Reaching for a High Note 

Memphis Symphony Orchestra musicians sign new contracts, begin program overhaul.

Alberto Gutierrez takes over as the new general manager of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra (MSO) on January 3rd. Hiring the former San Antonio Symphony operations manager is the latest step in a series of changes that have been planned since last spring.

Other recent changes include the signing of a new contract for the group's 79 musicians, perhaps the most important aspect of the symphony's survival. The new contract, signed earlier this month, is a one-year deal guaranteeing a 4 percent salary increase for the 2004-2005 season. Under the new contract, the symphony's 34 full-time musicians will make at least $21,318 annually, with principal section leaders paid about $3,500 more. The remaining 45 musicians, who are paid per performance, will receive up to $107 for concerts and rehearsals.

Negotiations for the musicians, handled by representatives of the Memphis Federation of Musicians Local 71, were "amicable," said MSO executive director Ryan Fleur. "The core orchestra salary is low compared to peer cities like Charlotte, Nashville, and Indianapolis, where core members make about $31,000 to $35,000," he said. "We would love to be able to bring musicians' salaries in line with these cities, but the salaries are based on what we feel the organization can handle."

In 2001, Nashville symphony musicians signed a six-year deal guaranteeing its 84 full-time orchestra members a base salary of $30,769 for 40 weeks of work, with additional 5 percent raises each year. Before the deal, full-time orchestra musicians in Nashville were paid about $26,000 for 39 weeks of work. The raises were made possible by endowment campaign efforts which raised more than $20 million.

"Our number-one priority was money," said union secretary/treasurer and MSO violinist Laurie Pyatt. "Right now we feel that we're working the schedule of a major orchestra, and we're not getting paid anything like a full-time job. The schedule makes it difficult to work another job. We've got to find a way to fix the problem."

In addition to salary increases, the musicians included insurance demands in their negotiating package. Currently, only core musicians are eligible for the medical insurance package partly funded by MSO. According to Pyatt, the musicians were unable to reach an agreement making the insurance eligible to all 79 orchestra members.

"Previous contracts have been for longer periods than just one year," said Pyatt. "As players, if we think that we can do better with longer contracts we go for longer [periods], but right now we're just waiting to see what will be the result of this planning process. Hopefully some things will change.

MSO's overhaul also involves ways to increase overall symphony funding, said Fleur, who was hired 15 months ago to create and implement the plan's three components: orchestra utilization, promotion to constituents, and definition of the orchestra's future level of excellence. Some areas are expected to be implemented as early as next spring, with personal invitations and letters sent out to contributors and season ticket holders. MSO administrators also plan to involve audience members in focus groups and town hall sessions to discuss other changes.

"Memphis can afford a symphony. The question is, can we build a base of support that is willing to pursue what's needed to make that happen," said Fleur. "For example, the whole community perceives the zoo with a sense of pride after the acquisition of the pandas. We need to find our pandas."

The symphony, which is funded by large donations, ticket sales, and individual gifts, has secured an anonymous $300,000 matching gift over a three-year period. The challenge now is raising an additional $100,000 each year in matching funds.

"People don't always think about the other things that a symphony brings to a city besides music," said Fleur. "It brings an audience, talent, and, most importantly, skilled and experienced teachers in our schools and universities teaching music." n

E-mail: jdavis@memphisflyer.com

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