struggling to maintain the highest quality under these conditions. As of this writing, the search for a new music director and a new executive director continues. The orchestra’s future may well depend on some major change in board personnel that could result in increased support from city leaders and major donors to stave off the orchestra’s decline.