Philadelphia Orchestra players OK one-year pact

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Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra play during the Festival of Families. ( Yong Kim / Staff Photographer )

Musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra on Monday approved a labor deal - an unusual 12-month contract that leaves in its wake some unfinished business and the promise of more labor talks soon.

The pact and a related agreement are in part a manifestation of frustrations and disappointments on the part of musicians. The contract, which must still be approved by the orchestra board, increases the size of the ensemble, but only by one, to 96 members plus two librarians in 2016-17 rather than the 97 negotiators had sought, to help make up for deep cuts made during the 2011 bankruptcy. At that time the orchestra had 106 members; it now has 10 vacancies.

On wages, instead of regaining some of the compensation forfeited in the bankruptcy, players will receive only a sliver of a raise, to a base salary of $2,472 per week from $2,400, or about 3 percent, starting Nov. 30. Many players, especially those with titles like principal, assistant principal, or associate principal, earn more - some much more.

Musicians of the negotiating committee did not formally recommend the proposal to the rank-and-file membership, and in a show of displeasure released a statement warning that unless Philadelphia's contract keeps pace with those at other top orchestras, the talent will go elsewhere.

"Philadelphia Orchestra musicians should be compensated as well as other great American orchestras so that the current world-class status of the orchestra may be maintained," said the statement from the players, members of Local 77 of the American Federation of Musicians. "Several members . . . have recently left, and more are planning to leave, in search of better opportunities elsewhere."

Musicians of the top U.S. orchestras traditionally look to move up the pay scale more or less in tandem. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra players recently negotiated a deal of small raises to the base salary of $151,320, and New York Philharmonic players will reach a base pay of $146,848 in September 2016, though salaries in cities with lower costs of living, like Cleveland, are closer to rates in Philadelphia. Players here saw a scheduled raise to $131,000 evaporate during the orchestra's bankruptcy. The new contract base minimum comes to about $127,750, because it is backdated to Sept. 14 and encompasses some weeks at the old salary.

One major sticking point was resolved. Musicians sought the consultancy of Michael M. Kaiser, chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, on the strategic direction of the organization, especially with regard to fund-raising and ideas to boost the orchestra's endowment. Management agreed, but then became resistant to sharing Kaiser's findings with musicians, they said. Now management has agreed - with strings. A separate agreement, not part of the contract, allows members of the negotiating committee and others involved in the process to see the report, but they must sign a confidentiality agreement to do so, two sources said.

"We believe that the Philadelphia Orchestra needs an unbiased outside evaluation of its operations and we welcome and support the hiring of Michael Kaiser to conduct an open and transparent evaluation of our beloved institution," said the players' statement.

Musicians said they felt pressure to approve the contract and avert a strike that would have resulted in the canceling of Tuesday night's Carnegie Hall concert. "This is not as deeply concessionary as the bankruptcy contract was, and we're still dealing with the effects of that, although this is an improvement, a very small one. But we're still far behind," said John Koen, chairman of the members' committee.

Most other years, the Philadelphia Orchestra Association and its musicians have signed three- or four-year deals. The new contract will likely expire Sept. 11, 2016, though musicians' attorney Melvin S. Schwarzwald said that date might shift by a few days in the final contract language, which is yet to come.

"This one seemed to be quite difficult," he said of the negotiation, which began in April. "Their position is that they are recovering from the bankruptcy, it's taking a long time, and therefore they are not in a position to close the gap [between base salary at this orchestra and others] very quickly or significantly at this point. So that led to talking about a one-year agreement and the suggestion that Michael Kaiser be brought in."

Orchestra vice president Ryan Fleur said the new deal would allow the Philadelphia Orchestra Association to meet budget expectations for the season - an expected $5.8 million deficit that the group will be able to cover with special bridge funding associated with its financial recovery. He said the orchestra has cash and pledges of $20 million toward an endowment-campaign goal of no less than $100 million and would study how much more is needed.

"Our musicians are worth far more than we are currently able to pay them," he said, allowing that there was no guarantee that any additional income generated by a future endowment campaign would be allocated to musicians' salaries. "We have a lot of factors to consider - first and foremost is we have to continue the turnaround and stabilize the organization as it now exists."

pdobrin@phillynews.com 215-854-5611

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