The Nashville Symphony Orchestra had to pay the proverbial piper to keep its magnificent Schermerhorn Symphony Center off the auction block. But it's the ensemble's actual pipers — its fiddlers, trumpeters, bassoonists and such — who may end up bearing the brunt of the orchestra's recent fiscal crisis.
For the past two months, the players' union and orchestra managers have been attempting to negotiate the terms of a new musicians' contract. Those talks couldn't have come at a worse time for the players, whose most recent collective bargaining agreement expired Wednesday.
That's because the symphony essentially emptied out what was left of its coffers this summer to settle the debt on its glimmering concert hall. "There isn't a lot of money left to pay the musicians," says a source familiar with the negotiations, who requested anonymity due to what has become a very selectively observed media blackout. "The orchestra is going to have to start raising money."
True enough. But for now the orchestra seems more focused on cuts and restructuring. In a speech last month to the Nashville Kiwanis Club, orchestra CEO Alan Valentine revealed that he and music director Giancarlo Guerrero had both taken 15 percent cuts to their salaries of $381,920 and $471,458 respectively. They also received 6 percent reductions in retirement benefits.
The orchestra's rank-and-file administrators have also taken hits. The NSO confirmed that senior and middle-management salaries shrank 11 percent. Like Valentine, Guerrero and the rest of administrative staff, they also saw a 6 percent reduction in retirement benefits.
Some unlucky staffers, meanwhile, lost jobs. The orchestra announced earlier in the summer that it would discontinue its in-house food service operation. More recently, symphony board chairman Ed Goodrich and chief operating officer Myles MacDonald noted in an interview with The Tennessean that the symphony had eliminated an additional four employees. Symphony second violinist (and union negotiator) Laura Ross wrote in a subsequent blog post that one of the employees was the orchestra's longtime orchestra personnel manager, Anne Dickson Rogers.
These painful administrative cuts are compounded by proposed reductions in musicians' pay. Sources familiar with the negotiations, who requested anonymity due to the media blackout, described an initial management offer that called for dramatic — in some instances even draconian — cuts.
Neither Valentine nor MacDonald had responded to requests for comment as of press time Wednesday. According to an email obtained by the Scene, however, from union negotiators to NSO musicians outlining the situation, management initially sought a reduction in the musicians' minimum annual salary from $60,000 to $42,953.40 — a nosedive of nearly 30 percent, and a significantly deeper cut than those given to Valentine and Guerrero. Moreover, pay cuts for musicians would be locked in for four years. Union negotiators have offered counterproposals, but as of Wednesday morning the two sides remained more than $1.5 million apart.
The original offer also proposed converting 16 of the orchestra's 83 full-time musicians to long contract status — basically glorified part-timers who would earn $25,056.15 a year, amounting to a vertiginous 60 percent crash in pay.
For now, union negotiators have flatly rejected that proposal.
"If that happened to me I'd almost certainly lose my house," says one frightened musician, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I'd have to leave Nashville."
The loss of talented musicians would certainly have an immediate and negative impact on the city's classical and pops concert scene. So would another proposal that would cut the orchestra's season from 44 to 36 weeks. If that came to pass, music fans would be hearing a lot less orchestral music in Music City next season.
The current proposal for deep cuts in musicians' compensation stands in stark contrast to statements Valentine made earlier in the year. In March, the symphony's long-time president and CEO expressed an aversion to targeting his players' pay, saying he preferred a long-term strategy of growing the orchestra out of financial distress by expanding the Schermerhorn's pop music and entertainment offerings.
In a blog post Tuesday morning that criticized both the union and orchestra management for "fast and loose" interpretation of a media blackout, Chicago-based orchestra expert and consultant Drew McManus noted that Valentine was conspicuously absent from a recent interview in The Tennessean, in which Goodrich and MacDonald revealed the details of the orchestra's bank deal to save the Schermerhorn.
Board treasurer Kevin Crumbo said in a Tennessean interview earlier in the summer that those details would not be revealed until after the conclusion of the contract negotiations with the musicians.
Valentine "is well known in the field for maintaining exemplary standards of positive labor relations and institutional transparency," McManus wrote on his blog Adaptistration. It is perhaps no accident that Valentine, who has publicly come out against cutting musicians' pay, is not sitting at the negotiating table for management. "Valentine had always been there in the past," says a source familiar with the negotiations.
MacDonald, the symphony's interim COO and a colleague of Crumbo's at the accounting firm KraftCPAs, is negotiating for management along with Nashville Symphony general manager Mark Blakeman.
Union and management negotiators did not meet this week — their next scheduled session is Monday — meaning Wednesday's deadline passed without agreement, and the musicians are working, at least for now, under the terms of their expired contract. What happens next is almost anyone's guess.
In his Tuesday blog post, McManus noted that the musicians' union and orchestra management seem to be engaged in "painfully obvious attempts at framing the public debate in advance of an open labor dispute." One can only hope that's not the case. Orchestras in Detroit and Minnesota have recently undergone lengthy and acrimonious public labor disputes that likely caused lasting damage to their brands.
McManus also wrote in his blog that the expiration of the musicians' contract on Wednesday should not cause any immediate concerns. The next scheduled performance is not until early September, so the parties have some wiggle room for negotiations.
Hopefully, those talks will lead to a speedy and agreeable resolution, since most of the other alternatives are unattractive. The musicians could decide to strike, an option that sources close to the musicians' union say has been all but ruled out. Management could also declare a lockout, or it could make a best and final offer and impose a contract.
Oscar Wilde is often credited with the saying, "America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between." If negotiators fail to reach an amicable resolution, Nashville's classical music scene could well go from its golden age to a dark age in the space of just two seasons.