Orchestra board OK's new contract; players play pop-up concerts all over town

Musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra fanned out across the region Tuesday, chatting up fans, playing in string quartets and wind quintets, and doing a little damage control.

The entire institution breathed a sigh of relief after the turmoil last week that led to the cancellation of the orchestra's opening-night gala concert Friday.

Late Tuesday afternoon, the orchestra board unanimously put its official stamp on the three-year labor deal that ended last weekend's brief strike. Musicians voted Sunday, 73-11, to accept the deal, and the union leadership is expected to approve it Wednesday.

Tuesday's concerts in Center City, Collingswood, Bryn Mawr, South Philadelphia, and elsewhere - a total of 20 locations - had long been planned. Under other circumstances, they might have drummed up support as negotiations continued or served as a public relations tool during a strike.

As it was, players traded their picket signs for serenades and welcomed a few board members to the all-day musicale. "I got a long handwritten note saying how much they appreciated us," said board member Neal W. Krouse, who showed up to hear groups play at the Porch at 30th Street Station. "I'm happy to listen to the orchestra anytime."

The ensemble there, though, was less like a full orchestra than a Salvation Army band, if a singularly world-class one. On the breezy south side of 30th Street Station at noon, where Market Street contributed a music of its own with sirens and construction noise, a horn quartet played Schubert and Wagner for a crowd whose size, fluctuating with passersby, had a loyal core of about two dozen. 

Trumpeter Anthony Prisk thanked the crowd, and made an appeal for funds to bring the ensemble "back to its former glory of being a Big Five orchestra," a reference to the Philadelphia Orchestra's base pay being lower than that of the orchestras of Boston, Cleveland, New York, and Chicago - as well as the San Francisco, Los Angeles, and National symphony orchestras.

It was a shame the opening-night gala concert had to be scrapped, said Sean Vallancourt, a University of Pennsylvania Law School student (and timpanist in Penn's school orchestra). "They are still one of the great orchestras in America, and I understand why they want to be paid as much as the others in the Big Five," he said.

The new contract, which runs through Sept. 15, 2019, calls for wage increases of 2 percent in year one and a 2.5 percent increase in each of the remaining years, bringing base pay to $137,800 in the third year of the contract. Many musicians earn more, and principal players much more.

The base pay this season is $131,144 - less than that for Boston ($150,332), Chicago ($155,896), and New York ($146,815), and neck-and-neck with Cleveland ($133,588), according to various sources.

Such figures are difficult to compare, since in addition to base pay, many orchestras award other compensation for various reasons. To many, the pay may seem impressive, and it is; but these jobs require the workers to buy their own equipment, and stringed instruments can run well into the six figures, or even seven.

The deal includes language that makes official the musicians' participation in fund-raising and educational activities. It specifies some fund-raising training for players in advance of going out on fund-raising calls and occasions on which they might play in small ensembles to woo donors.

A proviso for additional compensation for musicians, librarians, and stagehands would kick into place if the orchestra ran surpluses, up to a potential $5,000 per player. Also new is that certain other activities would be further compensated - lessons and sectionals, and performances as part of fund-raising, public relations events, and educational ventures.

The deal could add up to a boost in the amount of time musicians spend pressing the flesh, which made Tuesday's concerts seem an apt warm-up to the next three contract years.

Some of the pop-ups truly were concerts, such as that at the University of the Arts' Dorrance Hamilton Hall Atrium, where 13 players from the orchestra played Grieg's Holberg Suite, led by concertmaster David Kim, in a performance easily worthy of a Kimmel Center subscription concert. One listener was Malynne Smith, 18, who recently arrived from Pittsburgh to study musical theater.

Smith said she had never heard anything like it and grasped at words to describe the experience. "Something about it was very nostalgic," she said.

"It put me in a different zone," said Steve Ranochak, a resident at St. John's Hospice on Race Street, where a quartet led by violinist Amy Oshiro-Morales played a reduction of Bach's Brandenburg No. 2. "I'm into all varieties of music, but to see four people perfectly in sync, and watching how they were all feeding off each other - I could barely eat my food."

This is the second year of the musicians' audience-appreciation concerts, which are expected now to be annual events. When planning this year's concerts, musicians had no idea where Oct. 4 might land in the negotiation process. They had invited board members before the strike, and the entreaty may have ended up being something of a salve.

"If we can mend fences by being out in the community, that's what we'll try to do," said cellist John Koen, chairman of the members' committee, who played with a noontime group at the Reading Terminal Market. "I saw a couple of board members, some volunteers, and many subscribers in the audience, and I think everyone had a very good feeling."

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