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The show goes on: PSO plays free concerts during strike

People+protest+outside+Heinz+Hall+to+support+Pittsburgh+Symphony+Orchestra.+Mariam+Shalaby+%7C+Staff+Photographer
People protest outside Heinz Hall to support Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Mariam Shalaby | Staff Photographer

People protest outside Heinz Hall to support Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Mariam Shalaby | Staff Photographer

People protest outside Heinz Hall to support Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Mariam Shalaby | Staff Photographer

By Kevin Lynch / Staff Writer

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Over the years, fans of Pokemon, Star Wars and even Nelly have gracefully assembled in Heinz Hall, donning their finest dress, to see the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra recreate their favorite soundtracks and hit singles.

That isn’t quite the case these days.

The striking musicians and their supporters have been gathering Downtown every Friday through Monday to picket in T-shirts and jeans. Additionally, a ragtag army of classical music fans, sporting garb from tossle caps and gym shorts to neck ties and high heels, crammed into Carnegie Mellon University’s Kresge Theatre last weekend for a free look at the ensemble.

As the musicians took selfies with the crowd of more than 250 students and hustled from one stage to another to accommodate the oversized gathering, the audience’s breach of the typically posh PSO dress seemed of nominal importance.

“We play our hearts out no matter what you wear,” said Jim Rodgers, principal contra bassoonist with the PSO, who’s now in his 16th year with the ensemble.

The 99-member, internationally esteemed orchestra, led by conductor Manfred Honeck, is more than 100 years old, and has survived economic hardships in the past. In 1926, the orchestra held a free concert, supported with donations from the musicians, just to capture the attention of the public.

More than 50 years later, the players have found themselves in a similar situation. Facing what the PSO management has deemed to be a destructive money shortage, the musicians have fought back against salary and job cuts by striking and welcoming their eclectic fan base to a series of free concerts in provisional venues.

These first-come, first-serve events began Oct. 7, at CMU’s Kresge Theatre, where the musicians played a selection of chamber pieces, ranging in size from trio to octet. The weekend’s events concluded Sunday afternoon at Pittsburgh’s Creative and Performing Arts School with a full ensemble performance.

The free concerts — which are posted on the Musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Facebook page — have brought further attention to the current contract dispute, which began in February between PSO musicians and management.

Among the changes in the latest contract proposal is a reduction in base pay from $107,000 to $91,000, a shift in pension plans to a defined contribution plan and several layoffs.

Micah Howard, the committee chairperson for PSO musicians, claims those changes would demote the world-class music corps to “minor league” status.

Howard compared those numbers to the base salary of rival Cleveland Orchestra, which is $130,000 per year, and said that these cuts would “knock [the PSO] so far out of the park.”

“Any hot player that comes out of school will be constantly trying to get out of Pittsburgh,” said Howard.

The 120-year-old orchestra, according to Howard, is comparable in quality to Pittsburgh’s sports teams and has been a “destination orchestra.”

“[Musicians] want to raise their families here,” said Howard. “That won’t be the case anymore. They’ll be thinking immediately about how to get out of the situation.”

However, Christian Schornich, chief operating officer for the PSO, said that the organization is undergoing an “extreme financial crisis” that requires the contribution of the musicians.

“We are facing a $20 million cash deficit in five years,” said Schornich. “If we don’t do something of serious nature, we have to close our doors in spring next year.”

The organization currently operates on a budget of $33 million. Factors contributing to the forecasted deficit include a $1.5 million operating deficit, a $10 million pension obligation in the next five years and $1.2 million loss of other revenue.

From the overall budget, according to Schornich, $12 million alone account for the musician’s salaries. This, along with the “extreme volatility” of the current pension plan, accounts for the proposed cuts to the musicians.

“Even after the reduction, we have an excellent compensation,” says Schornich. Further, Schornich calls the benefits that come along with compensation “absolutely exceptional.”

“We have 10 weeks paid vacation, we have 12 weeks minimum paid sick leave, we have every 10 years of paid sabbatical year for musicians, health care and retirement plans are included as well,” Schornich said.

Howard says that management is “using [the] most pessimistic numbers,” especially considering the success the orchestra has had in the past year.

“[The PSO] exceeded goals in ticket sales, and has had a record-breaking fund drive — that’s why their forecast makes no sense.”

The management acknowledged that ticket sales and the organization’s annual fund have indeed helped, but Schornich says “revenues by no means would support an orchestra of this world-class and this size.”

“[The PSO’s financial forecasts] have been reached by a thorough analysis,” said Schornich. “We are an audited organization, and there’s no reason to doubt that this is accurate forecasting.”

In addition to concerns over the financial forecasts credibility, the musicians also worry that management will only continue contract talks if the musicians first agree to pay cuts.

Literature that the musicians were passing out on Penn Avenue on Thursday, Oct. 6, said “It has become clear that it was never Management’s intention to truly negotiate.”

“The orchestra’s too important to allow it to be brought to a point where we won’t be able to say ‘no,'” said Rodgers. “As stewards of the legacy of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra we can’t allow this to happen.”

As a result of the continued disagreement, musicians who used to spend their mornings in the practice room have assembled into a glob of gold T-shirts, pacing the Penn Avenue sidewalk Downtown, with signs reading, “On Strike.”

Mateus Pinho, a first-year student at Pitt who has been playing the violin since the second grade, was in attendance at the makeshift CMU concert Friday. Despite agreeing that PSO’s management is under tight economic constraints, Pinho ultimately expressed solidarity with the musicians.

“From an economic standpoint, [PSO management] is definitely reasonable for wanting to cut, but the musicians are well worth the additional money,” he said.

Most of the public — on Facebook and through vocal support at pickets and free concerts — just want the feuding parties to get back to the table and talk it out.

“I think the musicians should sit back down and talk,” said Francis Dannenberg, 61, at Friday’s free show. “I don’t think that our musicians are overpaid. They’re world-class and they deserve every penny they’re getting and they don’t need a pay cut.”

After last week’s show, Rodgers stayed to chat with fans, including his dentist, and continued to make the case for PSO musicians. But ultimately, he reiterated what everyone, on both sides of the argument, have been saying.

“I hope that we all find a solution and we can all move forward, and get back to the music,” Rodgers added. “That’s the important thing, getting back to the music.”

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The show goes on: PSO plays free concerts during strike