Symphony strike echoes across US

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.

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.

Although professional orchestras in Colorado Springs, Colo., and San Jose, Calif., went under last year, he points out that Colorado Springs already has a new one rising from the ashes. Of the eight cities whose orchestras folded in the recession of the late 1980s and early '90s, "every one of those cities now has an orchestra comparable to what they lost," Mr. McAuliffe says. "Cities are answering, 'Of course we have to have an orchestra.' "

In St. Louis, an agreement had looked imminent as late as New Year's Eve, when Mr. Robertson led the orchestra to public acclaim. Management sources touted a near-certain agreement by Jan. 2, when the last negotiating meeting was scheduled. Mr. Adams's final offer was for a base salary of a little more than $72,000. It meant a cut in pay; the negotiating committee turned it down.

On Jan. 3, the old contract having expired, the full orchestra rejected the new one by a vote of 85 to 3.

The fundamental issue appears to be a difference in philosophies, a gap between the business model and the traditional way of doing things in the orchestral world. The musicians want full restitution - and a raise. Adams would not promise money he didn't have.

The musicians' peers make considerably more. Never mind the Chicago Symphony Orchestra ($104,000 per year base salary) and the New York Philharmonic ($103,480); less-celebrated orchestras like Cincinnati ($91,425), Dallas ($80,860), and Washington's National Symphony Orchestra ($96,356) have far outstripped them. While the cost of living is indisputably lower in St. Louis than in D.C., the cost of a fine vintage Italian violin is the same - starting at around $500,000 - wherever you go. Musicians provide their own instruments, and, in a top-ranked orchestra, the expectation is that those instruments will be of the highest possible quality.

Despite their differences, the two sides have been publicly cordial. But as time passes, some of the goodwill is wearing thin. One source of friction: although Adams says that the negotiating committee was aware that health insurance would be terminated on rejection of the contract, committee members say that wasn't made clear to them.

In a controversial move, Adams cancelled auditions scheduled for Jan. 3 and 4, after the contract expired. It would, he said, be legally problematic to pay the musicians who hear auditions while their colleagues weren't working. But that meant that more than 30 hopefuls found themselves, literally, out in the cold. Auditioners pay their own way; preparing for an audition is expensive. Adams agreed to reimburse them for their transportation and hotel costs, but it was a black mark for the orchestra in the musical community.

And the two sides are not talking. With a total of seven concerts cancelled so far, each side says it's up to the other to make the first move back to the negotiating table. But without some motion soon, this work stoppage could undo much of the past three years' work.

Sarah Bryan Miller is the classical music critic of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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