Pittsburgh Symphony cancels concerts through Oct. 27 – Tribune-Review

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Pittsburgh Symphony cancels concerts through Oct. 27

Members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra went on strike on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016.

Members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra went on strike on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016.
Photo by Steve Adams | Tribune-Review

Updated 11 hours ago

The shock of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra musicians going on strike last Friday morning was compounded that evening when the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra went on strike, too.

The two Pennsylvania strikes are quite different in many respects, but are driven by musicians’ concern about maintaining quality in a competitive labor market.

The Philadelphia strike began with the musicians walking out after the audience had arrived for the gala concert. Pittsburgh Symphony musicians voted to extend their contract and played the gala on Sept. 19 at Heinz Hall.

“The only way to stop the decline of the (Philadelphia) orchestra is to purge the board of those who are angry at the musicians for the ’96 strike and for making too much money, or think the musicians are overpaid and spoiled babies, or who think that Philly can only sustain a Baltimore-level orchestra,” said the orchestra’s former president James Undercofler in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

But for all the heat in the city of brotherly love, the strike was settled in less than 48 hours. The two sides had never been far apart. At the end of the three-year contract, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s base salary will be $137,800.

By contrast, the two sides in Pittsburgh say they want to talk but are so far apart that there’s not even common ground for negotiations to take place.

Management’s “last, best and final” offer is a three-year contract starting with a 15 percent pay cut, from $107,239 to $91,153, followed by two and three percent increases in the second and third seasons, or $95,765 in the final year.

The musicians’ current proposal is for a four-year contract starting with a wage freeze, followed by two, three and four percent increases in succeeding seasons or $117,171 in the final year.

Christian Schornich, the symphony’s chief operating officer, said negotiations have made progress on work rules and other items in the contract. The symphony’s initial offer had been a 25 percent cut, down to just over $80,000, and the 15 percent pay cut is as far as it can go given the orchestra’s financial problems, Schornich said.

“We are interested in talking, but we must arrive at the possibility of talking within realities, which includes our financial situation,” he said.

Symphony management projects another $1.5 million deficit this year, as it had last year, with $20.4 million in other obligations over the next five years.

“Unfortunately, musicians have not been in the same room on this,” Schornich said. “We need common ground to continue talking.”

The musicians dispute some of management’s projected figures, though not the fact of the deficits.

“In all the negotiations I’ve been involved with here at the PSO over many years, the common ground has always been wanting to maintain the greatness of the institution,” said Micah Howard, chair of the committee representing the musicians. “This is not the first time we’ve disagreed about the numbers but this year is a very different case. They’ve said over and over again that they want to restructure the organization, and when we talk about artistic excellence, they’ve brushed it off as not as important as their projections.”

The musicians acknowledge they’re well paid and could live on management’s final offer, but they believe it imperils the orchestra’s artistic excellence, which requires attracting and retaining top talent.

Howard pointed to five top musicians who have left the Pittsburgh Symphony for other orchestras since 2011 — concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley, principal timpanist Edward Stephan, violinists Sylvia Kim and Shanshan Yao, and just recently, violist Meng Wang, who’s going to the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The five highest-paid orchestras in the U.S. this season are Los Angeles and San Francisco, each with base pay just over $160,000; Chicago at $155,896; Boston, $150,332; and New York, $146,815. The Pittsburgh Symphony’s last contract put it in tenth place, $13,000 behind the Cleveland Orchestra’s base pay of $130,988, according to information gathered by the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians and the American Federation of Musicians.

Pittsburgh Symphony management’s initial offer, just over $80,000, would have taken the orchestra to 18th place, behind St. Louis and just ahead of Baltimore and Seattle. Management’s final offer, if accepted, would put Pittsburgh in 14th place, behind Houston, $93,860, and ahead of Detroit and Seattle, each just under $91,000.

Base pay doesn’t tell the whole story because many musicians in all major orchestras make more for seniority and other factors. The most prominent of the first chair players make much more, an over-scale structure Schornich says the Pittsburgh Symphony supports and isn’t looking to change.

Symphony management wants a world-class orchestra, Schornich says, but with sources for borrowing exhausted there isn’t the money now to offer a higher base pay than the final offer.

Mark Kanny is the Tribune-Review classical music critic. Reach him at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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