New Contract Approved for MSO Musicians 

click to enlarge MSO conductor Robert Moody - MSO
  • MSO
  • MSO conductor Robert Moody
The musicians of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra approved a three-year contract this week that includes modest increases in salary and adds some weeks to the schedule.

It's a step in a gradual comeback from 2014, when the MSO announced it was in deep fiscal trouble and was forced to cut staff, expenses, and activities. Among the cost-cutting measures was a reduction in musicians' pay by 38 percent and shortening the number of performances.

Peter Abell, president and CEO of the MSO, says, "We're still an organization in recovery, and in this contract it does speak to that. We still have not returned the players to where they were in 2013, both in the length of season and the compensation to the players."

The pay increases are about one percent a year for each year of the contract, the first year of which is the current 2018-2019 season. Before the crisis, the orchestra performed 39 weeks, which was cut back to 23 weeks. This season it has come back to 33 weeks, and by the third season in the contract, it will be 35 weeks.

Musician representative Robert Patterson says the contract shows an effort to rectify the situation. "We will not be back to where we were, but continue to make progress," he says. "Over the past 30 years the Orchestra has fallen behind in salary. We and our management are in agreement that that is the case, and so the question is just how do you address it? We want to be working together and not against each other, so we're moving forward."

Abell says a side letter to go along with the contract was signed that expressed a commitment to work together. "We think the greatest asset of the orchestra are the players that make up the orchestra," he says. "We exist because of the orchestra, and we can't really say that we're compensating the players at a level where we could expect it to be their primary professional commitment, and that's a vision of ours. So we have a lot of work to do for that."

Patterson says, "The only way to achieve stability is with the creation of an endowment and it has to be soon. We're currently surviving because we have some very generous donors who are basically covering our deficits, so we need to get out of that — and we will get out of that. We wouldn't have this contract if there wasn't a plan to get out of that."

According to Abell, there was no capital, endowment or reserve fund when the crisis hit five years ago. He says there are three factors that have made it possible for the MSO to survive. "First was the players, who have given up $1.2 million in compensation since 2014 without a work stoppage, without a threat of a work stoppage. That's the number-one gift in this whole thing. Number two was the Helen and Jabie Hardin Charitable Trust, which made a $1 million gift in 2015 to help rebuild the orchestra, and that really set the right tone moving forward." The third factor was the effort led by Gayle Rose, the leader of the board for five seasons, to build back an endowment. Abell says there's a goal of at least $12 million for the endowment plus about $3 million in working capital to stabilize the budget.

Patterson says that the last couple of years have been helped by the MSO's development staff raising money, ticket sales going up, and the stability of leadership with Robert Moody coming in as music director and Abell as CEO.

"People understand that this contract is the only way forward," Patterson says. "But even by the end of this contract, the highest pay scale will still be under $30,000 for an annual salary. And it is the stated goal of the MSO that being a musician should be one's primary, professional obligation but that's simply not possible on the current salary."

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