Musicians trumpet positive, if modest, Florida Orchestra agreement

Musicians reached a positive, if modest, agreement on pay.
Published June 30 2012

By the numbers, the three-year collective bargaining agreement reached by the Florida Orchestra board and musicians a month ago is not earth-shattering.

Weekly pay for the musicians is due to go up modestly next season, with a base salary of $29,034 for 25 weeks of work. The base will increase to $32,000 for 27 1/2 weeks in 2014-15.

President Michael Pastreich describes the contract as representing "slow, methodical growth." It is important because the musicians' payroll is the largest component of the budget, about 42 percent of the total expenses of just over $8.5 million for the 2011-12 season.

There seemed to be a pretty good feeling among musicians about the outcome, in part because it was the earliest a labor agreement had ever been reached, some four months before the season begins. In the past, negotiations typically went down to the wire and sometimes into the season, with musicians playing without a contract while talks continued. And many of those agreements had to be renegotiated for givebacks before they expired, creating a toxic lack of trust between musicians and board and management.

"It depends on what kind of mood I'm in as to how I feel about it," says Richard Sparrow, a French horn player and officer with the American Federation of Musicians, which represents the orchestra's members. "I think the musicians have seen the situation as it is and put their best foot forward to allow the board and staff to create a more stable situation to move forward. I think this agreement has the potential of a good long-term effect on the orchestra's stability, and that's why it's really positive."

That might seem like a perverse thing to say about one of the lowest pay scales of any orchestra in the country, but the agreement is a strong achievement considering how hard the bad economy has hit. The orchestra's fiscal year ended this weekend, and a balanced budget appeared to be within reach.

Elsewhere in the orchestra world, things are less hopeful. The Jacksonville Symphony recently reported that it had a deficit of $450,000 for the year and could face a shortfall of $1 million next year if expenses aren't reduced or revenues raised. The musicians' contract there has expired, and a 20 percent pay cut has been proposed by the board.

In many ways, the Florida Orchestra has already gone through its painful downsizing. The new contract will cover as few as 66 full-time musicians, down from 80 a decade ago. At least five longtime orchestra members took buyouts as part of the effort to reduce the size of the ensemble. More subs and extras will be playing in the orchestra, and with Stefan Sanderling essentially a lame duck music director, leaving at the end of the 2013-14 season, it may be a challenge to keep up artistic standards.

One caveat in any discussion about orchestra musicians' compensation: Almost nobody gets just the base pay. As stipulated in the contract, principal players receive at least a 25 percent premium, and assistant principal players get at least 15 percent. Orchestra players also negotiate individually to receive "over scale" for everything from seniority to the orchestra wanting to hold onto them.

The new contract includes some interesting details. To bridge several inactive periods in the schedule, the orchestra will pay musicians a "dark week stipend" of about $275, essentially what they could get from unemployment, which has been cut back by the state of Florida. There are several half-weeks in the contract, allowing the orchestra to experiment with ventures that require fewer services (concerts and rehearsals), such as a new series of rock-plus-symphony concerts, to be announced this summer. In the opening week of the season, each musician will receive his or her share, $984 this year, of a new electronic media agreement, which positions the orchestra to take greater advantage of technology, from making recordings to streaming performances online.

One area of orchestra activity that has been decimated is education. Once there were as many as 40 youth concerts per season, with schoolchildren bused to halls, but that is virtually a thing of the past. The school districts can no longer help to pay for them, and sponsors have been hard to come by. The Tampa Bay Lightning has stepped in to fill the void with one gigantic youth concert at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, but with the orchestra amplified that is not an ideal musical experience.

In negotiations musicians offered to donate two services for young people's concerts during the season. "We think it's as important as anything we do," Sparrow says. "It's part of being a professional musician to teach the next generation of listener about this incredible symphonic music we present on stage."

Everyone connected with the orchestra acknowledges that the musicians are underpaid. Only when the salaries improve will the orchestra have a chance to retain the talented young musicians who refine their art here and then win auditions with bigger and better compensated orchestras. The latest departure was principal oboe Katherine Young Steele, moving on to the same chair with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

Pastreich regards the new contract as a step in the right direction but contingent on what is to come. "I think we all agree that this can only be seen in the light of it being the beginning of an upward climb," he says. "This is only a good agreement if the next one is also moving forward."

Florida dances

Bill Doolin calls the Florida Dance Festival a "little jewel," and he is absolutely right about that — even taking into account his less than objective viewpoint as director. The festival wound up its annual 12-day run of classes and performances last weekend at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where it has been held the past three years. With just 59 students this year, the festival still has a way to go in rebuilding itself (Doolin's aim is to have at least 80 students to be financially viable) since losing much of its statewide constituency during a 10-year stay in Miami. But attendance at its performances was up and the overall vibe felt good to me.

An attraction this year was the Kate Weare Company, whose dancers were in residence throughout the festival (though Weare herself, pregnant, was under doctor's orders not to travel and was back home in New York). They gave a scintillating performance of four Weare works, centered on Garden, a half-hour piece for four dancers to music ranging from abstract modern piano (Afterglow by Keeril Makan, played by Ivan Ilic) to Renaissance song (Martin menait son porceau by Claudin de Sermisy), performed beneath a tree hanging upside-down from the flies and around a large tree stump.

Leslie Kraus, who performed in three of the works in the program, is a compact redhead who exemplifies Weare's choreography with an uncanny blend of sweaty, passionate athleticism, graceful movement and analytical detachment. Several works shared quirky gestures, such as an excerpt from Bright Land and Garden, both punctuated by Kraus hitting her head against her partner's chest like a hammer pounding a nail into a board.

The dance festival celebrates its 35th anniversary next year. The Weare company is scheduled to return in 2014 with a new work co-commissioned by the festival.

'Don't Tell Mama'

One of the more delightful moments in bay area theater occurs in Freefall's Cabaret, when Sally Bowles and the Kit Kat girls and boys launch into Don't Tell Mama, which features some of lyricist Fred Ebb's wittiest rhymes (my favorite: "And please, my sweet patater / Keep this from the Mater") in a rousing rendition by Emilee Dupre as the kooky chanteuse. Given the context of the song, the performance is doubly delightful because the show's choreography was done by Dupre's mother, Cheryl Lee.

Sondheim in Spring Hill

Somebody in Spring Hill loves Stephen Sondheim. Stage West Community Theatre has three Sondheim musicals on the agenda next season: Sweeney Todd in October, Gypsy in January and A Little Night Music in March. Information:

John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.