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Musicians: Philadelphia Orchestra management's initial offer is 'regressive'

Musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra are negotiating to regain their place as among the highest-paid members of U.S. orchestras, while management has offered minimal raises in talks over a new contract.

Musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra are negotiating to regain their place as among the highest-paid members of U.S. orchestras, while management has offered minimal raises in talks over a new contract.

Players called the initial five-year offer, particularly in light of proposed work-rule changes, "regressive" and one that "demands concessions from the musicians," such as working more Sunday concerts.

Management characterized its first offer as coming "very early in the process," said Ryan Fleur, executive vice president for orchestra advancement, saying such proposals "tend to overexaggerate. We have time on the calendar, and we're planning on rolling up our sleeves and being creative and coming to a good solution."

The Philadelphia Orchestra Association's current pact with its musicians expires at 12:01 a.m. Monday. Talks are scheduled for Thursday through Sunday. The first concert of the season, a free night for college students featuring Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique with a postconcert party, is slated for Sept. 21.

The opening session for a new contract was not held until the orchestra was in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., last month, with a second in Philadelphia Aug. 30. The initial offer from management calls for no raises in the first two years, and 1 percent raises in each of the following three years, according to players.

"As you all know, before the [2011] bankruptcy our pay was very close to that of the Boston Symphony," said a note to the membership from the musicians' negotiating team. "As you also know, our proposal was to once again bring our pay close to that of Boston." The team said the end of the contract would be "a very long nine years after the conclusion of the bankruptcy process" in 2012.

The contract minimum for players in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, without seniority or other extra pay, will be $152,672 at the end of the 2016-17 season. With no raise in Philadelphia, the minimum would be $128,544.

An accurate comparison of orchestra compensation is difficult, since titled players (principals, assistant principals, etc.) negotiate salaries and other terms individually, and generally earn more or much more than the minimum. Some orchestras award a guaranteed bonus for recordings and broadcasts.

But considering base salary alone, the current proposal would put Philadelphia Orchestra players in eighth place in base pay, behind orchestras in Boston, New York, San Francisco, Cleveland, and other cities, according to data gathered by Drew McManus, a Chicago-based arts consultant who operates the orchestra-centric website

A decade ago, Philadelphia ranked several slots higher, according to data provided by labor lawyer Melvin S. Schwarzwald, who is representing the Philadelphia musicians.

Asked whether Philadelphia was still able to compete for the best players, Fleur said, "We're very focused on the right solution for Philadelphia, and our benchmarks are very much about the relevance the Philadelphia Orchestra brings to Philadelphia. We are committed to the highest level of excellence for this ensemble. We are a destination orchestra, and we continue to be a destination orchestra."

Pay and the size of the ensemble are important if the orchestra is to remain competitive, players argue, and so musicians have also sought to restore the number of full-time members after losses during the bankruptcy process. Management has proposed keeping the size of full-time players at the current 96 musicians plus two librarians, proposing to discuss restoration of open positions only after Nov. 1, 2020.

The contract about to expire is an unusual one-year deal agreed to while arts consultant Michael M. Kaiser of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland was engaged, at the behest of the musicians, to develop a report on the orchestra's operating difficulties and opportunities.

That report has not been adopted by the orchestra's board, but its findings are being considered as part of a strategic plan that is being developed, said orchestra executive vice president for institutional advancement Matthew Loden.

"We have been working incredibly hard to flesh out our ideas, influenced by some of his," said Loden.

In his report, Kaiser noted that fund-raising had fallen short of what is needed, and recommended, among a long list of ideas, that the orchestra adopt a three- to five-year rolling artistic plan studded with at least three major artistic events each season, twice-yearly musicals to attract new audiences, and a series of interviews with major artists.

He suggested that the orchestra boost its scope of supporters well beyond Philadelphia, attract new donors around its concert series at Carnegie Hall and in China, and create new groups of donors giving between $25,000 and $250,000 per year.

"I am hopeful that if some version of this plan is implemented, that this is an organization that will be able to perform at the very top of its game for years to come," Kaiser said last summer.