Striking San Francisco Symphony scrubs KenCen concert

Saturday night Concert Hall appearance out, East Coast tour kaput. Photo: SF Symphony

WASHINGTON, March 22, 2013 – Striking union musicians of the San Francisco Symphony have caused the cancelation of the orchestra’s East Coast tour this week. New York and New Jersey venues set to host the ensemble were dark this week. Likewise, the Kennedy Center Concert Hall—slated to host the popular and respected Left Bank orchestra Saturday night, March 23 under the auspices of the Washington Performing Arts Society (WPAS)—will also be empty.

In an announcement on its website, the Kennedy Center stated:

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“We regret to announce that due to an ongoing labor dispute and musicians’ strike, the San Francisco Symphony has cancelled its East Coast tour, including its Saturday, March 23rd performance at the Kennedy Center. We apologize for any inconvenience and thank you for your understanding.”

A disappointed WPAS, on track to sell out the orchestra’s Saturday evening appearance, will offer ticket exchanges or refunds to disappointed ticket holders. Via the Kennedy Center’s website, WPAS and the Center have provided the following refund advisory:

Please contact the original point of purchase to exchange your tickets for any other performance this season or to obtain a full refund. WPAS Ticket Services can be reached at (202) 785-9727.   

As a result the musicians’ strike, the San Francisco Symphony has now lost its appearance fees for all the performances on the canceled tour, not to mention prearranged travel and hotel fees, many of which are likely not refundable.

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The timing of the union’s strike was clearly meant to jeopardize this East Coast tour as part of the musicians’ bargaining tactics, meant to pressure management into caving and leading to a new, more attractive deal. Unfortunately, the tactic has obviously backfired, and the entire tour was officially scrubbed earlier this week.

Reports from several sources indicate that money is at the root of the current contract dispute as it often is. Also in question is the cost and nature of health coverage in a new contract which, unfortunately for both parties, is subject to the still tough-to-determine impact of Obamacare which formally kicks in this coming January with liabilities now estimated to be far in excess of initial estimates.

According to sources, the current base salary of a San Francisco Symphony musician is $141,700, a figure that can actually average as high as $165,000 when including possible residuals and other orchestra income sources.

The musicians are reportedly already the third highest-paid performers in the major U.S. symphony orchestra pantheon, just behind fellow musicians in the Chicago Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. On the other hand, they’re currently ahead of the pay scale of three of America’s top symphonies, the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, and Cleveland Orchestra, the latter of which also endured a brutal recent strike.

The San Francisco ensemble’s benefits package is also generous when compared to that of the average American. The current package is said to include one zero-cost health option and an almost unheard-of ten weeks of paid vacation annually.

The health insurance issue, however, is another major sticking point in negotiations. Likely fearing Obamacare liabilities, which even at this late stage of the game are still almost impossible to estimate accurately, the orchestra’s administration is looking to boost musicians’ premium contributions to its most popular health plan. The musicians, in turn, strenuously object to this.

The cold reality of Obamacare is the fact that few companies, organizations, or individuals will be able to avoid a major hit to their wallets when nationalized healthcare kicks in, and few have been able to adequately prepare for 2014’s moving premium targets That makes this line item difficult for either party to negotiate either rationally or realistically.

Sadly, all major U.S. orchestras and opera companies have remained under continuing revenue pressure. The effects of the 2008-2009 housing and stock market collapses as well as the incessant grinding of Great Depression II continue to affect not only ticket sales and season subscriptions, but also the investment performances of orchestra and performing arts endowments. Many performing arts institutions have disappeared, ranging from the Washington Chamber Symphony here, to what’s left of the once-fabled New York City Opera, to the Baltimore and Cleveland opera organizations.

The same financial pressures affecting these organizations also drove the nearly insolvent Washington National Opera to affiliate with the Kennedy Center not long ago. Happily, this seems to be leading to that organization’s reinvigoration, with a slew of new operas and initiatives on tap in upcoming seasons.

public statement by the San Francisco musicians on their public website acknowledges these ongoing, nationwide troubles, adding additional names to the list of ailing performing arts organizations while still asking musicians to stand with them in solidarity:

“We call on the communities of all of the orchestras that have recently suffered setbacks, including Detroit, Minnesota, Atlanta, Indianapolis, St. Paul, Spokane, Philadelphia, Louisville, and now San Francisco, to express support for classical music and the fine musicians who perform it, so that this wonderful music, which is such an important part of all of our lives, will be allowed to continue.” 

On the same site, National Symphony Orchestra musicians expressed their firm support for the San Franciscans:

“The musicians of the National Symphony Orchestra stand in support of our esteemed colleagues, the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony, as they continue their courageous struggle for a just resolution to their labor dispute. After examining the facts available, it is very difficult for us in Washington, DC to understand what intentions the San Francisco Symphony management has that would be furthered by their hard-line stance. It seems that those intentions are not artistic ones. We do fully understand, however, the intentions of world-class musicians to remain at the very top of their profession. We believe they fully deserve to retain and reasonably improve the compensation and benefits they have gained over decades of carefully measured progress, designed for the long-term healthy growth of the entire organization.”

The San Francisco Symphony’s management’s “hard line stance” in negotiations is apparently due, at least in part, to the institution’s substantial expenditures on last year’s centennial celebration in addition to a hoped-for but costly expansion of Davies Symphony Hall, the orchestra’s long-time home. The musicians also dispute the appropriateness of the organization’s executive salary and bonus scales which, as is so often true in 21st century America, seem substantially out of scale with current realities. The musicians believe that the parent organization, as a result, “has lost sight of their priorities.”


No one, including the communities involved, really wins orchestra disputes like this one in the end, at least in the opinion of this writer. In a nation where the real unemployment rate still hovers around 15%, musicians in major symphony orchestras are demonstrably well paid and well supported enjoying far better-than-average benefits when compared to the average American, skill levels, education, and professionalism notwithstanding.

That said, as in much of America today, orchestra managements themselves appear substantially over-compensated and bonused. This is a shockingly common phenomenon in most non-profit organizations nationwide. Executive salary freezes—which are becoming a regular feature in many orchestra administrations, including San Francisco—still don’t address longstanding compensation disparities and are likely to inflame union intransigence, no matter how irrational it may seem to the outsider.

Performing arts organizations across the country will continue to founder, losing funds and patrons in the process, until and unless both sides in ongoing labor negotiations begin to accept this simple fact: For the indefinite future, this country’s rising debt levels and dropping salary and wealth levels have resulted in reduced expectations across the board, and there are really no exceptions.

For at least another decade, or as long as it takes for the economy to achieve some kind of equilibrium, compensation for many of the highest paid individuals in this country needs to be evened out or ratcheted down. This is hardly an environment where performers can realistically demand substantially above average compensation and benefit packages or where orchestra management can continue to compensate key officers and directors with salary, benefit, and bonus packages that rival those of even some major financial executives.

Musicians and management alike need to lower expectations at least in the short and midterm. The time for digging in on compensation negotiations is not now but some time in the future. Whether on the labor side or the management side of the table, those performing arts organization that lose sight of current economic realities likely won’t be around when the fiscal tide finally turns, sometime in the still distant future.

(Photo above of Davies Symphony Hall, home of the San Francisco Symphony. Credit SF Symphony.)


Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  



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