When Is The Philadelphia Orchestra Not The Philadelphia Orchestra?

Most folks have likely noticed the news about the Philadelphia Orchestra musicians accepting pay and hiring freezes for most positions along with some hefty pension concessions. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Peter Dobrin reports on those concessions in an article from 2/27/2010. In and of itself, there’s nothing remarkable here; the Philadelphia players are mirroring what their colleagues elsewhere are doing by accepting concessions that help reduce immediate financial pressure. What is of interest is this nugget buried at the bottom of the article…

The wiggle room in the amount the association expects to save – the $8 million – comes in part because the financial implications of changes in certain work rules are unknown. These rules involve matters such as how and when substitute players are contracted and how many rehearsals are needed for a particular program.

Those actively following the Philadelphia Orchestra for the past decade or so know that one of the reoccurring themes during collective bargaining agreement negotiations is the Association’s desire to hire substitutes from a pool of conservatory students and pay them at a lower wage. For the moment, let’s set aside the issue of orchestras paying substitute players, regardless if they are students or professionals, a lower wage than contracted musicians and focus on student issue.

Over the course of recent negotiations, the Philadelphia musicians have pushed back against this idea citing artist concerns. After all, if a listener pays regular price for a ticket, they should expect to see an ensemble comprised of professionals held to equal artistic standards; anything less is tantamount to bait and switch.

So no matter how many layers of pseudo-rationalization you wrap an argument in favor of supplementing a full time, salaried orchestra with students paid at a lower scale, it still comes down to a cost cutting measure that isn’t supported by an institution’s mission. And although Dobrin doesn’t mention the students as substitutes issue in his article, it will be interesting to see if this topic returns to the bargaining table with renewed fervor fueled by current economic conditions.

Stay tuned…

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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