An extended Pittsburgh Symphony strike threatens to change the dynamic of ‘one of the best in the world’ | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

An extended Pittsburgh Symphony strike threatens to change the dynamic of ‘one of the best in the world’

“One of the bad parts of the strike in 1975 were the players that we lost.”

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“We want a fair contract that will ensure the excellence of our institution,” Howard said then.

The base salary for a PSO musician is currently $107,000, with pension, benefits and 10 weeks of paid vacation. A 15 percent cut, as demanded by the PSO, would reduce the musicians’ base pay by $16,050 to $90,950.

According to the Berklee College of Music, starting salaries for symphonic musicians in the U.S. range from $28,000 to $115,000. 

These salaries are important for attracting the top musicians and keeping an orchestra performing in the fashion that Mellor recalls so vividly, according to Douglas Yeo, a retired trombonist who was a professional symphonic musician for 31 years in Baltimore and Boston.

“Wages alone are not the only factor in making orchestras good,” says Yeo, now retired in Arizona. “But the fact is, every orchestra is going to be good if it has the best possible players.”

That means competitive salaries. Legs crossed, still waiting for her companion in the Temple’s high-ceilinged hall, Scope likened the symphony’s competition for the best musicians to a pro football team chasing the best free-agent wide receiver.

But Yeo, who was involved in a work stoppage himself, when the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony were locked out by management in 1981, was hesitant to make such a comparison.

“When we talk about symphony musicians, there’s not a single player on a single professional sports team who’s making anywhere near what a symphony orchestra musician makes,” Yeo says.

He also mentioned the differences in audience size — while Heinz Hall can only fit 2,676 Mozart lovers, Heinz Field can hold 65,050 screaming, black-and-gold fans.

Looking back at his experiences with management in Baltimore, Yeo described the work stoppage as “the usual dispute” over wages and working conditions, unlike the 1975 PSO strike of Gillis’ recollections.

But Gillis is more concerned for the PSO’s future from the present dispute due to the last part of management’s demands — “freez[ing] three open positions in the orchestra for the term of this contract,” according to the PSO’s release when the strike started.

“That’s not a decision that should be in management’s hands, that’s a decision that should be in the music director and management’s hands,” Gillis says.

Gillis also referred to a letter, sent by the Pittsburgh Symphony Inc., the PSO’s operating body, to the striking musicians on Oct. 4. The message stated that “the PSI has an obligation to keep Heinz Hall open” and “[I]n order to do so, it may require us to hire replacement workers.”

The PSI since backtracked on that claim, saying it had “no intention” to hire any temporary workers, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

However, Gillis says this threat, combined with management’s contract demand, could damage the cohesion that Mellor so admired about the orchestra’s performance.

“[Managment doesn’t] want to have a 99-piece orchestra,” Gillis says. “They want to be able to just augment [with freelancers.]”

It’s a strategy that Gillis says isn’t happening in any other top orchestras, such as San Francisco, New York or Minneapolis, which just suffered its own 15-month lockout. He fears that Pittsburgh could be headed toward a similarly lengthy dispute.

Back in Pittsburgh, the concert was about to begin at Rodef Shalom. Scope’s friend, Bob Devaty, a physics professor at the University of Pittsburgh, arrived, slipping past a few seated seniors and sitting down next to Scope. The hall has a capacity of 280 people and with every seat filled, spectators sat on the steps in the balcony and lined the rear walls.

Devaty has been going to Pittsburgh Symphony performances since 1985. As a physicist, he likes the organization and precision of a classical-music performance. When looking forward into the ensemble’s future, he has concerns.

“The sad thing is it could be that management is correct,” Devaty says. “But if management gets their way they won’t have a world-class orchestra anymore.” 

Editor’s Note: Negotiations to end the labor unrest at the Pittsburgh Symphony were actively ongoing as this story was being written. The strike was still ongoing at press time.

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