The Oregon Symphony board and musicians agree on a contract

After a dicey negotiation, board and musicians extend the current contract

Well THAT was an anti-climax! I’m talking about the extension of the Oregon Symphony musicians contract for one year at its current level, engineered by new President and CEO Scott Showalter soon after he hit town in July. Of course, in this case, a nice subdued anti-climax is probably the best possible outcome, though for journalists prepared to hit the mattresses for an all-out, rock ’em-sock ’em labor battle…well, even for us it was a relief.

“The congenial relationship that exists among the Oregon Symphony family is impressive and bodes well for our collective future,” Showalter said in the press release, announcing the deal.  “I appreciate the eagerness of the musicians and the union to bring these negotiations to a quick and positive conclusion. With this agreement in place we can focus on building relationships that will ensure the Symphony’s future.”


The musicians and board of the Oregon Symphony have reached an agreement on a new contract.

The musicians and board of the Oregon Symphony have reached an agreement on a new contract.

As we’ve written, the relationship hasn’t been all that congenial, really, and the specter of a lockout by the board seemed very possible late last fall and early winter, given the severity of the cuts we heard proposed. At least three things happened to help preserve the peace: 1) the musicians pitched in with some creative ideas for attacking a looming deficit with a series of popular concerts and an increased commitment to audience outreach and education, 2) the board, seeing the engagement of the musicians, kept the faction of “disciplinarians” who wanted to cut salaries drastically at bay, and 3) Showalter built on that hard work and community formation to reach a deal that didn’t involve salary cuts at all.

The orchestra DID make some concessions, however: a “give-back” of the musicians’ 2013/14 premium pay; deferral of a planned recording of Haydn symphonies; temporary elimination of pay for unused personal leave; and delay of auditions for open positions. Those auditions for open slots in the violin, trumpet, viola and bass section are taking place this fall, and will bring the orchestra back nearly to its full complement of 75 musicians.

Board Chair Karl Smith indicated in the press release that the orchestra was finishing the year in the black, which makes the fall projections of a nearly $2 million shortfall that were tossed around seem political. Were major donors threatening to withhold money unless the musicians took a  pay haircut? (Actually, at that level, it would have been a beheading.) Or was it ideological: the view that the musicians were easily replaceable at a cheaper rate and symphony management wouldn’t be meeting its financial responsibilities unless it squeezed every drop it could out of the orchestra’s pay? Or maybe the second led to the first? Someone with direct knowledge will have to talk publicly for us to know for sure. And now, it’s all seeming like ancient history, though the anger and anguish I heard late last year and even into the spring was very real.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about mission statements. I know. They can seem so bland or jargon-ridden. But I still think they are important.

Here’s the Oregon Symphony’s, fetched from their Guidestar listing: “The Oregon Symphony’s mission is to: Inspire a love and understanding of music in our lives by bringing great music to all. Its primary goal, in the words of Music Director Carlos Kalmar, is to ‘touch the heart and soul of every Oregonian.'”

That would fit under the bland category, I think, though I like the aspiration implicit in that “every Oregonian.” But maybe I’d propose a change. “The Oregon Symphony’s mission is to build, maintain and nurture a full-time orchestra in Portland and through it inspire a love and understanding of music in our lives by bringing great music to all.” 

The musicians are at the absolute center of the Oregon Symphony. Their efforts to help the symphony live up to its mission this year show how critical they are. A dissolution of this present orchestra through a lengthy lockout would have had a major negative impact on the production of “great music” by the orchestra, sure, but also outside it: So many symphony musicians contribute to vital music groups outside the symphony (Third Angle, Fear No Music, 45th Parallel, Arnica String Quartet, among others) and also instruct new generations of musicians. How long would it take a cheaper, replacement band to recreate this fabric of “great music” at the heart of the mission statement? To me, that puts the lie to the argument of ideologues who didn’t mind starting the orchestra over if it saved some money.

Now, we don’t know the future. It’s possible that at some point the musically catastrophic will happen and the edifice of the American Symphony Orchestra will crumble. We argue for “reforms” in the orchestra here at ArtsWatch from time to time because we think that catastrophe—and certainly a diminishment—is a possible outcome if change doesn’t occur. (It’s a difficult problem, and we disagree among ourselves about what changes are most necessary.) But the symphony board itself shouldn’t be in any hurry to speed the crumbling.  And we’re happy that this time, it didn’t.




2 Responses.

  1. Curtis heikkinen says:

    Thanks for the post, Barry. I hadn’t realized that the situation was so dire late last year. It would certainly be a shame if the “disciplinarians” held sway because the orchestra has never played at a higher level than it is right now. Substituting the current musicians with cheap replacements would certainly lead to a drastic reduction in the quality of playing and the squandering of all that has been accomplished in recent years. I’d almost rather not have a symphony than have it return to the playing standards of the distant past.

    The orchestra is certainly in a difficult position with ticket sales covering only half of what the orchestra needs to operate. It seems to me that the musicians have sacrificed a great deal to keep the orchestra afloat. Unless the symphony can find some ways to increase revenue streams and donations, I can see labor difficulties coming to a head.

    Speaking of revenues, I will certainly be interested to see how ticket sales go this upcoming season. I must confess to a bit of disappointment in the orchestra’s offerings next season. For instance, last season we were treated to two of the greatest vocal works in classical music: Britten’s War Requiem and Mahler’s’ Song of the Earth. This season there is the overplayed Carmina Burana. I am hoping that the rather bland offerings this season are but a one season aberration and not a sign of things to come. For many years, I have subscribed to both series, but this season I have cut back to one series, in part because of what has been programmed. It may be that a heavy reliance on standard repertoire will bring higher ticket sales but it could come at the cost of some supporters who are tired of more renditions of the Mendelssohn Violin concerto, Bolero and Beethoven’s 5th symphony.

    Am I off base in my assessment that next season’s
    offerings are a bit of a let down? I’d be interested in other thoughts.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      I’m not sure how dire it really was…big donors can MAKE it dire by not giving, but the orchestra walks a very fine line between being in the black and the red. It has great incentives to be in the black, which is likely why the programming tends toward the center of the standard repertoire. Some at ArtsWatch have argued that this part of the problem, not a solution. I think that the orchestra needs to have a very frank conversation with its community—musicians, staff, board, donors AND audience (especially the latter)—about the programming issue. The case for more creative programming needs to be made, at the very least, to that community. I think such community conversations would be useful on LOTS of issues facing the orchestra, though. And I think the Oregon Symphony isn’t the only organization that would benefit from seeking advice and consent from its community.

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