Short or long, orchestra strike won't solve all problems

Guests file out of Verizon Hall after it was announced there would be no music.

For an oddly giddy half hour or so Friday evening, it seemed as if the Philadelphia Orchestra's strike was going to be the shortest on record - a micro-strike. About a thousand listeners were filing into Verizon Hall for the orchestra's opening-night gala, most not knowing that the orchestra had gone out on strike about an hour before.

Backstage, negotiators were trying to iron out a deal while the stage sat bereft of players and the usual orchestral warm-up sounds.

But negotiations failed, and the concert, to have been led by music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, became the opening night that never was.

What now? No talks were scheduled as of Saturday night, even as critical dates loom. Simon Rattle, a stalwart friend of the orchestra's, should be leading rehearsals with the orchestra next week in advance of concerts here and Carnegie Hall. Potential big-draw nights with the score from ET - The Extra-Terrestrial are also in jeopardy.

These dates add pressure, which might augur well for a quick settlement.

In the meantime, Nézet-Séguin, usually visible on and off stage during his Philadelphia visits, has flown out of town and would not be available, orchestra leaders said.

"Yannick does not want to comment on negotiations at this time," said an orchestra spokeswoman.

A quick settlement would be especially good given the possible damage caused by musicians walking out just before the gala's curtain time. The timing smarted.

"Shame on you!" shouted a couple of philanthropists as players walked through the Kimmel Center lobby and out onto a Broad Street picket line Friday night.

"Nobody wins in a strike, period," said one Philadelphia arts leader who asked not to be named. "The musicians never or rarely get what they ask for. And in terms of damage to the institution, if it's a short strike, it can be managed. But the longer it goes on, the longer it will take to recover from. Some people will simply walk away and be done - philanthropists and ticket buyers. If it goes on, people eventually take sides."

People already have. Some view the musicians as drawing a line in the sand after enduring years of cuts that they say will affect quality. Others thought musicians could have chosen a different moment.

"The optics of a 'walkout' an hour before opening night are abysmal - arrogant and mean-spirited," said Julie Harrower Diaz, a former fund-raiser for the orchestra, who called the act "throwing it back in the faces of the most loyal patrons."

Bigger problems

The musicians' lament is that compensation in Philadelphia is falling in comparison with orchestral counterparts in Boston, Los Angeles, and other cities.

Regardless of whether this is quick, or the kind of long, damaging strike the orchestra sustained in 1996, bigger problems loom. Musicians returning to work will no more end the orchestra's troubles than the group's exit from bankruptcy in 2012. The salient question: Is there enough willing philanthropy in Philadelphia to support this orchestra's traditional spot as one of the top ensembles in the nation? Some believe wholesale change in the organization is what it will take to preserve that status.

"The only way to stop the decline of the 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," says former Philadelphia Orchestra president James Undercofler. "Then, with what's left, invite a summit with the Perelmans, the Robertses, and other arts-concerned families to make the case that without the Philadelphia Orchestra, everyone loses."

Unlike the case at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, where musicians went on strike Friday over management's proposed 15 percent pay cut, the two sides in Philadelphia are relatively close together.

The numbers

Talks Friday evening fell apart when musicians and management were discussing wages within a relatively narrow range. Management proposed a two-year contract with 2 percent increases each year.

Players countered with requests for 2 percent in the first year and 3 percent in the second. Management responded with an offer of 2.5 percent in the second year, and that's when talks collapsed.

Just $90,000 separated the sides.

The base minimum salary under the contract that just expired was about $128,000, with many earning more. Also at issue is whether the size of the ensemble would be increased to make up for some of the slots lost in the bankruptcy, as well as a number of work-rule changes.

But those were the terms being discussed under the pressure of saving the opening-night concert.

Now, says orchestra vice president Ryan Fleur, the management proposals are: 2 percent raises each year over three years, with an additional potential $5,000 per musician each year depending on whether the orchestra has a surplus; and the addition of one player to the ensemble in the third year (with management's right to reopen the contract in the third year if there is a cumulative deficit of more than $1 million).

Musicians are proposing annual raises of 3 percent, 4 percent, and 5 percent over the life of the contract, with one additional player added to the ensemble each of the three years.

Now the cost difference between proposals is $1,068,000, money the Association can ill afford, Fleur said.

The musicians are particularly concerned with restoring the size of the ensemble from the current 96 and two librarians to something closer to the 104 prior to bankruptcy.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has devised a creative way to restore the size of its ensemble. After financial pressures reduced its size, the orchestra established a separate musicians' endowment fund, for which it has been raising money. In August, the orchestra said it had raised more than $20 million for the fund, allowing it to add seven positions. The goal is to reach $25 million, the investment income from which would restore several more musicians.

Diaz argues that the old contract model is outmoded, and recommends "getting rid of it and starting over with a business model that works moving forward." That brings more risk, but "it's a more honest approach to the business of making music. The answer cannot continue to be that more fund-raising is needed," she said. "If it were that simple, all the patrons who have given so generously over the years would have done so.

"If the goal is to have a healthy organization that serves the community it professes to serve, then look inward and make a model that works while compensating players the best they can without all the lines in the sand. The world is changing, and the players will be the ones who ultimately suffer on a personal level while the patrons will seek fulfillment elsewhere."

pdobrin@phillynews.com