Philadelphia Orchestra on strike; gala concert canceled

Philadelphia Orchestra members walk the picket line after going on strike Friday during the Opening Night Gala at the Kimmel Center.

The Fabulous Philadelphians are on strike.

Friday night, a crowd of about 1,000 sat in Verizon Hall waiting for the orchestra to appear for the scheduled start of the Opening Night Gala.

But no Philadelphia Orchestra appeared on stage. Unbeknownst to most in the audience, the 96 musicians and two librarians belonging to American Federation of Musicians Local 77 had decided to go out on strike about an hour before curtain time.

Finally, about 20 minutes after the scheduled start, orchestra president Allison B. Vulgamore came out on stage to say that no labor agreement was in place for "one of the world's greatest orchestras, if not the greatest," and the performance would not happen.

Last-minute efforts to save the concert were launched backstage. Both sides tried to hammer out an agreement even well after the 7 p.m. curtain time, but those talks failed.

When the entire audience had filed out, musicians came out from backstage into the lobby of the Kimmel Center carrying picket signs. Audience members applauded and cheered them, while several philanthropists and members of local arts boards booed.

"Shame on you," shouted a couple of elderly donors at musicians, who walked past them stony-faced.

"I'm disappointed — I think they could have chosen another night," said one orchestra donor who declined to give her name.

Sarah Darrow of Center City, who had bought a last-minute $20 conductors' circle ticket, was likewise disappointed, but philosophical. "I assume that this great institution will go on and I'll hear them another night," she said.

Negotiations earlier in the day over a new labor deal —the first formal talks in more than two weeks — ended Friday afternoon with musicians bitterly unhappy with the offer.

Friday night's gala was not scrapped, creating a strange dissonance: revelers celebrating an organization now at war with itself. The Philadelphia Orchestra Association's gala dinner for a crowd of about 550 in black tie and gowns went on as planned in the Kimmel lobby.

Musicians picketed on Broad Street in a light rain.

The gala concert — one of the biggest fund-raisers of the year — was to have featured conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin leading the orchestra in works by Bernstein, Gershwin, Ravel, and Respighi.

No new talks are scheduled. All of this weekend's concerts have been canceled. Immediately hanging in the balance are two early October concerts with conductor Simon Rattle scheduled for Philadelphia and Carnegie Hall.

It is the orchestra's first strike since 1996, when musicians were out for 64 days. Philadelphia's players found unfortunate commiseration on the other side of the commonwealth, where another first-rate orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, also went on strike Friday.

Musicians here had been playing without a new contract since the old pact's expiration Sept. 12, while both sides agreed to a "play and talk" deal. The initial proposed deal offered players no raises in the first three years, and 1 percent raises in each of two years after that, with no commitment to restore the size of the ensemble to pre-bankruptcy levels.

Players called management's initial offer "regressive."

The last-minute pact both sides were arriving at on Friday evening was a two-year deal, with a 2 percent raise in the first year. Management proposed a 2 percent raise in the second year, and musicians wanted 3 percent. The difference in their positions ultimately came to a total of only about $90,000 over the life of the contract, said Melvin S. Schwarzwald, the musicians' Cleveland-based lawyer.

Philadelphia Orchestra Association vice president Ryan Fleur did not dispute that amount, but said that when management would not agree to the higher percentage raise, the musicians walked out.

"Things were close," said Fleur, but he said that arriving at a framework still would have left the many parts of the labor agreement to be worked out, including work rules, the question of adding more players to the orchestra, and other details.

The strike comes at a time of frustration with the pace of recovery since the orchestra emerged from bankruptcy in 2012.

Fund-raising has gone slower than expected, and management still has not been able to close a $5 million gap in the annual budget. The last contract was an unusual, stopgap deal, one year in duration, while arts consultant Michael Kaiser completed a report examining some of the underlying causes of the orchestra's financial troubles, while recommending some course corrections. The orchestra's board has not approved Kaiser's plan, fueling musicians' dismay.

Musicians say they are seeking to remain among the top-paid in the country. The base minimum for players in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, without seniority or other extra pay, will be $152,672 at the end of this season. With no raise in Philadelphia, the minimum would be $128,544.

One backstage negotiation offer from management for a new three-year contract would have brought the base pay to $135,000 a year by the third year, the Association said in a statement.

"I believe in this incredible orchestra and I believe in the power of this community to value it," said orchestra principal hornist Jennifer Montone. "The musicians want to move forward and be part of that. This is certainly a potentially exciting time."

In a Friday night email to ticket buyers, the Association said it was "extremely hopeful that we can come to a swift agreement with our musicians."

"This orchestra deserves to be saved," said cellist Gloria de Pasquale as her colleagues cleaned out their lockers at Verizon Hall and filed out of the stage door with boxes and suitcases in hand.

pdobrin@phillynews.com

215-854-5611

Continue Reading