Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s reputation must remain intact

Terry Tan | Senior Staff Illustrator

Terry Tan | Senior Staff Illustrator

By Mariam Shalaby / Columnist

The lights dim inside the performance hall, and the orchestra members begin to softly tune their instruments.

The musicians close their eyes, concentrating to match their tones with their colleagues seated around them. Finally, the conductor raises his arms and makes a quick motion. The 99 musicians on stage begin to play. Together, they perform precisely with the expertise of an aged storyteller.

This extraordinary level of excellence is not present in most orchestras around the world, but the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra breaks the mold. The ensemble has held onto world-renowned prestige for more than a century, but now, its reputation and quality are at stake.

The musicians and their management failed to reach a new contract agreement this year, and on Sept. 30, the musicians went on strike for the first time since the 1970s. During those protests, the employees on strike were not of unanimous opinion.

Finally, though, the musicians have collectively had enough.

Growing up, I attended City Music Center, a weekend music school at Duquesne University where kids from 3 to 18 years old are trained and coached in music theory, performance and collaborative playing by professional musicians.

Many of these professionals are PSO members, which means that for a decade, I benefited from the high caliber of musicality and teaching ability of PSO musicians. I came to understand the kind of sacrifice, time commitment and financial strain musicians undertake in order to attain the level of professionalism reached by the PSO and other world-class orchestra members.

I’m certain that the proposed changes from management — including pay cuts and layoffs — would cause a severe decline in the orchestra’s quality. This contract would transform a world-class orchestra into a stepping-stone musical ensemble.

PSO’s management forecasts that there won’t be enough money to support an orchestra of its current size in the future. But according to Micah Howard, a bassist in the PSO and chair of the orchestra’s Musicians Committee union, musicians argue that this prediction is inconsistent with the financial trends of the orchestra over the past few years, which displays a growth in funds.

Earned revenue for the fiscal year, posted on the PSO website, showed that ticket sales increased by 4 percent — the first increase in over 10 years. And according to the PSO site, this season’s subscriptions are beating last year’s. The case is  the same with regard to fundraising, which was record-breaking, as demonstrated by a 25 percent increase of the PSO’s annual fund.

The musicians are concerned, Howard said, that the management plans to implement a new business model relying more on ticket sales than donations. They fear that this simply will not work and say there’s no evidence it will.

The orchestra’s management plans to decrease musicians’ salaries by 15 percent, but musicians’ salaries are fair as they stand. According to Howard, the current salary is about $107,000 annually, tenth highest among U.S. orchestras.

Plans to lower that rate would contribute to the decline of a great orchestra’s prestige and musical value.

Jennifer Orchard, a violinist in the PSO, said musicians of her caliber begin private tutoring between ages three to six and often continue well into adulthood. As their level increases, so does the tuition for their musical education. Although the Curtis Institute of Music, one of the top music schools in the country, offers a full-tuition scholarship to all accepted students, it estimates that a student’s budget could range from approximately $12,000 to $33,000 per year. For many students, that could mean piles of loans.

Yearly instrument maintenance alone is nearly as expensive as room and board, according to the Curtis Institute. Musicians later vie for audition opportunities, where hundreds of musicians of similar training and ability all compete for a single tenure spot in an orchestra.

In addition, the prices of professional-quality instruments are more than $30,000, according to The Guardian.

Along with the instrument itself, violin strings average about $70 to replace a full set, and strings require replacements several times a year. Bows to play the violin bought separately can cost as much as the instrument, and repairs are often more expensive. Like others, many PSO musicians raise families, have multiple children and have aging parents to care for. A 15 percent cut in salary and freezing of pensions is untenable for skilled professionals who face such high costs to simply do their jobs.

A standard orchestra includes about 100 musicians, according to Orchard. The PSO currently has 101 employees, including two librarians who technically count as part of any orchestra. Orchard and others are concerned that unilateral staffing cuts — mentioned in The Guardian article — will diminish the bond between permanent orchestra members.

“It won’t be the Pittsburgh Symphony anymore. [The rotating members] won’t have the experience of playing together for years and years,” Orchard said. “We know each other well and know how each other play.”

The decrease in quality and prestige of the orchestra this change creates will deter new talent from staying in the orchestra for an extended period of time with substitutes instead using it as a place to gain experience before moving on to a more prestigious orchestra. Additionally, this new talent will likely leave Pittsburgh if the pay is lower than that of a higher-ranked orchestra.

In essence, such a salary decrease will create a cyclical demise of the orchestra’s historic excellence.

The PSO has been in Pittsburgh for 120 years. It has braved the horrors and pain of World War I and World War II, the Great Depression and the Civil Rights Movement — and has managed to remain one of the top orchestras in the world.

It’d be a shame if that legacy, for the sake of internal disagreements, is cut short.

Mariam Shalaby primarily writes on social change and foreign culture for The Pitt News. Write to her at [email protected]