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Pittsburgh Symphony gift to help keep orchestra healthy

| Thursday, July 11, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

The $1.2 million gift to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra by Michele and Pat Atkins, announced July 8, was as surprising as it was welcome.

The gift was restricted to supporting musicians' compensation at a time when the symphony's deficit has increased to nearly $3 million on a stagnant $31 million budget.

The Pittsburgh Symphony is hardly alone in facing severe financial difficulties since the financial collapse in 2008. The Philadelphia Orchestra filed for bankruptcy in 2010. This season, the Nashville Symphony in Tennessee nearly lost its home to foreclosure. The Minneapolis Orchestra has been locked out for 10 months with no resolution in sight.

The Atkins said they were moved to make their gift to the Pittsburgh Symphony by admiration for musicians' generosity and to help maintain the symphony as a world-class orchestra. The musicians donated $100,000 back to the symphony to help with the bottom line in 2011 and 2012, seasons in which they took a 10 percent pay cut.

“For me, it's a ‘worst of times, best of times' situation, a challenge/opportunity dynamic,” said Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras in New York City. “Orchestras are responding with a lot of adaptation and change at a level I haven't seen before. It's all really healthy, but it will take a while for things to shake out.”

Rosen says there's a “very high degree of experimentation in just about every dimension,” including programming. He pointed the Pittsburgh Symphony's recent Music for the Spirit as serving a universal theme, and symphony violist Penny Brill's wellness work, which other orchestras are now pursuing.

“We're seeing a lot of programming that is multi-genre, recognizing that younger generations of concertgoers are more eclectic in their taste,” Rosen said. “We call them ‘omnivores' because they want to try all kinds of things. Mason Bates (Pittsburgh Symphony's composer of the year) is a prominent figure who lives in both worlds as an active DJ and a composer for symphony orchestras.

“We're also seeing a lot of experimentation around pricing from what had been a long-standing tradition of ‘keep raising prices as aggressively as you could' to ‘recognize in some market trading off revenue for participation.' ”

Remaining competitive

When the symphony and musicians announced a new contract settlement on June 10, which restored most of the pay cuts agreed to in the current contract, symphony President Jim Wilkinson said: “We're looking to hire musicians and know we need to be competitive.”

In fact, the symphony held auditions for horn players July 10 and 11, and will hold auditions for violinists and cellists in the fall.

Base pay for Pittsburgh Symphony musicians is $100,111 for the 2012-13 season. Under the new contract, it will rise to $104,114 next season and to $107,237 in 2015-16. It was $110,854 for 2010-11. By comparison, the pay scale is not overly generous.

Even the Philadelphia Orchestra, which filed for bankruptcy in 2010 and emerged from it in 2012, paid $111,800 this season — $11,000 more than Pittsburgh.

The base pay of the Cleveland Orchestra, in a city of comparable size and cost of living, is $121,316. The orchestras of Boston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco range from $135,980 to $148,720, according to data compiled by the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians.

“When I joined the orchestra in 1996, we were within a few thousand dollars of these orchestras and now we're 20 to 40 percent less,” said Micah Howard, chair of the orchestra committee. “The reason we're lower is that the symphony has had financial problems, and the musicians made repeated concessions over more than a decade for the sake of the orchestra's finances. In addition, we've given $200,000 to the symphony in this contract period and another $100,000 once before — and that is unprecedented.”

The symphony lost two fine young string players this season to orchestras with bigger budgets and a higher base pay, a disturbing development. The artistic health of major orchestras depends on attracting and retaining strong new musicians to balance the retirement of older players.

“I think, at the new contract levels, we will be able to attract talent at the top level for opening in the orchestra when they occur,” Howard said.

Role of special gifts and grants

The Atlkins' gift demonstrates that people who are already giving generously to the orchestra may give more for specific purposes.

A special gift to support musicians' pay is extremely uncommon if not unprecedented, although the chairs of some individual musicians and conductors are endowed. In fact, when the Annenberg Foundation gave $50 million to the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2003, the terms included that none of the money was to go to the musicians.

The Pittsburgh Symphony, like other major orchestras, has received many special gifts and grants with designated goals, includes ones to support international travel, recordings and electronic media, school time and community- engagement concerts, and Music for the Spirit concerts.

Future prospects

The Atkins' gift helps the symphony remain competitive for musicians while the organization rights its finances. But Wilkinson and the musicians agree that musician compensation is only one part of the financial challenges facing the symphony.

“There is no question in my mind that the future for the Pittsburgh Symphony is a revenue-driven question,” Wilkinson said. “We've got to increase our earned and contributed revenue or we're never going to get above our $31 million budget. You can't cut to increase revenue.”

By comparison, the Cleveland Orchestra budget is about $10 million larger and the Philadelphia Orchestra about $15 million larger than the Pittsburgh Symphony.

“If we can't get to the level of Philadelphia and Cleveland, our future is in question,” Wilkinson said. Getting to that level is “our goal, and we have the support of the musicians, for they know our future rests on increasing revenue. They've told us that if we feel there are restrictions in the contract that hold back earning income, we should come and talk to them about it to get a waiver of contract language.”

Symphony planning is taking a three-pronged approach to increasing revenue, starting with increasing ticket and subscription sales of its core products — BNY Mellon Grand Classics and PNC Pops — a perennial endeavor.

Second is expanding Heinz Hall Presents, special concerts such as Steve Martin, who performed without symphony musicians July 1, or Idina Menzel, who will perform with them July 21. Wilkinson says the symphony also will try to take advantage of weekends when classical concerts are on Friday and Sunday only by booking the hall for Heinz Hall Presents on Saturday.

Third, the symphony will attempt to make money on touring by improving fees from presenters and by using Heinz Hall efficiently when the orchestra is out of town.

“We have not traditionally used the hall that way,” Wilkinson said. “I think that will change starting next year.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.

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