This has been a time of significant change for the Utah Symphony. After a three-year international search, Thierry Fischer was engaged as our music director. The Swiss-born conductor has inspired the orchestra and reignited enthusiasm for the Utah Symphony throughout the community. He is an energetic and dynamic leader with vision.
It has also been a transitional time for us, as there has been an unprecedented turnover in our personnel. Many players who have been the backbone of the orchestra have either moved on to other jobs or retired. In the course of a little more than three years, we will have hired approximately 25 new players, many in high-profile title positions.
The opening week of our 2011–2012 season coincided with the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and the orchestra took on the daunting task of commemorating that event. In front of packed houses and under the leadership of our new music director, we opened these concerts with John Adams’ <em>On the Transmigration of Souls</em>, a work commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and first performed to commemorate the one-year anniversary. The emotional power of this piece was felt throughout the orchestra and the audience; the silence as we left the stage was striking. For the second half we performed a rousing Beethoven 9, and the orchestra had truly taken its audience on a journey from the depths of the tragedy to the strong message of hope.
It was ironic that midway through that first week, as we were rehearsing this program, the musicians were given the startling news that our orchestra faced a staggering deficit and a dire cash flow issue. We were told that, by the end of November, the orchestra would not have the cash to make payroll and that the existence of the Utah Symphony in its current form was threatened. The newly elected orchestra committee began sifting through the very complex issues we faced to formulate a strategy.
For decades our 52-week season has been one of our defining marks. Though we have always been the lowest paid of the group, we also exist in a city with the smallest market base, making our accomplishments as an orchestra all the more remarkable. In 2002, over the objections of the musicians, the Utah Symphony merged with Utah Opera. Despite best efforts, the organization has yet to completely stabilize. The musicians have endured continual concessionary bargaining during the ten-year period since the merger. Early in the merger we negotiated concessions in exchange for bringing in consultants (one of whom produced the well-known Morris Report). Now we were being asked to forgo a pay raise originally scheduled to take effect in 2008. A previous waiver included fundraising goals intended to serve as a catalyst which, when not met, triggered a three percent penalty to be paid during the 2011–2012 season. The payment of that penalty became a painfully emotional issue for both the musicians and the board. At the same time, our management and board had reached milestones in so many areas of the organization, and it was clear we had to move forward.
In facing this new challenge, the orchestra committee decided to negotiate a waiver to the existing agreement rather than open the contract—an approach we had utilized four times previously on this same contract. Our contract would have expired at the end of the 2011–2012 season, and we were dreading the upcoming negotiation. Given the economic climate and the general state of orchestras, we saw huge benefits for both sides to this approach. We preserved our healthcare plan, our defined benefit pension (AFM-EPF) with contributions at over 9% of salary, seniority pay, all current scheduling provisions, and many other benefits of our current contract. As the management had already entered into the early stages of a capital campaign, avoiding a contract negotiation seemed in their best interest as well. We had envisioned adding a year or two to the current agreement, but instead we ended up with a four-year extension.
The organization was looking for ways to cut the deficit and increase cash flow, and musician concessions were one part of a multi-pronged approach to achieving this. We were able to negotiate a first year that did not include any retroactive cuts and, in fact, gave a small annual increase over the previous season’s contractual salary. In 2010–2011 (September–August), we had 51 weeks at $1,189 ($60,639 annual), including 9 weeks of paid vacation and 1 unpaid week. Before our waiver agreement, 2011–2012 was to have been 52 weeks at $1,249 ($64,948 annual), including 9 weeks of paid vacation. Effective December 1, 2011, the base weekly rate will drop to $1,150 as a result of the waiver. The result will be 13 weeks at $1,249 and 39 weeks at $1,150, for a total of 52 weeks at $61,087. The number of paid vacation weeks will increase from 9 to 10 in 2011–2012.
We will see a small salary increase in each of the subsequent three years, reaching restoration in the final year of the agreement. The agreement also maintains our 52-week season and the additional week of paid vacation during those years. We preserved our orchestra size with the commitment to fill all openings. An important component of this waiver agreement was the creation of a special task force to look at the ten-year history of the organization since the merger with the aim of analyzing the use of resources and looking for ways to improve organizational effectiveness. We hope this task force will create the transparency necessary to understand our past and help direct our future.
From an organizational standpoint, our concessions were supplemented the first year by equal or greater concessions from the staff, a huge contribution by the music director ($45,000 in direct contributions), and $70,000 in give-backs from guest artists. By committing to this plan, the board was committing to a significant increase in fundraising. The board voted unanimously in favor of this plan on November 17, and on the same day the musicians voted to support it by an overwhelming majority. It was painful for the players to accept a further four-year delay in a pay raise that was supposed to go into effect in 2008, and was now postponed to 2014, making this a seven-year agreement encompassing four different waivers. Musicians had been anticipating this raise, and it was a long time in coming. At the same time, we may finally be on the road to understanding the unique issues our orchestra faces in order to deal with them effectively. We are positioning ourselves for a better future both artistically and economically.
What we all made clear to our community is that the Utah Symphony is an organization brimming with mutual respect, where all components share the same commitment to our mission and for our future. The following was graciously submitted and eloquently penned by ICSOM Chairperson Bruce Ridge:
The audiences that surround and love the Utah Symphony are fortunate to have this inspiring group of musicians as members of their community. The news of the musicians’ new contract settlement is a testament to the musicians’ commitment to the citizens of Utah and a demonstration of their love for this historic and world-renowned institution. Not only should the musicians be admired for the excellence they offer to every citizen of Utah, but also for their generosity in supporting musicians everywhere. The members of the Utah Symphony are greatly admired across America and beyond. Through their positive advocacy for music, education, and the business community of Salt Lake City and the entire state of Utah, there can be no doubt that the Utah Symphony will continue to bring acclaim to its city and state from throughout the world, and will maintain its standing as one of the America’s greatest cultural institutions for generations to come.
The players sincerely thank our board and staff, who worked so hard and effectively to hammer out this agreement: Pat Richards (board chair), Melia Tourangeau (CEO), David Green (COO), and Steve Hogan (CFO). Thanks to the Utah Symphony orchestra committee whose insightful decisions and leadership created the atmosphere for a successful conclusion: Lynette Stewart (chair), George Brown (ICSOM representative), Rebekah Johnson (union steward), Walter Haman and Larry Zalkind (board representatives), Veronica Kulig (secretary), Peter Margulies (finance), and Leon Chodos (treasurer). Special thanks to the Utah Symphony Waiver Discussion Committee whose creative thinking and hard work led to the agreement: Larry Zalkind, Gary Ofenloch, Rebekah Johnson, Lori Wike, and Pete Margulies (Gary Ofenloch and Larry Zalkind, negotiators). Thanks also to Bruce Ridge, to Local 104 and its president, Mike Palumbo, and to our attorney, Joseph Hatch.