Members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra have been on strike since Sept. 30.
By Elizabeth Bloom / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The management and musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra are at odds over many aspects of the players’ prospective contract — salary, retirement packages and orchestra size among them.
But those quantitative matters give way to a qualitative question: Would the last, best and final contract offer from PSO management alter the orchestra’s artistic product?
The musicians, who have been on strike since Sept. 30, argue that management’s last proposal would do irreversible damage to the quality of the 120-year-old ensemble.
“What management is proposing would change our institution,” said bassist Micah Howard, who chairs the orchestra committee. “It would destroy it.”
The managers, on the other hand, say the orchestra can uphold that strong artistic tradition under their last proposal — and in any case, the organization has no choice, given the multimillion-dollar hole management says it will soon find itself in.
“Our priority is to preserve the Pittsburgh Symphony for the long term,” president and CEO Melia Tourangeau said.
Stalled in their contract negotiations, management and musicians can agree on one thing: The other side’s proposal would sink the institution.
Last season, the PSO musicians’ base salary stood at $107,238, which would currently rank 10th among U.S. orchestras, according to data collected by the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians and provided by Mr. Howard. That wage would place them between Cleveland ($130,988) and Cincinnati ($101,786) in the current season.
In the first year of PSO management’s last offer, that base pay would drop by 15 percent, and Pittsburgh would slide down to the 14th slot, between Houston and Detroit.
In musicians’ view, that lower rank would reduce the PSO from a “destination” orchestra to a "stepping-stone" ensemble — a placeholder for musicians on their way to larger institutions, rather than where seasoned musicians spend the majority of their careers.
Chief operating officer Christian Schornich does not believe that management’s last contract offer — which also proposes changing some players’ retirement plans and instituting a hiring freeze, while maintaining provisions for paid overtime, sabbaticals and other benefits — would send the orchestra into a downward spiral.
“The compensation and benefits are very attractive,” Mr. Schornich said. “We believe musicians would do extremely well staying here.”
Most of the musicians earn more than the base salary, he said, and the orchestra would continue reputation-boosting activities such as making recordings, going on international concert tours and partnering with music director Manfred Honeck. Mr. Honeck, whose own contract runs until 2020, has declined to comment during the ongoing negotiation process.
The job market for symphony musicians is extremely competitive, and conservatories are producing far more musicians than could possibly find work in orchestras. The PSO typically draws hundreds of applicants for open seats, and many of the orchestra’s musicians already take auditions in other cities, too, management noted.
As in other industries, the shift toward defined contribution plans makes it easier for musicians to move between orchestras without losing their retirement benefits.
Some musicians already have started to look elsewhere. Principal flutist Lorna McGhee and violist Meng Wang have won auditions with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Philadelphia Orchestra, respectively. It is unclear whether Ms. McGhee will leave Pittsburgh, but Mr. Wang has accepted the job in Philadelphia, which recently emerged from its own brief strike. (Mr. Wang had tried out for other orchestras since arriving in Pittsburgh in 2007.)
Principal timpanist Ed Stephan, who grew up in Beaver County and maintains a faculty position at Duquesne University, recently accepted a position with the San Francisco Symphony. He is technically on a one-year leave from the PSO. In March, trombonist Jim Nova withdrew from an audition with San Francisco that he now says he would have taken had he anticipated the current work stoppage. Mr. Nova had been automatically named one of four finalists for the position.
“There may be people that leave, but we know that we can’t continue to pay this amount of money,” board member Tom Todd said. “It makes me want to cry to have to say that.
“We have to weigh a ‘maybe’ against a certainty,” he said.
The players maintain that it is, indeed, certain that the orchestra would diminish in quality, arguing that replacing vacancies in the orchestra isn’t as easy as it seems. It took the PSO eight years to fill the principal flute job that Ms. McGhee holds, for example. One candidate for Pittsburgh’s open concertmaster chair confirmed to the Post-Gazette that he had withdrawn from the audition process — mainly because of the timing of the auditions, but also, in part, because of “rumblings of unrest between management and musicians.”
“Not every quarterback that graduates throws a ball like Ben Roethlisberger. Not every French horn that graduates plays the horn like Bill Caballero,” Mr. Stephan said, referring to the PSO’s principal horn player.
Mr. Caballero, for his part, has plans to substitute with the Philadelphia Orchestra and play a “trial week” with the Cleveland Orchestra, whose principal horn chair is open, this season. He turned down an offer from the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2010, citing the quality of life and cost of living in Pittsburgh, contractual incentives to stay here and the musical camaraderie he had cultivated in Heinz Hall.
Mr. Caballero said he came close to going to L.A. “At the same time, Pittsburgh made it very attractive for me to stay, and I’m very grateful for that.”
Yet management would make the case that such orchestral churn would not be permanently damaging. A handful of players left the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in the wake of a 2010-11 strike, including the longtime concertmaster and principal timpanist. Detroit Free Press critic Mark Stryker has described the current concertmaster as an upgrade over her predecessor.
“We were convinced we wouldn’t be able to attract players, but we’ve been amazed at the talent we’ve gotten at audition after audition,” now-retired principal oboist Don Baker told Mr. Stryker in 2013.
Six years after its work stoppage started, the Detroit Symphony is regarded as one of the most innovative orchestras in the country.
Mr. Stryker argues that the “real danger” of the PSO’s current path is that “the labor strife allows everyone to avoid the most difficult and important challenge of all: growing the audience.”
“What the Detroit Symphony Orchestra — which is currently healthy financially and artistically — appears to have learned from its near-death experience in 2010-11 is that its future is tied to connecting in a deeper way with those who ultimately will have to support it with their time and money,” he said.
In the immediate future, the prospects for live symphonic music in Heinz Hall remain slim. The organization has canceled orchestra concerts through Oct. 27, although the musicians are presenting several performances on their own. And the classical crossover group Il Divo played with canned music at Heinz Hall Monday, after a contracted ensemble led by PSO principal trumpet player George Vosburgh withdrew from the performance. (Members of the American Federation of Musicians are barred from crossing the picket line.)
When asked about the possibility of auditioning for another orchestra, Mr. Caballero expressed the sentiments of many of his colleagues who would prefer to play inside Heinz Hall than walk on the picket line outside of it, and who would rather stay in Pittsburgh than pursue opportunities elsewhere.
“I don't want to,” he said, “but my career’s not over yet.”
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