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Pittsburgh Symphony strike eats into revenue

| Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016, 8:24 p.m.
Steven Adams | Tribune-Review
Members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra went on strike on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016.

Going into the fourth week of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra strike, the costs are mounting.

Musicians and management are at odds chiefly over a demand to reduce annual compensation for musicians by 15 percent, from a base salary of $107,239 to $91,153.

Both sides say they plan to return to negotiations this week — for the first time since the strike began — and have agreed to bring in a neutral financial expert to review the symphony's finances. The symphony's Board of Trustees Chair Devin McGranahan said in a statement Sept. 30, when the strike began, that a wage reduction was necessary to deal with a financial crisis that could force the symphony to close in mid-2017 when it would be at risk of running out of cash. Symphony officials have said they are facing a $20.4 million deficit over the next five years.

The musicians contend that management's figures are inflated and misleading, and that the reduction in compensation would keep the symphony from attracting and retaining the top talent necessary to be a world- class orchestra.

In the meantime, the strike is eating into the symphony's revenue.

“The effect of the strike damages us greatly from loss of income through ticket sales,” said Christian Schornich, the symphony's chief operating officer.

Pittsburgh Symphony concerts, Pops and classical, are canceled through Nov. 18. The symphony has refunded more than $300,000 in ticket sales, but that is an incomplete measure of how much revenue was lost because a large chunk of tickets are purchased close to the concert dates. The eight canceled concerts in late September and early October would have generated nearly $590,000 in gross revenue, based on the average for Pops and for classical concerts in 2015-16.

Schornich prefers the term “avoided costs” to “savings” to describe the $250,000 per week the symphony doesn't have to pay in wages and benefits during the strike.

“Most of our concerts are losses and are designed to be this way because we are a nonprofit,” he said.

Decisions about concert cancellations are made by the executive committee of the symphony's board of trustees.

“We have tremendous commitments to the individual arts and to our audiences,” Schornich said. “We're dealing with artists — because of the world-class standard of our orchestra — that plan out (their schedules) for several years in advance. The contracts with them (mean) that we have to pay them part of the costs, but not the larger part.”

The cancellation of Elvis Costello's Nov. 1 Heinz Hall concert because he wouldn't cross the musicians' picket line is another source of lost revenue, in this case for Heinz Hall Presents events and hall rentals. Sixty percent of the house for Costello was sold more than a week before the concert. The symphony was due to receive a third of the revenue, and lost $32,266 on the cancellation.

Schornich says it's too soon to say whether fundraising will be significantly affected.

“The incentive for people to support us is low because there isn't an ongoing season,” he said.

Among the musicians, many have lost most or all of their income and are not eligible for unemployment compensation because they went on strike.

“It's a hardship, but these are sacrifices that are an easy choice to make. To struggle now is much less problematic than allowing the symphony to be diminished into a second-rate orchestra,” said cellist Bronwyn Banerdt, in her third season as a member of the Pittsburgh Symphony.

She is dipping into savings to get by. She teaches chamber music a few hours a week at Carnegie Mellon University, but the income is negligible and her other work in town is on a volunteer basis.

Symphony musicians can get some work as substitute players in other orchestras. Last week, Banerdt and oboist Max Blair played with the Cleveland Orchestra, but she says it's no replacement for steady income.

“The whole process is uncomfortable. I grew up in Los Angeles and have been an admirer of the Pittsburgh Symphony since childhood,” Banerdt, who is 31, told the Tribune-Review. “I've known this orchestra my entire life as one of the great orchestras of the world. I take it very seriously to protect that.”

Other businesses near Heinz Hall are being affected by the strike, including Six Penn and Peter Allen's Italian restaurants.

“It has definitely impacted the restaurant, not only monetarily but in mood, too,” said Carol Lautenbach, general manger of Peter Allen's. “Our business is down to 75 percent of what it usually is. And we feel like we're in mourning and so do the customers.”

Parking lots in the Cultural District are feeling the pinch, too.

“It's not devastating but not insignificant, either,” said Merrill Stabile, president of Alco Parking Co. He estimated $5,000 in lost parking revenue per night of canceled concerts for all the lots, including ones not owned by Alco.

Mark Kanny is the Tribune-Review classical music critic. Reach him at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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