2005 Compensation Report: ROPA Music Directors

Last in this series of compensation reports is the examination ROPA & IGSOBM ensemble music director compensation. Much like their administrative counterparts, music directors serve as the executive “manager” for nearly all things artistic, at the top level, within an orchestra (although that model is beginning to change). As such, they should be subject to the same amount of scrutiny regarding their level of performance on and off stage and if they are adequately fulfilling all of their duties, therefore qualifying them for what they are compensated.

Based on last year’s figures, the average ROPA music director earned 764% more than the average musician base salary, as compared to the 644% ROPA executive directors earned over the average musician base salary.

We already know that the average ROPA executive director earned 7.79% over the previous year so let’s see what the numbers tell us about how the situation for music directors has changed…

Where The Numbers Come From

  • The following “Music Director Compensation” figures were obtained from their respective orchestra’s 2003 IRS Form 990.
  • The “musician base salary” figures were obtained from records collected by the AFM and IGSOBM (Tucson) for the 2002-2003 concert season (which corresponds with the 2003 IRS Form 990).
  • The music director compensation figures include the combined amounts reported as what the IRS classifies as “compensation” and “contributions to employee benefit plans & deferred compensation”. However, each orchestra does not always report figures for the latter category.
  • The musician base salary figures collected by the AFM for ROPA ensembles are done so on an annual basis and reported in a booklet entitled Wage Scales & Conditions in the Symphony Orchestra. However, the majority of “Musician Base Salary” figures are not salary figures at all since only nine of the ensembles pay a fixed salary to a portion of their musicians. The remaining musicians are all paid on a sliding “per service” scale.

Adaptistration makes no claim to the accuracy of information from documents compiled by external sources.

Where Are The Concertmaster Figures?

There are two reasons why the concertmaster compensation figures are not listed in this installment.

  1. The IRS only requires nonprofit organizations to list the top five employees and private contractors paid over $50,000 on Form 990.
  2. Because ROPA musicians earn so much less than their ICSOM peers, there are only three ROPA ensembles that pay their concertmasters enough to warrant their including them on the Form 990 and/or the concertmaster may be lower than the other top five employees earning over $50,000.

The three ensembles who reported concertmaster compensation figures were:

  • Grand Rapids Symphony: $66,734
  • Richmond Symphony: $69,370
  • Toledo Symphony: $98,677

What The Numbers Don’t Show

It’s important to remember that the numbers shown do not always tell the entire story. For example, a music director may have had a large increase in salary because they were leaving a position (either on their own volition or not) and per terms of their contract they may have received a sizeable severance or deferred compensation package. As such, the cumulative compensation may artificially inflate their annual earnings.

Unlike their peers in ICSOM ensembles who all earn no less than the “Musician Base Salary” (with a few exceptions), all ROPA ensembles use a tiered system of salary and/or per service payments. For example, although the Toledo Symphony may list a base musician salary of $23,081, only 43 out of 73 musicians are covered by the salary figure. The remaining 30 players are paid using the sliding per service tier system.

In the all per service ensembles, the figures listed in the “Musician Base Salary” are actually the average annual income earned by section string players (or section wind players if no information for the string players was available). This figure is reported by the AFM because it best represents the annual earnings for the musicians who usually perform the greatest number of services in any per service orchestra; string musicians.

These figures do not include any of the opera or ballet organizations which are members of ROPA or IGSOBM.

Top Men

How Things Compare To Last Year

  • According to these figures, the average ROPA & IGSOBM music director earns 804% more than a base salary musician, which is a 5.23% increase over last year’s figure of 764%.
  • Compared to the figures from 2002, the average ROPA & IGSOBM music director compensation increased 1.16% as compared to the average ROPA & IGSOBM base musician salary increase of 7.34%.

Who Earns The Most?

Much like the division between the executive director pay ranks, the music directors at the top of the pack are head and shoulders above their colleagues with their earnings from a single ensemble (we’ll be talking about double, triple, and even quadruple dipping later).

Seven conductors earned over $130,000, the top three who earned over $150,000 were all from California based ensembles. Coincidentally enough, each of those same ensembles utilize a per service pay scale as opposed to salaried musicians. Even more coincidental is the fact that two of the ensembles utilized the same conductor as their music director:

  1. Pacific Symphony’s Carl St. Clair earned $274,566
  2. Santa Rosa Symphony’s Jeffrey Kahane earned $158,500
  3. Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s Jeffrey Kahane earned $156,900
  4. Hartford Symphony’s Edward Cumming earned $147,340
  5. Fort Wayne Philharmonic’s Edvard Tchivzhel earned $147,105
  6. Dayton Philharmonic’s Neal Gittleman earned $135,000
  7. Omaha Symphony’s victor Yampolsky $130,788

Who Gained The Most?

Although they may not earn as much as the music directors on the top of the list, these six maestros enjoyed more than double the average increase in compensation:

  1. West Virginia Symphony’s Grant Cooper received a 30.32% increase.
  2. Memphis Symphony’s David Loebel received a 9.97% increase.
  3. Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s Jeffrey Kahane received an 8.65%
  4. Dayton Philharmonic’s Neal Gittleman received an 8.00% increase.
  5. Pacific Symphony’s Carl St. Clair received a 7.54% increase.


Although they lag slightly behind their peers in ICSOM ensembles, these music directors still earn a significantly higher level of compensation compared to average musician salaries. All of the same discussions surrounding whether or not these conductors adequately earn their annual compensation is no different than the other groups examined so far.

There is one significant difference, however, when examining these music directors. In the ROPA Executive Director report, there was an examination of the viewpoints that those executives deserve their disproportionately higher pay because they work more than the average base musician.

Assuming that you have faith in that point, then how do ROPA ensemble music directors justify their significantly larger salaries? They don’t work as many weeks as managers, nor do they work as many services as the average section string player. They do have some additional duties with artistic planning and fundraising, but do those duties validate their earning more than 800% more than the musicians they conduct?

Then there’s the issue of experience. Unfortunately, a fact of life for conductors is that they have very few opportunities to learn their craft. Most of them start into their careers at a much later age than musicians and as such have much less professional experience than the average ROPA musician. Nevertheless, they still earn considerably larger salaries. Why?

Of course, not every ROPA music director is just getting started in their careers, some are seasoned veterans; I certainly wouldn’t call Fort Wayne’s Edvard Tchivzhel a novice conductor. But the point remains, a large portion of ROPA music directors are very new to their careers. Although they certainly deserve to be the highest paid musician in the ensemble, why are they earning more than 800% more than the veteran musicians?

Some Words About The Value Of Transparency

Most reader probably noticed the footnote about Grand Rapids at the bottom of the compensation chart. I did contact the Grand Rapids Symphony to inquire about why their music director compensation was not listed on their IRS Form 990 for the years 2002 and 2003 (the last reported figure was $174,064 for the 2000-2001 season).

A representative of the orchestra claimed that on the advice of their auditors even though their music director was either an employee or a private contractor during the seasons in question they did not have to list their compensation on the requisite IRS Form 990’s. I did take a moment to mention that every other ROPA, IGSOBM, and ICSOM music director was listed where applicable but that fact did not appear to change their official position.

Grand Rapids wasn’t the only orchestra to have some of the relevant data missing from their From 990’s. In fact, I had to contact representatives from the Utah Symphony & Opera, Hartford Symphony, and Omaha Symphony to clarify or request particular information relevant to these reports. In each of those organizations, thier finance representatives were prompt, courteous, and efficient in returning my requests for information. They were all interested in correcting apparent mistakes regardless if they originated from their organization or from GuideStar.

When contacting all of these organizations I believed that the information was missing for some reason or another but the thought that the information may be intentionally withheld was never presumed. In the case of Grand Rapids, the decision ultimately went past the desk of their new president, Melia Tourangeau, who did not return multiple telephone requests for clarification.

What remains are many questions and few satisfactory answers. Why did they make this decision when the vast majority of their peers have decided otherwise? Why did their senior executive administrator not provide any basis for their decision? Why would they list the salary of their concertmaster and their president but not their music director?

Presenting a better face to the community via increased transparency has exponential benefits in increased trust and positive public awareness. It’s good to see the majority of ensembles adopting a fairly standard set of guidelines when reporting compensation figures. Hopefully, that trend will eventually include 100% of all ensembles.


The most crucial element missing from the ROPA music director’s world is a defined set of criteria for an honest performance review. Using peer compensation simply isn’t an effective means of establishing initial compensation or increases during contract renewals.

I don’t predict that much will change among how music directors are compensated among the ROPA ensemble conductors. Although I certainly hope that some ensembles will begin to construct some new guidelines with how they review performance.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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