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Strapped orchestra hits a dour note

The National Hockey League has arrived. National League baseball may not be far behind, but Tampa Bay is in jeopardy of slipping into the minor leagues in another field.

The Florida Orchestra is embroiled in a financial crisis that threatens its future. Orchestras with similar problems in other cities have disbanded.

The orchestra continues to perform for sizable audiences, but musicians haven't been paid fully since the season opened in September. That is a breach of their labor contract and has left many musicians struggling to make ends meet.

Further, this crisis poses daunting choices for the orchestra board of trustees and management: Raise almost $2.5-million by May or cut spending.

Cutting back probably would mean fewer full-time players and a reduced season, options the musicians say are artistically unacceptable.

"I think it would be an embarrassment for a community of this size to backslide on its orchestra," said Lowell Adams, a cellist with the orchestra for 11 years.

During the last decade the Florida Orchestra has lived beyond its means. Management spent more than ticket sales and fund raising could support.

Today, the orchestra is $3-million in debt.

That means ticket sales and annual fund raising must support not only the orchestra's $4.6-million annual budget, but also payments on the long-term debt.

This year, there hasn't been enough for both, and the result is a cash-flow crunch that is preventing the orchestra from meeting its payroll. Lenders and contributors seem unwilling or unable to rescue the orchestra.

"We have no reserves, we're not able to touch the endowment, and we're not able to go to the banks," said John L. Hyer, president of the orchestra.

The orchestra has a $1.5-million endowment, but that money is largely tied up as collateral for outstanding loans.

Hyer said the board and management are pursuing a two-part strategy.

"The question is how do you fix the immediate problem and how do you develop a long-term plan. If everybody comes through the way we want them to, we'll have the money to run the orchestra."

He continued, "The real question is can this community be convinced they need an orchestra and will they pay for it. I think the answer is yes, but we have to put the challenge out there."

In the meantime, the 70 full-time and 20 part-time musicians have been dealt a pair of blows.

First, they learned just days before getting their first paychecks of the season that the board was unable to fulfill the contract, which calls for 40 weeks of work and a raise. Instead, the board said it could afford only 34 weeks at last season's pay scale.

The contract calls for minimum full-time pay of $23,000, with principal players getting 25 percent more. Individually, musicians negotiate with management for additional pay. (The orchestra's highest salary is probably that of music director Jahja Ling, whose contract is for an estimated $100,000.)

When the board failed to honor its contract, the American Federation of Musicians, which represents orchestra members, filed a grievance that could end in arbitration.

On the season's second payday, Friday, the musicians received partial checks, as did other orchestra staff members. Full-time musicians collected about half what was due them.

The crisis is happening when orchestra members most need the money, following a three-month layoff during the summer. "No matter how carefully you arrange your finances, the beginning of the season is always a lean time," Adams said.

"Many of us leave during summer to play in festivals, which don't pay particularly well. Some go on unemployment. A lot spend the time off studying and practicing. Our bank accounts tend to be down to zero, and we need those checks to pay the rent."

Florida Orchestra members are paid low by classical music industry standards.

"We're not living high here," said Adams, whose wife, Valerie, is a violinist in the orchestra. "I teach, I freelance, I give recitals, but that isn't how I pay the bills. The orchestra is how I make my living. There still seem to be people who don't realize this is an orchestra of full-time musicians."

In an effort to alleviate the crisis, orchestra board members and managers are seeking loans and donations from individuals, corporations and governments. According to Hyer, about $850,000 has been pledged from these sources, but the money isn't due to come in until later in October, November and December.

Concert attendance is healthy. More than 5,000 attended the three season-opening performances of Mahler's Fifth Symphony in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Clearwater.

Subscription ticket sales are up almost 20 percent from last season. Subscription revenue is about $1.5-million, but much of that money was spent in the spring, when subscriptions were renewed.

"As the orchestra's debt has mounted, ticket sale funds have had to be spent sooner and sooner" to cover operating expenses, service the long-term debt and pay back short-term loans, said controller Donny Rye Jr.

In other words, last season's expenses were paid with this season's revenue. Such methods are not uncommon for orchestras, but they need sufficient cash reserves to get them through the dry spells. The Florida Orchestra has been unable to accumulate a cash reserve fund on anything but a temporary basis.

The orchestra has faced tough times before.

In 1991, the musicians and staff went without paychecks for more than six weeks. They continued to work and eventually were paid.

If the orchestra and season are to remain as they are now, the board and management have to raise much more money than ever before by the end of its fiscal year May 31.

A development plan submitted by orchestra management laid out steps for targeting trustees, individuals, corporations and foundations to boost the annual fund-raising effort. The goal: $1.4-million, a projected increase of 31 percent from the previous season.

Such an ambitious goal may be hard to achieve. A 10 percent increase in annual giving is considered excellent in a healthy economy. But Florida, like much of America, is in a recession. Corporate giving has been waning and disaster relief needs may make donations scarcer too.

The management plan also includes other large fund-raising goals, including $1-million from government sources and special projects.

Hyer promises to have a long-range plan for the orchestra by year end. His senior vice president for advancement, Julia Ann Fleming, was hired last spring from a similar post with the Miami City Ballet. Hyer said she needs time to gauge support for the orchestra.

"I'm looking for an indication of what level this community will support the orchestra," Hyer said. "If we present one more lie, one more plan that doesn't work, then we're dead. I need hard facts, I need more information. At this point, my development team is too new to make accurate projections."

If the fund-raising goals can't be met, then the orchestra will have to be cut back. Already, Hyer seems to have made up his mind on the musicians contract.

"There's a realization these type of contracts are not sustainable. There's not enough work in the area to sustain a 40-week season."

The Florida Orchestra is not alone in its predicament. Many orchestras have alarming deficits. A few have been forced to fold, including orchestras in New Orleans and Oakland, Calif.

In Orlando, the Florida Symphony Orchestra is suffering. A week ago, musicians and staff there received partial paychecks. A management-labor agreement freezing musicians' pay through 1994-95 was recently reached, clearing the way for Orange County and Orlando to guarantee a loan to keep the orchestra afloat.

Florida Orchestra musicians feel abused and manipulated, but they aren't yet considering stopping playing.

"We believe we're on the high road," said Warren Powell, a violist and chairman of the orchestra committee. "By continuing to play for the audiences, that's the strongest statement we can make."