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Tuesday, March 19, 2013 - Page updated at 10:00 p.m.

San Francisco Symphony cancels concerts, tour during strike

By Richard Scheinin
San Jose Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The San Francisco Symphony has canceled four home concerts and an East Coast tour, which would have taken it to Carnegie Hall this week. Its musicians, who earn an average of $165,000, are on strike, seeking assurances that theirs will remain among the country’s top-three orchestras in terms of pay — capable of recruiting top talent and putting on the best performances for years to come.

In third place behind the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco musicians are ahead of such groups as the New York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The orchestra’s management says it shares the same quality concerns. “It’s all about the music and the musicians. That’s why we’re here,” said Brent Assink, the orchestra’s executive director, who took part with musician union representatives in three 13-hour bargaining sessions last week to try to resolve the strike — the first at this orchestra since the 1996-97 season, when it canceled 43 concerts and was silent for nine weeks. The symphony has posted deficits in each of its last four seasons, including $844,000 in 2011-12.

The musicians’ contract expired Nov. 24 and was extended through Feb. 15, while the orchestra kept performing and labor talks continued. The musicians walked out last Wednesday.

Afterward, principal timpanist David Herbert, who leaves next season to join the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, accused management of creating a “cultural disconnect” with its musicians. Violist David Gaudry, chair of the musicians’ negotiating committee, called management’s latest two-year proposal a “draconian” attack on wages, benefits and work rules.

It would have increased pay by 1 percent by the end of the first year, and by 2 percent in the second, bringing the minimum annual salary to $145,979 (from a current $141,700) and to a projected average of more than $165,000. Musicians would continue to receive 10 weeks’ vacation. Three of four family health plan options would have required no monthly payments by the musicians — though Gaudry said the most popular plan would have required a 400 percent increase in premiums.

“The primary concern of the musicians is to keep the artistic product competitive,” Gaudry said. “We want to be the best symphony orchestra in the country. It’s our fear that we’re going to lose many of the gains that we’ve been making artistically over the last years.”

Despite the recent deficits, the orchestra’s “financial health is robust,” Gaudry contended, citing several examples: Its endowment has grown significantly in recent years; the organization spent $11 million on celebrations during its centennial season in 2011; and Assink has received a “longevity” bonus of about $280,000.

Assink countered that his own regular wages have been frozen in two of the past four years, along with the rest of the staff’s. What it comes down to, he said, is finding a balance that preserves “the long-term financial sustainability of the organization, and that includes having the best musicians.”

For a lot of people, the deal offered by management would be a sweet one — including most of the country’s classical musicians, who don’t play in top-tier orchestras with 52-week seasons. A top-paid member of Symphony Silicon Valley earns between $15,000 and $18,000 per season. At the California Symphony in Walnut Creek, a musician who participates in every rehearsal and performance over the course of a season earns less than $4,000.

“I’m sympathetic to both sides” in the San Francisco dispute, said Andrew Bales, president of Symphony Silicon Valley. Any organization, he said, commits suicide without a smartly balanced budget. On the other hand, the San Francisco Symphony’s players “have achieved to the top tier of their profession and don’t want to be put back.” Still, he points out, “It’s hard for the rank-and-file population to see musicians at that price-point on the picket line and to be sympathetic. It’s very hard for a blue collar worker to look at that and not say, ‘Oh, my God.’ ”

The San Francisco Symphony’s labor problems are only one piece of a national landscape. Due to a crippling contract dispute, the Minnesota Orchestra hasn’t performed since the fall. The Philadelphia Orchestra crawled out of bankruptcy proceedings last year. “The economy has taken its toll in terms of ticket sales and on the philanthropic side,” said Judith Kurnick, a spokeswomanfor the League of American Orchestras. “The pie feels smaller.”

The career path for classical musicians, however, is long and expensive, starting at an early age with private lessons and daily practicing, and continuing through years of conservatory training. String players at top-tier orchestras must buy or secure instruments typically valued at $200,000 to $1 million. “It’s like carrying a second mortgage,” Gaudry said.

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