It Isn’t Often You See This Much Potential For Artistic Change

The 8/3/2021 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an article by Jeremy Reynolds that takes a deeper than normal look at the 13 openings at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO).

13 simultaneous openings at an orchestra of this budget size that isn’t emerging from a major labor dispute and/or financial implosion is highly unusual. What’s more, five of those are principal level positions and one fixed seat position.

  • 1st violins, three vacancies: concertmaster, assistance concertmaster, section
  • 2nd violins, one vacancy: section
  • Viola, five vacancies, section
  • Bass, one vacancy: principal
  • Flute, one vacancy: associate principal
  • Oboe, one vacancy: 2nd
  • Timpani, one vacancy: principal

While there’s plenty of room to debate the extent of artistic impact, there is no denying change is afoot.

Reynolds does an excellent job at gathering plenty of quotes from orchestra stakeholders explaining why positions like principals have so much impact, but it goes one additional step by explaining why many of these aren’t positions you can fill with substitute or temporary musicians.

From a dynamic perspective, this many openings at an orchestra with this level of base pay will undoubtedly have a ripple effect across other orchestras.

And given that there are so many principal positions open, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the PSO is one of the first larger budget groups that replaced a defined benefit pension plan (retired employees receive a guaranteed annual income) with a defined contribution plan (retirement benefits are determined by the amount contributed and investment earnings).

In a nutshell, this means musicians on the defined contribution plan end up earning less than those grandfathered into the defined benefit plan.

Principal musicians are in a unique position in that they can attempt to recoup some of those losses by way of their individual agreements, which are commonly referred to as overscale contracts.

You can probably see where this is going. With so many principal players coming into the orchestra, they would be wise to crunch some numbers (or have an accountant do that for them) on how much less they earn as defined benefit employees and attempt to make up that difference in their contract negotiations.

After all, Reynolds’ article includes information about why principals have higher artistic impact and what sort of employee would want the same expectations as other principals but earn less?

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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It Isn't Often You See This Much Potential For Artistic Change

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