Can PSO maintain status if salaries don't hit high note?

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Think long term, act short term. This more or less defines the essence of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's ongoing negotiations for a new contract with its musicians' union -- talks that were extended past the end of the three-year contract's terms on Aug. 31.

"I think what everyone is interested in and clearly what the community has consistently told us is that they want to maintain that quality of orchestra in Pittsburgh," said Lawrence Tamburri, PSO president.

Central to this issue is the extent to which musicians' base salaries are connected to continuing high-quality performances by an orchestra lauded as one of the world's best, here and abroad.

"There's a legacy we have to maintain," said Joseph Rounds, a horn player in the group and the chair of the musician union's orchestra committee. "We realize we owe it to this city and the people who made the orchestra great. Every contract is a homage to the past."

But Mr. Rounds is concerned that management's recent contracts with the union have placed it precariously on the slippery slope away from its high status in a field in which salaries are the measuring tool.

Historically a top orchestra in terms of salaries, the PSO musicians base is now ninth in the country and moving further down at nearly every announcement of a major orchestra settling a contract. The contract's final year (2007-08 season) pays PSO musicians a base annual salary of $101,452, behind ensembles such as the National Symphony Orchestra ($107,198), Cleveland Orchestra ($110,760), New York Philharmonic ($118,560), San Francisco ($119,600), Philadelphia ($119,600), Chicago ($120,120), and Los Angeles ($122,200) and Boston Symphony Orchestra ($122,720). At the very top is the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra ($99,637 plus rehearsal wages that can exceed $30,000).

With most of these orchestras' contracts poised for significant increases in the coming years, PSO musicians see it as crucial that its orchestra keep up. Not to simply make more money or for bragging rights, but to keep in the game for the best players in the world out of the top schools or from other orchestras, and to engage the top conductors and soloists and music directors, such as Manfred Honeck. In short, to maintain the world-class status of the orchestra.

"We are not looking to line our pockets," said Mr. Rounds, "but maintain that nebulous connection that accomplishment equals legacy equals career goals. Sometimes you can't separate the two: money and prestige."

The PSO talks come at a time that arts organizations across the country are confronting difficult times, in part driven by a sour economy that is squeezing contributions and attendance.

"The economic downturn which happened around 2000-2001, for a lot of nonprofit organizations, was not over when it was over for the rest of the country," said Mr. Tamburri. "For a lot of nonprofit organizations, that was one of the longest periods of a downturn that we had gone through. We were only two years into a recovery, maybe three, when it started all over again. It is not a typical cycle. This decade has been particularly difficult."

Pittsburgh alone in recent months has seen City Theatre cut three positions because it failed to meet its budget, the Glass Center turn to an outside consultant to help it right its fiscal ship, and Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre experience a defection of board members in a dispute over finances vs. artistic director Andrew Paul's vision.

A report a year ago by think tank Rand foreshadowed that such pressures may only grow in a region where two of the biggest funders of arts -- the government and foundations -- are being pulled in other directions, putting more of the burden to raise money from a populace whose numbers have been shrinking.

"There is more competition for raising money," said Mr. Tamburri. "Pittsburgh is a smaller city than it used to be so we need to be very efficient about finding resources and utilizing them."

But the arts and orchestras also are generators of revenue for the region, counters Bruce Ridge, chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians. "They enhance the reputation of the city and help bring in money, too. In Allegheny County, the Pittsburgh arts industry is a $341 million regional business.

"... An orchestra of the reputation and historical significance of Pittsburgh adds so much value to a city. It is an enticement for business and it spreads the name of the city internationally."

That is seen in its most bald form when the Allegheny Conference on Community Development frequently piggybacks on the PSO tours abroad to attract businesses.

Mr. Ridge also says that despite the economic downturn, many orchestras nationally are making budgets and increasing ticket sales, with the now suspended Columbus Symphony being a notable exception.

It's a trend reflected at the PSO, which garnered a fourth year of increased subscribers to the main classics series at Heinz Hall: 10,309 for the fiscal year that ends this month, compared to 10,222 in 2006-07. The percentage of filled seats -- 75 percent -- was still below desired levels, but was up from 74 percent the season prior.

The PSO's budget had a surplus last season but Mr. Tamburri said it's too early to know if this year's budget also will be in the black. The budget must be at least balanced for three consecutive years before the PSO can tap into a portion of a $29.5 million gift from the Richard Simmons family.

Other significant issues in the negotiations include the musicians' pension, increasing the orchestra personnel to 99 (although significant progress has been made with auditions and hiring) and defining Mr. Honeck's scope of decision-making power with the orchestra.

As for now, the environment between PSO management and the musicians is not overly heated. "The talks are cordial and we intend on coming on some sort of agreement," said Mr. Rounds, noting the musicians agreed to extend the contract beyond Mr. Honeck's inaugural Sept. 19 concert.

For Mr. Ridge, the issue is not how much musicians make or how much it costs to live in Allegheny County vs. Los Angeles or New York.

"The question is how much benefit does having one of the world class orchestras so intrinsically recognized with your city, what is that value to the city? The message of an orchestra to its community has to be one of investing."


Classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com . He blogs at Classical Musings at www.post-gazette.com .


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