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Symphony Musicians Say They Can Hold A Note And A Strike At The Same Time

It has been one week since the musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra laid down their instruments and took up picket signs.

Despite cancelation of performances by PSO management through Oct. 27, members said they’ve been successful finding alternative venues to Heinz Hall to hold scheduled concerts. One such concert, the Carnegie Mellon University Night with Music Director Manfred Honeck and Violinist Pinchas Zukerman, has been moved to Kresge auditorium on CMU’s campus, although Honeck and Zukerman will not attend.

“What we want to do is every concert that’s been cancelled here by the management, we want to put on a concert in the community, free of charge,” said Jeremy Branson, associate principal percussionist. “We want to make sure that the music doesn’t stop and that we give back to the city that’s been giving to us for 120 years.”

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Associate principal percussionist Jeremy Branson, 37, of the Mexican War Streets, says musicians won't let the music stop "even though it's silent here at Heinz Hall."

Negotiations for a new contract began last spring and even after a nearly two-week extension, management and the union representing the musicians, Local 60-471 of the American Federation of Musicians, weren’t able to come to an agreement.

PSO President and CEO Melia Tourangeau said the organization is facing a more than $20 million deficit over the next five years. Calling the projections a “crisis,” she asked the musicians to “be partners in the solution."

The current base salary for PSO musicians is $107,000. Under the proposed contract, a 15-percent pay cut would bring the musicians’ base salary to $91,000.

"That's out of necessity," Tourangeau said. "It's about a cash issue that we have and about financial realities, including $11 million in debt, with no more lines of credit available, having almost 10 years of over a million dollar operating deficit, losing two major streams of revenue between this year and the next, and having an underfunded pension plan."

Credit Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

The PSO Musicians claim management has threatened to replace them, however Tourangeau dismissed the idea, saying they had no intention to do so. She said legally the organization had to send a letter regarding "what it means to go on strike" that had "some of that language in it," but that ultimately they wouldn't substitute the players.

Branson said leadership within the PSO is moving toward a direction that he feels doesn’t value the quality of musicianship.

“Many of them view us not as craftsmen or artists of our instruments, but instead as musicians where you can stick a dollar in a vending machine and a musician comes out,” Branson said.

On the same day Pittsburgh began their strike, musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra began to picket, also citing contract disputes with management. Two days later, the Philadelphia players were able to return to negotiations, eventually receiving annual incremental raising and agreeing to additional Sunday concerts.

In Pittsburgh, Branson said the situation is completely different.

“They were looking at the question of, ‘how quickly 'til they get back to our greatness?’” he said. “What we’re looking at, unfortunately, with our management, is, ‘how quickly can we get to mediocrity?’”

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Rachel and Aaron White (left and right) pose with their 3-year-old daughter, Elizabeth and 11-month-old son Benjamin. Rachel's father, Harold Smoliar (center) has played English Horn in the organization since 1979. Aaron White plays bass in the PSO.

Last season, the symphony exceeded anticipated ticket sales by 4 percent and has called their projected annual subscription plans “strong.”

Both the musicians and the management echoed the impact the strike would have on the Pittsburgh community.

"If there's no agreement, there are no concerts," she said. "Unfortunately the people in Pittsburgh are going to be hurt in this more than anyone else."

The Pittsburgh Symphony is the 9th best paid such organization in the country. Were the new contract to include the 15 percent cuts, they would become the 14th.

Tonight’s concert at the Kresge auditorium will consist of chamber music and Sunday’s will be held at the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School (CAPA), conducted by Barbara Yahr.

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community. kblackley@wesa.fm