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The ever-tightening pay crunch for U.S. orchestras

How much money is a principal oboist worth? A section violinist? What about the president of a struggling symphony orchestra? Or a third-grade teacher, for that matter?

How much money is a principal oboist worth? A section violinist? What about the president of a struggling symphony orchestra? Or a third-grade teacher, for that matter?

Not long ago, I found myself explaining to my tween son why certain things he covets - a trendy brand of ear phones, in this case - command a high price, and why price tags are often divorced from justice and logic. It has always been true and always will be: Nothing has intrinsic value; something fetches only what someone is willing to pay for it.

What someone is willing to pay for orchestral musicians in this country has changed radically in recent weeks.

Yes, a brief strike last month by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra resulted in stasis - a deal that asks musicians to apportion more income for health care, but grants them a 4.5 percent raise over three years, starting with an annual base salary of $145,860.

But lockout at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra ended in reverse sticker shock. The size of the ensemble will shrink to 88 from 93. Players will take a steep pay cut and will no longer be paid their full salaries year-round.

Not every American orchestra is in crisis, but so many are buckling under fiscal stress that a long-expected implosion of the business model seems at hand. Shrinking compensation could set off a reordering of the admittedly subjective hierarchy, which takes into account not only ensemble quality, but also ambition (touring, recording) and budget size. Some orchestras will bleed their best talent, who will leave for better-paying posts or for teaching.

Consider the magnitude of the market correction playing out.

Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra have rejected a base-pay cut from $135,000 to $89,000; management instituted a lockout Monday, and concerts have been canceled through at least Nov. 25. Musicians continue to play without a contract at the Cleveland Orchestra, but concerts of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra have been called off while talks continue. Members of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra are being pressured to accept a nearly 20 percent cut in total compensation, and those in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra have given back 27 percent of base pay in recent years under management threat of bankruptcy.

The Delaware Symphony Orchestra, which traces its roots to 1912, has essentially shut down, offering only four chamber music concerts this season while contract talks continue. "If it should come about that we have a timely settlement and a new contract," general manager Diana Milburn said Monday, "then we would like to have [orchestral] concerts in the spring."

Even in moneyed New York, labor peace seems ephemeral. The deficit-prone New York Philharmonic signed an unusually short pact in January after federal mediation; it expires Sept. 20, 2013.

You can be sure the troubles visiting these cities will rumble through Philadelphia - again. The highly concessionary contract signed under supervision of U.S. Bankruptcy Court during the orchestra's 15½-month Chapter 11 case left deep resentment.

The Philadelphia Orchestra has the curious honor of book-ending the era of modern orchestra labor relations with two portentous events: in 1963 becoming the first American orchestra with a 52-week contract, and, in a perhaps-related development five decades later, achieving ignoble status as the first major orchestra to file for bankruptcy.

(Philadelphia's 52-week contract was hailed at the time by its board chairman as the end of labor strife. Contradiction was swift; in 1966, the orchestra went on strike for 58 days.)

After 1963, other orchestras aspired to year-round employment. These contracts lured top talent, but also meant finding more concerts and venues to fill out players' schedules. Bigger budgets required larger staffs - marketers, fund-raisers, administrators to ensure that management was complying with complex work rules. Orchestras grew.

Audiences grew, too. Until they didn't.

With ticket revenue now down in many cities, and endowments too meager to underwrite operating deficits, many managers are turning to cuts in musician salaries.

It's important to remember that for the vast majority of American orchestral players, a spot in an orchestra does not bring a six-figure salary, or even, in many cases, a living wage. When the contract of the 53 members of the Alabama Symphony reaches maturation in 2014, players will earn $39,485.90 annually. At the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra that season, base pay will be $43,134. (Modest sweeteners are given for seniority and rank.)

It's not at all clear at the end of this shaking out how many U.S. orchestral musicians will be able to make a living in the trade. Atlanta's fading from full-time status leaves 17 U.S. orchestras out of hundreds with 52-week seasons, according to the League of American Orchestras.

What will it say about a country of 313 million if it can't find a way for a little more than 2,000 musicians to make enough money to exist without moonlighting? The free-market system may or may not be wise, but it is so far deaf to this question.

One of the forces that made possible the passing era of growth is the pipeline of talent graduating from American music schools. Whether by collusion, spontaneous realization, or a more nuanced combination of the two, much - though not all - of U.S. orchestra management has made the calculation that conservatories are turning out high-level players happy to take these jobs. But are violinists and bassoonists really interchangeable? If this begins to happen on any kind of scale, what moral dilemma faces a younger (cheaper) musician taking the spot of a veteran (more highly paid) one?

A word of caution to orchestra boards: While it may be true that the level of playing has never been higher among young graduates, there is an important gulf between technical mastery of an instrument and being a musician. If the Philadelphia Orchestra held auditions today for principal oboist - no, Richard Woodhams isn't leaving - dozens could be found to play the notes in time, in tune, and with a reasonable feel for performance tradition.

How many would be able to match Woodhams' charisma? Perhaps none. Multiply the potential loss if a dozen players departed, and what we would be left with is a generic "other" - something less than the Philadelphia Orchestra. We've lost a handful already. The integrity of the ensemble teeters on a fine edge.

While musicians' pay may be the target now, cuts just buy time. An enduring turnaround hinges on restoring audience and donor enthusiasm. How hard are orchestra leaders working to sell tickets and raise money? Are they hiring smart consultants? Are they really making a passionate civic argument on behalf of the art form? Are board members sufficiently emotional about the fate of orchestras they steward to make sufficiently generous donations?

Each city has its own challenges, and each will have to arrive at its own solution. But it's clear that, taken together, problems at orchestras ranging in size from Jacksonville to New York are more severe than ever before.

It's strange to say this about orchestras, so often criticized as being out of step with the rest of the country culturally, but at the moment, they embody the upheaval in other arenas: changing demographics (see the U.S. electorate); the squeeze that ensues when something requiring widespread participation no longer draws widespread participation (see newspapers, department stores, major TV networks); class warfare and resentment of talented workers' earning good livings (see organized labor, subsection teachers); and the alarming realization that no institution, no matter how critical, has a guaranteed future (see the U.S. Postal Service).

Great things happen when a broad spectrum works toward a common interest, but we've become a nation of small-minded individualists. This sort of relevance may be cold comfort, but for once, the nation can look to the symphony orchestra as the perfect emblem of our time.

of an earlier blog on Contact Peter Dobrin at