A chorus of musicians' complaints

The Broadway strike ends, but a wider discord persists

Cellist Nick Dargahi loves to play Mahler because of the swing in moods. "There is joy, abject sadness, pending death - it runs the gamut," he says. But these days, instead of performing Mahler, he's back in school, studying for a degree in electrical engineering.

The reason: He was a member of the San Jose Symphony, which packed up its baton in January when it went into terminal bankruptcy.

"I thought it was time to go into a different field," says Mr. Dargahi, who has watched three orchestras go bankrupt.

Dargahi isn't the only musician playing a sad tune. Other orchestras are in bankruptcy, performance seasons are being canceled, and violinists are holding strike signs, not a Stradivarius.

Indeed, in Houston, the orchestra went out on strike Sunday as management tried to cut costs. Broadway musicians did the same last week, although their strike was settled by Tuesday morning.

"These are challenging times," says Jack McAuliffe of the American Symphony Orchestra League, a professional association.

Not that it's ever been easy to be an arts organization.

After relatively flush times in the 1990s, the current problems of the economy are taking their toll. Ticket sales are down for some orchestras; corporate sponsors are withdrawing some support; and foundations, after watching the value of their portfolios drop for several years, are reducing the size of their grants.

It's not helping that state and local governments facing large budget deficits are cutting back on their help for the arts.

But some of this also says something about the viability of orchestras in mid-size cities, where there is no great tradition of attending the symphony. To attract listeners, many of these orchestras have had to pay large sums to get superstars such as Yo-Yo Ma or Emanuel Ax. This means there is less money to pay their own professionals. As a result, labor and management are butting heads.

The San Antonio Symphony, which has already cut its musicians' wages by 20 percent, has been unable to meet its payroll. The Savannah (Ga.) Symphony canceled the rest of its season when it couldn't pay a $1.2 million debt. Even in cultured Boston, musicians are expecting cuts in the face of reduced state grants.

And Houston musicians declared a strike after five months of negotiations failed to yield a compromise. The orchestra is expecting to lose $3 million this year. "We cut staff. We cut the salaries of the remaining staff," says Art Kent, senior director of public affairs for the symphony.

Mr. Kent says the orchestra asked the musicians to take an 8.8 percent salary cut (on an average income of $84,000).

The union is angry. "The Houston Symphony has not come through," says Lovie Smith-Schenk, president of the union. "We have a world-class orchestra, and the management has a high school mentality."

Ms. Smith-Schenk says that fundraising efforts in the Houston opera and ballet have been record-breaking, but she has not seen similar efforts from the symphony.

Similar trouble began brewing months ago at the Colorado Springs Symphony, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. "The bank window was closed, the donors were tapped out, and the musicians would not take a pay cut," says Larry Barrett, the symphony's executive director.

He says a previously negotiated labor contract became unreasonable. "The musicians are ignoring the economy and saying, 'You've got to go out and raise more money.' "

Diane Merrill, president of Pikes Peak Musicians Association, says that the musicians offered to help out by allowing the symphony to defer payments on pensions and performances, but that the symphony's only offer was to pay musicians the net earnings from the box office. "We would end up paying them," she says.

"We had nothing to do with the financial troubles," insists Ms. Merrill. "Our musicians only make about $12,000 a year."

All the discord means that "people have to find creative solutions," says Mr. McAuliffe of American Symphony Orchestra League. In Colorado Springs, this has meant the musicians have formed their own orchestra. However, none has gotten a paycheck since the end of the year.

For others, it may mean as much time in the car as in the practice room. That's what happened to Blair Tindall, who played oboe for the San Jose orchestra before it folded. To make a living, she played in orchestras all over northern California - an effort musicians term the Freeway Philharmonic. "I had to change my oil once a month," recalls Ms. Tindall, who moved to New York and got a job playing on Broadway just before the strike.

Many musicians are now back in school like Dargahi, the cellist. Yet for some musicians, the second career is just not rewarding enough. That's the case with Kristina Nilsson, a violinist in Boston who has also passed the Massachusetts bar. Since she hasn't kept up with changes in the law, she believes it would be too late to go back to the world of torts.

Not that she would. "I chose music," she says, "because I love it so much."

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