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Symphony Strikes: How Are They Avoidable?

There’s been discord within some of the nation’s major symphonies lately. How does the Houston Symphony maintain harmony with its own musicians?

Houston SymphonyCourtesy of the Houston Symphony
Houston Symphony in concert

It was a festive evening at Jones Hall a couple of weeks ago when the Houston Symphony and Chorus performed a concert of Christmas tunes. Holiday pops programs like theirs are some of the most popular events of the season for symphonies around the country.

It’s been a different scene four hours up the road in Fort Worth, where the inside of Bass Performance Hall has been silent for much of the season. Outside, however, there has been plenty of activity.

Beginning in early September, dozens of men and women in emerald green T-shirts began marching in front of the hall carrying picket signs saying, “Growth Not Cuts.” They’re Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra musicians and until last week, they’ve been on strike.

It started three months ago after management proposed a contract that would include a pay cut of 7.5 percent. This wasn’t the first time the musicians have had their salaries trimmed.

“In 2010, in the wake of the recession, the symphony needed relief and so the musicians accepted a contract that included a 13.5 percent pay cut,” says Ed Jones, Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Tubist, who adds that  only 5 percent of that pay cut had been recovered by 2015.

Fort Worth is one of several symphonies where employee relations became rocky. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh both experienced strikes earlier this year and San Antonio Symphony declared bankruptcy a few years ago. FWSO’s Assistant Principal Bassist Paul Unger says that doesn’t mean all cities are in trouble.  

“We’ve heard doom and gloom because one or two symphonies have gone on strike,” he says. “But what we don’t hear is that there are over thirty orchestras that have growing budgets and setting fundraising records.”

Many could argue that Houston Symphony can be grouped into the success story category.

“We can’t fool ourselves into thinking that we can achieve the artistic and reputational goals of our strategic plan without making continual investments in the orchestra,” says Mark Hanson, Houston Symphony’s Executive Director and CEO. Since coming onboard in 2010, he’s helped to create a strategic plan for the organization.

For the past six years, Hanson says they’ve increased the musicians’ base pay by 15 percent. The Houston Symphony Endowment has increased by $9.3 million and 9.5 percentof the budget is spent just on fundraising.

There’s no universal formula for keeping a symphony healthy. So many factors that come to play, such as the level of philanthropic giving in the city, the strength of the endowment, and the amount of community support.

However, there are usually warning signs long before things begin to crumble.

“You’ve got to look at what caused it,” says Lovie Smith-Wright, President of the Houston Professional Musicians’ Association Local 65-699, American Federation of Musicians. “Most of the time, it’s not the musicians. They’re the one who get the blunt end.”

Last week, the Fort Worth Symphony management announced that an anonymous donor wrote a check to cover their $700,000 deficit, which led to proposing a new four-year agreement with the musicians. Salaries will stay at the current levels for the first two years, followed by a pay increase of 2 percent by year three, then by 2.5 percent in the fourth year. Following the announcement, Unger says he has renewed optimism about the symphony’s future. The community support has been immense.

“Now that we have this agreement that the musicians, management, the board, and the community of supporters can get together, we can come up with creative solutions to increase revenue through fundraising,” he says.

But perhaps the lesson is not just about what a symphony should do – but also about what it should not do.

Lovie Smith-Wright explains: “Some CEOs are probably going to hate me for saying this, but management needs to realize the orchestra is the product,” she says. “Don’t damage the product.”

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Amy Bishop

Amy Bishop

Arts and Culture Reporter

As Houston Public Media Arts and Culture reporter, Amy Bishop spotlights Houston’s dynamic creative community. Her stories have brought national exposure to the local arts scene through NPR programs such as Here and Now. Her radio career began in 1999 in the Dallas/Fort Worth market. Prior to her current position,...

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