Coming year pivotal in keeping PSO a first-class orchestra

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Following a year that included naming a new music director and receiving one of the largest gifts in any orchestra's history, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra might like to go into cruise control and take it easy for a while.

If only that were the case. The truth is, the 2007-08 season that starts this month could go a long way toward determining whether the organization can maintain the stride of a first-rate orchestra or fall behind.

"We are working really hard with our strategic planning to be an orchestra that is able to adapt to the new world, and we are seeing some success from that," PSO president Larry Tamburri said. "There is a sense of good things happening."

The positive would include ticket sales that are their best since 1998-99, a stable budget, the 2008 arrival of maestro Manfred Honeck and last fall's $29.5 million pledge from the Richard Simmons family, the fifth-largest gift to an American orchestra.

Yet the season -- the last of the PSO's trio of titled conductors and Andrew Davis' final as musical adviser -- also will be defined once again by the orchestra's relationship with its musicians union. This concluding season is the final year of a concessionary, three-year contract and there will be pressure on both sides of the bargaining table to sign a new pact by the time Mr. Honeck raises his baton on his first full season this time next year.

The orchestra has long been considered one of the best in the nation, but when it comes to salaries, the numbers show the PSO is falling behind the front of the pack.

With the symphony facing a budget crunch, musicians in 2005-06 agreed to a pay cut that put the base salary at $97,191, down from $101,084. The base salary rose to $99,501 the next season, an amount that ranked the PSO ninth among major orchestras, well behind Boston ($118,040), Los Angeles ($117,520), Philadelphia ($114,400), San Francisco ($114,400), New York ($112,060), Chicago ($111,670) and Cleveland ($107,640) and closer to the National Symphony ($103,792), Detroit ($98,800) and Minnesota ($94,068), according to the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM). The PSO base salary rises to $101,452 this season.

"Salary is an important issue in terms of maintaining parity with the other major orchestras," said John Soroka, percussionist and chair of the orchestra union. "It's a very small and selective pool of very skilled performers we are trying to attract and retain ... in a highly competitive atmosphere."

Just as crucial as keeping salaries competitive is how many musicians will receive them.

The terms of the present collective bargaining agreement call for a temporary reduction of musicians to 95 from 99. But terms also stipulate that auditions must be held prior to the end of the 2007-08 season to restore the total complement to 99 musicians plus two librarians for the 2008-09 season.

At either number, the PSO is operating with fewer full-time musicians than the orchestras of Boston (101), Los Angeles (105), Philadelphia (104), San Francisco (103), New York (106), Chicago (106) and Cleveland (100), and again closer to the National Symphony (96), Detroit (98) and Minnesota (95).

That difference may not seem like much, but it can have an impact on the artistry and health of the orchestra musicians. (The PSO hires substitutes for some performances.)

"The orchestra does a lot of work and playing concerts is really stressful, and it can have a physical toll on people," Mr. Tamburri said. "Having enough musicians to be able to play the repertoire properly and also to rotate people in and out is really crucial."

"There is a tier of orchestras that is best in the world and Pittsburgh is one of them, but in order to maintain that class the number of musicians has to be maintained," said Bruce Ridge, chairman of ICSOM.

While Mr. Tamburri would not comment on the status of auditions, relations between the musicians' union and the PSO administration have been cordial.

Mr. Simmons -- the orchestra's board chairman -- praised the musicians for helping the PSO through tough times and said their salaries should be boosted in the next contract.

The orchestra should end this fiscal year with a small surplus, Mr. Simmons said, and is on track for a larger budget surplus in 2007-08.

"It is very evident and we realize that the members of our orchestra -- and most importantly, our principals -- have to be compensated at a level that keeps them happy and in Pittsburgh, without a desire to go someplace else. That's the answer to how to keep world-class orchestra here, and we have that to wrestle with," Mr. Simmons said.

Still, the PSO has never paid musicians the same salaries as those in such big cities as New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, he noted. "The real question, then, is how much more [should the PSO pay]? "

The PSO, which has yearly budgets of about $30 million, ended its past two fiscal years with $1 million and $1.2 million deficits. At the end of August 2006, the PSO the endowment was $118 million.

Documents the orchestra filed in July with the Allegheny Regional Asset District forecasted another $1.2 million deficit for the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31, but Mr. Simmons said the official numbers, once audited, should show a surplus.

The budget -- and spirits -- of the orchestra were buoyed by the $29.5 million Simmons family gift.

In the short-term, $7.5 million will directly aid operating expenses; $5 million will come in $1 million increments as the symphony raises its own $25 million in an ongoing capital campaign; and the last $17 million will come after Simmons' death, provided the orchestra has reached three consecutive years of balanced budgets.

The PSO also has seen good news in subscriptions, which are up from lows in 2003-04. The following season, the orchestra implemented a subscription campaign that consciously cut against the industry grain. Many American orchestras have been moving toward flexibility and single tickets -- the League of American Orchestras says subscriptions at the 26 biggest budget orchestras accounted for only 63 percent of total ticket sales in 2005-06, down from 75 percent in 1999-2000 -- but the PSO has held fast to the traditional methods of cultivating patrons and donors.

Doug Kinzey, PSO senior director of audience development, not only believes subscriptions are doable, "our numbers are showing it is doable and it is the lifeblood of the donor family. Subscriptions are very important."

In selling mostly seven-, 14- or 21-week packages, the PSO has been able to increase the number of Mellon Grand Classics subscribers from 9,118 in 2004-05 to 10,222 last season, raising the number of subscriber seats sold from 55,819 to 62,873.

"This is the first time [we] had more people to talk to," Mr. Kinzey said.

With these gains, total ticket sales are back to the level of a decade ago: 105,237 last year compared with 105,016 in 1998-99. On average, Heinz Hall was 72 percent filled last season.

The PSO hopes to grow the number of classical concerts it offers. Its upcoming season will offer 56 concerts over 22 weeks, behind Cleveland (77 concerts, 24 weeks), Philadelphia (102 and 31) and the National Symphony (63 and 21), to name a few.


Tim McNulty can be reached at tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750.


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