Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra management, musicians in contract talks
Current agreement expires Sunday night
September 2, 2016 12:00 AM
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's musicians rehearse in their black-and-gold T-shirts at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado.
PSO music director Manfred Honeck, right, and his brother, Rainer, pose in T-shirts reading "Musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra" at the Aspen Music Festival in late August. Manfred Honeck is not a member of the musicians' union. Rainer Honeck, a violinist, served as the orchestra's guest concertmaster during the PSO's three-concert stint at Aspen.
Melia Tourangeau, the president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Assistant Principal Horn Zachary Smith and Principal Trombone Pete Sullivan at the Aspen Music Festival.
By Elizabeth Bloom / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The contract for the musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is set to expire Sunday night, and while the symphony’s management and musicians have agreed not to discuss the negotiations with the media, messages from both sides are getting across.
In the last several weeks, the musicians, members of Local 60-471 of the American Federation of Musicians, have ramped up their social media efforts and established a new website and newsletter. The tone of the musicians’ online campaign generally has been positive, focusing on stories about individual PSO players or about orchestras that have found recent philanthropic success. By contrast, at a hearing for the Allegheny Regional Asset District this week, the orchestra’s management offered a pessimistic assessment of the organization’s finances in the years to come.
The musicians made a point during rehearsals at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado in August, when they wore black-and-gold T-shirts that read “Musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra,” featuring a silhouette of the Pittsburgh skyline. The musicians posted photographs of themselves sporting the new threads on Twitter and Facebook, and they recently made the shirts available for sale to the public.
In essence, the musicians have established a brand that is independent of the organization at large. In the years since the recession, several musicians’ unions have employed similar tactics as a way “to get the good word out” and counterbalance a negative narrative about the financial health of symphony orchestras, said Meredith Snow, chairwoman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians. In the case of labor disputes, developing an independent following can prove useful to musicians trying to garner public support.
Separately, Melia Tourangeau, the symphony’s president and CEO since last summer, made the symphony’s annual pitch for RAD funds on Monday at the Koppers Building. The symphony was seeking $1.4 million in operating funds and a smaller grant for capital costs.
There were a few bright spots: In the last year, the symphony had exceeded ticket sales expectations by 4 percent, and it was ahead of last season in subscriber retention and new subscribers. The organization also believes that it just had a record-breaking annual fund campaign, Ms. Tourangeau said.
But for the most part, she offered a bleak assessment of the PSO’s financial outlook: The organization had a $1.5 million deficit for the fiscal year that ended Wednesday. Ms. Tourangeau was certain the symphony could balance its budget by next season were it not for the expiration or reorganization of two revenue streams that would sink the organization another $1.2 million into the red. (One is a donation that supported musicians’ raises under the current contract; the other is the restructuring of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s Broadway performances at Heinz Hall.) Among financial challenges going forward, she said, the symphony needs to contribute $10.4 million to its pension fund in the next five years.
In a subsequent question-and-answer session with the RAD board, Ms. Tourangeau said PSO musicians’ salaries are in the top 10 in the country, but compared to the cost of living in Pittsburgh, the base salary of about $107,000 is in the top three or four. She also said artistic costs account for 70 percent of the symphony’s $32 million budget, a ratio that is usually reversed for other orchestras that own their own facilities.
In a later interview, she clarified that her statement was referring to all artistic costs, including the music director’s salary and guest artists’ fees, and not just salaries and benefits for PSO musicians. Like the musicians, Ms. Tourangeau believes the orchestra’s salaries and benefits account for about 48 percent of the budget.
After the meeting, the symphony shared an article from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review detailing the RAD testimony on its social media pages, a move that would seem unfathomable a year ago for an organization that historically has painted a sunny picture of its financial outlook. Louise Sciannameo, vice president for public affairs, said that the decision to post the article on Facebook and Twitter was unrelated to the current negotiations and that the symphony has intensified its social media presence in recent years. She also said inviting members of the press to the RAD meeting was not connected to contract negotiations, noting that such hearings are open to the public.
“The RAD hearings are when the RAD hearings are, and we responded to the questions we were asked by the board,” Ms. Sciannameo said.
The organization has only become fully aware of some of the lingering financial problems since it developed a five-year outlook in recent months, Ms. Tourangeau said, and she has been trying to inform the orchestra’s stakeholders about the coming challenges since making that analysis. “It’s a multifaceted issue. We’ve got to be hitting it from every side,” she said, noting that the biggest focus would be on fundraising.
“I was equally as surprised as everyone else when we did this 3-5 year projection and saw our cash obligations,” Ms. Tourangeau said. “In fact I was a bit stunned to see what I was charged to turn around.”
Even if the timing of the testimony was a coincidence, not everyone is sees it that way. Drew McManus, an arts consultant who blogs on the website Adaptistration, took issue with some of Ms. Tourangeau’s claims and the way she made them.
“The PSO’s President, Melia Tourangeau, was fine providing dire figures then took the passive-aggressive approach of declining to offer comments about the ongoing negotiations,” Mr. McManus wrote.
The PSO musicians shared the Adaptistration article on their own social media pages.
Even though no one can comment on negotiations, the mood seems to have soured, at least compared with the last time the orchestra held negotiations. That 2013 pact had been settled a year early and included pay increases at a time when several major orchestras were experiencing nasty labor strife.
While the orchestra was struggling with cash flow issues then, the contract demonstrated goodwill between the negotiating sides and a commitment to woo and retain high-quality musicians in Pittsburgh.
“It's extremely important we continue to reward them by keeping their salaries within the top 10 in the country,” then-president and CEO Jim Wilkinson said at the time.
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