Skip to content
Arts & Culture
Link copied to clipboard

To avert ‘enormous’ deficit, Philadelphia Orchestra musicians take 20% pay cut as special fund-raising begins

After coronavirus canceled performances, players voted to approve the cuts, which start April 1 and last through mid-September. Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin will give up at least 20% of his paycheck, too.

With house lights and seats empty, the Philadelphia Orchestra minutes before their concert at the Kimmel Center on Mar. 12.
With house lights and seats empty, the Philadelphia Orchestra minutes before their concert at the Kimmel Center on Mar. 12.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Faced with an abrupt and unprecedented loss of ticket revenue, musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra are taking a pay cut. Players voted last week to approve an across-the-board 20% reduction in compensation starting April 1 and lasting through the middle of September.

​Pay cuts have also been instituted for orchestra staff on a sliding scale up to 20% depending on salary level, and music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin will give up at least 20% of his paycheck, said orchestra president and CEO Matías Tarnopolsky. ​

Tarnopolsky himself took a voluntary 25% cut in pay effective March 13, the day after the orchestra streamed and broadcast Beethoven from a largely empty Verizon Hall. ​

That concert, which has been viewed free by an estimated online and TV audience of 700,000 so far, “was the last time the orchestra was on stage, and that beautiful concert garnered so much fantastic attention,” said Tarnopolsky. “But of course it was also the day we stopped selling tickets for anything. Our revenues stopped, so it became clear we were going to have to take immediate measures to reduce expenses.” ​

Ticket sales account for between 35% and 40% of the orchestra’s income, depending on the year. All concerts through May 10 have been canceled, and the rest of the season is in doubt. With its Beethoven symphony cycle scrapped and major events like mid-May performances of Elektra seeming unlikely, the orchestra sees lost ticket income amounting to $5 million by Aug. 31. ​

And so, simultaneous to the pay cuts, the orchestra is also undertaking a recovery campaign. That effort, combined with regular annual fund-raising, aims to raise $11 million between now and the end of the fiscal year, Aug. 31. ​“If we were to do nothing” — no pay cuts, no special fund-raising — “we would have an enormous deficit at the end of the year, potentially $15 million, so you can’t do nothing,” said Tarnopolsky. ​​

The cut to the musicians’ pay, however, was initiated by the players themselves. After the March 12 concert, players began circulating emails discussing what could or should be done, and the ensemble held a meeting online via Zoom. ​​

"Everyone realized we were going to have to do something to help,” said David Fay, double-bassist and chairman of the members’ committee. “There’s quite a bit of trust between the musicians and management right now, and that helped.” ​​

The players are represented by Local 77 of the American Federation of Musicians, and while unions are not in the habit of negotiating pay cuts, “it was really clear these are not normal times,” said Ellen Trainer, president of the local. ​​

“It’s one thing to be in contract negotiations, but another thing to put into perspective what is going on around you,” she said. “And this was truly a time to look at what we could to help because it helped everyone — not just the orchestra but the city, as well, so that when we come out the other side the arts in Philadelphia will be in a financial position to continue on.” ​​

» READ MORE: Musicians worldwide are playing their hearts out in live-streamed performances. These are some of the most soulful ones.

The orchestra’s moves come as other major arts groups are canceling the rest of their seasons. Opera Philadelphia has postponed its Madama Butterfly until 2022. Pennsylvania Ballet laid off its dancers and does not plan to perform again until next season. The coronavirus took hold just as the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s Beethoven cycle of piano sonatas and string quartets was shifting into high gear, but those performances were canceled. ​​

The Kimmel Center has scrapped or postponed about 40 shows through the middle of May. Ronan Farrow has been canceled, David Sedaris moved to October. Jesus Christ Superstar is now slated to appear in July. ​​

Full-time musicians elsewhere have also experienced painful cuts. At the New York Philharmonic, which has canceled the rest of its season, players are taking a series of graduated reductions in pay through May, with compensation after that to be determined. The orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera and others at the company — where Nézet-Séguin is also artistic chief — will not be paid beyond April 1. ​​

During this period, though, the Philadelphia Orchestra has hardly been idle. Under the banner of the Virtual Philadelphia Orchestra, archived performances are available on the orchestra’s website, and players are participating in a series of online performances. ​​

Given the fact that some others are seeing their paychecks stopped entirely, “I think a 20% reduction is relatively positive at this point,” said William Polk, a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s first violin section. “I don’t like it, especially having negotiated our current agreement, but the reality of the situation is that this is what we have to do.”

On the matter of Nézet-Séguin​'s reduction in pay, Tarnopolsky said the conductor had “volunteered a cut of at least 20% in his March and April compensation, given that concerts are canceled through May 10,” but declined to go into specifics of Nézet-Séguin​'s contract or how the cut is implemented.

So far, Tarnopolsky said, no member of the orchestra family — ensemble, staff, or board — has contracted the coronavirus, as far as he knows.

​​The timing of the arrival of physical distancing is particularly regrettable at the orchestra, which has made tremendous strides since emerging from bankruptcy in 2012. This past July, it received a $55 million gift, its largest ever and an enormous boost of confidence in its future. ​​

“There is no question this is a defining crisis,” said Tarnopolsky. “At the same time, because of progress of recent years, we are well-prepared to weather it. That’s not to say it’s not going to be painful, but the key priority is maintaining the integrity of the ensemble and taking care of the people. And we’ve been able to take some immediate measures to make sure this isn’t a cliff but a slope. We want to make sure that when we are back on the stage we can once again thrive.”​