During Lockout Season, Orchestra Musicians Grapple With Their Future : Deceptive Cadence American symphonies have just begun a new season — but many musicians around the country have yet to play a single note on stage.

During Lockout Season, Orchestra Musicians Grapple With Their Future

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. It's been a tumultuous time for orchestras around the country. Labor disputes have shut down the Minnesota Orchestra and the Indianapolis Symphony. In the past year, strikes and lockouts have affected orchestras in Chicago, Atlanta and Louisville. Jeff Lunden has this story on why orchestras have been struggling.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Whether Mozart is on the bill...


LUNDEN: ...or Mahler...


LUNDEN: ...it's an expensive proposition to present a symphony orchestra. To do the music justice, you need between 80 and 100 musicians to play it. And their salaries and health-care benefits make up most of an orchestra's budget. Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, a service organization that represents professional and community ensembles, says the last half of the 20th century was a period of enormous growth for performing arts organizations.

JESSE ROSEN: And that included the importance of elevating the stature of performing artists - and including musicians - to people who were deserving of the living wage, and full-time employment in as many cases as possible.

LUNDEN: That was driven by federal funding through the National Endowment for the Arts and corporate philanthropy. But a lot of that money has dried up; and many orchestras - from the top-tier to the bottom - have seen their subscription sales drop, endowments shrink, and philanthropic giving decline. In fact, as recently as two years ago, Jesse Rosen says 50 percent of his organization's members were running a deficit. It may be a coincidence that so many musicians' contracts have recently come up for renewal. But it's not surprising that when they do, orchestra players are being asked to make concessions - sometimes, significant ones.

RAY HAIR: The blood in the streets, from all these strikes and lockouts, has now come to a head.

LUNDEN: Ray Hair is president of the American Federation of Musicians, the union which represents orchestral players. He says labor negotiations have become increasingly contentious in today's environment.

HAIR: I think over the last decade, there's been a change in the attitudes - from the employers - towards labor unions in general. And I think it's finally made its way into the symphonic sector, which is practically 100 percent unionized.

LUNDEN: It's not just employers. Orchestra board members, many of whom come from the corporate world, are exerting their influence. That's certainly the case in Indianapolis, where there's an interim executive director - and no development or marketing director. So the board is negotiating a new contract; one that asks musicians to take about a 30 percent salary cut, says Richard Graef, a French horn player who's chair of the musicians' negotiating committee.

RICHARD GRAEF: The problem in the arts world is, you cannot cut your way to prosperity. You can't cut what you do, and expect to raise more money. They want us to perform almost eight weeks less a year. Well, that will bring in a whole lot less money; that will bring in a whole lot less donors; and we will have a lot less audience see us. When we do that, we will make even less money, and it's a downward spiral. And that's what we're seeing all across all of the American orchestras, right now.

LUNDEN: The Indianapolis musicians have been locked out since the beginning of September. The symphony management declined to speak to NPR but sent a statement, which reads - in part, "The ISO must take immediate steps to bring expenses in line with income, and become significantly less dependent on the ISO foundation's endowment, which has been depleted of more than $50 million over the past five-year period."

The endowment has also shrunk in Minneapolis, where the musicians have been locked out since October 1st. But union president Ray Hair says the orchestra is spending a lot of money on things other than musicians' salaries.

HAIR: Minnesota has raised somewhere between -50 and $75 million for a hall renovation. We know that their financial condition, at the end of August 2011, they had assets of $192.5 million on hand. We know that the music director, Maestro Vanska, his base salary is $1 million per season. Now, does that sound like an orchestra that needs to lop off 30 to 50 percent, from all of its musicians? I don't believe so.

LUNDEN: Minnesota's president, Michael Henson, points out that the orchestra ran a $2.9 million deficit last year, and administrative staff has been cut by 20 percent. On top of that, the musicians got a significant pay raise in their last contract.

MICHAEL HENSON: We have been very transparent with our players, with the challenges that we face. We've been managing a 19.2 percent pay raise over the last five years, in one of the worst economies in the last 100 years in this country and indeed, in the world.

LUNDEN: League of American Orchestras' president, Jesse Rosen, says for orchestras to survive in this economy, they need to be more flexible and innovative. He points out that the Colorado Philharmonic, which has had its own financial and labor challenges, has begun a new initiative.

ROSEN: They identified, as revenue sources, a number of communities surrounding Denver, where the orchestra had never played before because the venues were too small; and their contract, at the time, didn't allow for them to break the orchestra up into smaller groups. So they changed that in the contract and now, they've opened up a new income stream by sending smaller groups into communities with smaller venues. And that always is a sign, to funders, that you merit their support because your service to community is growing.

LUNDEN: Musicians from both Indianapolis and Minneapolis are trying to serve their communities during the lockouts, by organizing concerts. Last weekend, pianist Andre Watts joined members of the Indianapolis Symphony, to play Beethoven.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden.

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