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Symphony strike echoes across US

By Sarah Bryan MillerContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / January 20, 2005


The music has stopped at the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO), where the musicians have been without a contract since Jan. 3. Whether you call it a strike (as management does) or a lockout (as the musicians insist), the work stoppage is a serious bump in the road for an orchestra that many say deserved a smoother trip.

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The SLSO is generally considered one of the best orchestras in the country. It was the first of numerous American symphony orchestras to confess to financial troubles, back in the summer of 2000. And it was the first to start climbing out of its financial hole - progress made with the cooperation of its musicians.

But efforts to resolve players' salaries have now reached an impasse that has silenced the sound of cellos and clarinets at Powell Symphony Hall. The situation is hardly unique: Several other professional orchestras across the US have either shut down or dropped a season in recent years because of financial problems. Maintaining a full-time, high-quality symphony orchestra is an expensive proposition - especially in a time when the arts are attacked as "elitist" - but many midsize cities are struggling to hold on to the prestige of having one despite the costs.

"Some cities have a history and a sense of context," says Susan Elliott, editor of "If they have a tradition of a symphony orchestra, they'll find a way to sustain it."

For St. Louis, which has lost a string of corporate headquarters in recent years, supporting the SLSO could prove to be a crucial test; the orchestra has been an important source of civic pride.

The Taylor family, owners of Enterprise Rent-a-Car, gave the SLSO a $40-million challenge grant. Orchestra president Randy Adams, a former banker, came up with a business plan for the organization that slashed costs and gained the support of corporate leaders. The musicians renegotiated their contract and accepted a hefty pay cut for three years, with a base annual salary of about $61,000. A pair of philanthropists helped to buoy the players' salaries with $2 million in "bridge" money, bringing them up to the low $70s. The cutbacks were achieved without injury to the SLSO's remarkable outreach program, an accomplishment in itself.

With the orchestra's management, board, and musicians working together, they brought in one of the world's finest young conductors, David Robertson, as music director-designate. And last June they met the Taylor challenge, six months early.

There were some setbacks along the way. A plan to get taxpayer support fell through; money is still needed for the endowment. Still, things were looking up. Elsewhere though, several orchestras were floundering. In March, the Houston Symphony went on a 22-day strike when the management proposed a pay cut. Orchestras in San Antonio, Texas; Rochester, N.Y.; and Baltimore struggled with rising budget deficits even as Georgia's Savannah Symphony canceled part of its season due to a $1.2 million debt.

Jack McAuliffe, vice president and chief operating officer of the American Symphony Orchestra League, acknowledges that the balance between finances and artistic mission can be a delicate one, but he notes that the failure rate for symphony orchestras is under 1 percent.