BSO contract talks will not stop the music

September 16, 1995|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff Writer

Management and musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra agreed yesterday to keep making music while they continue negotiating a labor contract that expires midnight tonight.

"The orchestra will rehearse and perform while negotiations continue beyond the current contract's expiration date of Saturday," according to a statement released jointly by the two sides, who remain at odds over players' salaries and whether to cut the symphony's season by five weeks.

"What the extension says is simply this," added a player who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Let's just wait and see what happens. A strike or a lockout won't serve anyone's purpose."

Success in these negotiations is crucial to the symphony. A strike now would halt momentum gained during last fall's critically acclaimed tour of Asia and could increase an annual deficit that has reached $2.5 million. That, in turn, could force the orchestra to postpone an international tour tentatively set for fall 1997.

Both management and musicians appear intent upon reaching agreement -- and avoiding the bitterness and long-lasting problems that followed a six-month strike by musicians in 1987.

Then, as now, the symphony was riding high after a successful international tour, in that case to Europe. After the strike, morale plummeted, fund-raising decreased and the symphony was forced to postpone an international tour for financial reasons.

To keep tensions in check this time, management and players agreed early last summer to a "news blackout" so negotiations could be conducted in private. Both sides have, in large measure, stuck to that agreement.

Negotiating beyond the deadline is nothing new for the symphony.

In 1992, the last time the musicians negotiated a contract, discussions continued for more than a month beyond the original deadline, and an agreement was reached without interrupting the symphony's schedule.

That agreement, called "concessionary" by both sides, included pay cuts and fewer health benefits for the BSO musicians.

At issue in the current negotiations are musicians' salaries and the length of the symphony's season, now 52 weeks long, according to sources close to the negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity.

To offset its debt, BSO management wants to institute pay cuts of about 10 percent by decreasing the BSO season to 47 weeks.

The musicians, on the other hand, want the length of the season to remain at 52 weeks and are requesting a raise in the 7 percent range. If granted, that raise would bring the base salary for a symphony musician up from about $1,100 weekly to about $1,180.

A 52-week season is to some degree a status symbol -- the sign of a full-time orchestra -- and is considered necessary by many music professionals to keep players and the conductor in peak performance condition.

In addition, the Baltimore Symphony players argue that their salaries should approach those made by musicians in organizations of similar size and stature -- such as the orchestras in Cincinnati and St. Louis.

At the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the minimum amount earned weekly by musicians during the 1995-96 season -- which is 52 weeks -- is $1,170, according to the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians. That figure will rise to $1,340 by the 1998-99 season.

The St. Louis Symphony had a $3.9 million deficit at the beginning of its 1994-95 season, according to figures released by the American Federation of Musicians.

At the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, musicians will receive a weekly base salary of $1,175 for the first 26 weeks of the 1995-96 season. During the second half, the salary rises to $1,200, according to the contract finalized in September 1994.

During the first half of the 1997-98 season, Cincinnati musicians will earn $1,310 per week, and $1,345 weekly in the second.

The Cincinnati orchestra won those pay raises following a severe financial crunch that lasted several years -- and had forced earlier pay cuts. In the early 1990s, the orchestra's debt had risen to about $6.5 million, said Jeffrey Alexander, its general manager.

Though the musicians' contract wouldn't have expired until the end of the 1994 season, management and players renegotiated the contract in 1991. Their agreement included cuts in pay and benefits for players, management and the conductor, which, combined with staff reductions, saved the orchestra about $1 million.

The symphony then used the agreement as leverage to persuade local foundations, individuals and corporations to donate enough money to pay off their debt, said Mr. Alexander.

"On one hand, [the musicians] took a leap of faith and on the other they were extremely cognizant of the fact that a message needed to be sent to the community that we were all in this together and the financial stability was obviously very important to them," he said.

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