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Columbus Symphony musicians rehearse (Photo: symphonymusicians.com)
Columbus Symphony musicians rehearse (symphonymusicians.com)

Last week (Monday 22 September) the musicians of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra accepted a contract which calls for substantial cuts in their salary and benefits. Principal clarinetist David Thomas, for example, will see his paycheck sag below what he was earning when he first joined the orchestra in 1989.

The $1.3 million reduction is an echo of 2005, when the musicians gave up exactly the same amount in salaries and benefits.

The symphony board had first suggested trimming the roster from 53 to 31, effectively turning the symphony into a chamber orchestra. Later they amended that proposal to maintain the orchestra’s strength but with a 40% cut in base salaries, partly through a reduction in the number of concerts per season.

In the end, the giveback was 27%. The final agreement curtails the musicians’ season, from 46 to 38 weeks. It cuts the base salary from $1,200 per week to $1,100 per week, with further reductions in pension contributions and health care plan expenditure. Some concerts will move from the Ohio Theatre to Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium, where the rent is cheaper and the acoustics less suitable.

Officially, the Columbus Symphony is back in business. But at what cost? The relationship between management and orchestra members could hardly be described as amicable. At least a half-dozen musicians have already moved on. Given the tense atmosphere and the financial stress, how many more experienced players will defect to other orchestras? With salaries declining, what caliber of musicians will audition to replace them?

Perhaps the greatest and most immediate uncertainty for both musicians and listeners is — who will lead? During the contract dispute, the orchestra’s well-regarded music director, Junichi Hirokami, came down solidly on the side of the musicians. At least one of the board’s budget proposals included sacking Hirokami. The musicians turned thumbs down on that pact, but Hirokami’s future with the Columbus Symphony is still in doubt.

Meanwhile, the Symphony must begin the process of raising funds to cover its $9.5 million budget ($3 million less than last year’s). Not only will they be hampered by a tight economy, they’ll have to overcome lingering concerns among potential supporters over the organization’s internal acrimony, artistic leadership status, and long-term viability.

The orchestra is expected to perform in the pit for Opera Columbus’s staging of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers in October. Opera Columbus’s artistic director, William Boggs, will conduct. The Holiday pops concerts are on for December, with an abbreviated regular season to begin in January. The conductor of those concerts? No one knows.

Further reading:

Orchestra is revived, but future still murky (Columbus Dispatch)

Joint Statement (Columbus Symphony and AFM Local 103)

All Columbus Symphony entries in WKSU Classical

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