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New contract still divides CSO musicians and board

A Symphony Saved?

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In the turbulent wake of a week bursting with new developments, it appears that the Charleston Symphony Orchestra's executive board can celebrate a dubious victory of sorts. The CSO's musicians — unpaid since the orchestra shutdown last March — have spoken via their votes to accept the board's latest proposed contract, setting the budget for the rest of the current season at $1.3 million (down from $2.3 million), and to cut the core numbers down to a total of 24 players, thus eliminating the positions of at least seven permanent players who initially won their jobs in highly competitive national auditions. By outward appearances, the CSO has been "saved" — but at what cost?

As is naturally the case for any laboriously negotiated contract, the news, besides being incredibly complex, is both good and bad. Two Mondays ago, insider circles were all abuzz with word of the players' acceptance of a three-year contract. On Thursday, the unionized orchestra proposed to end litigation of their complaint to the National Labor Review Board. It alleged that last March's shutdown was illegal and they demanded back pay. It's possible that the new contract cannot be implemented until the complaint is resolved. The same day, the Future of Orchestral Music in Charleston steering committee, led by College of Charleston President George Benson and Blackbaud President Marc Chardon, issued their long-awaited report (157 pages!). And there we stand as we go to print.

As mentioned above, the new contract calls for slashing the CSO's budget by a cool million, while cutting at least seven previously permanent positions (in addition to musicians who have already lost hope and moved on), leaving a core roster of 24. Those dismissed will receive a $5,000 severance package. It further sets players' base salaries at $14,000, with more for principals. Musicians will receive health benefits as well. Both salaries and the overall budget will rise incrementally over the next two seasons. Although some players are definitely on the "out" list, the fate of other musicians slated to lose their jobs remains uncertain. That's because several prominent players who have already moved away will get first right of refusal for their former positions, and designated "alternates," now in limbo, will move into their places if they don't return.

The way in which the core structure and players' fates were determined rankles many. The string sections — the heart of any orchestra — suffered disproportionately, retaining only two players apiece in the first and second violin, viola, and cello sections, plus a single double bass. Otherwise, most major instruments will retain two players each, thus the current configuration is now heavy on brasses and woodwinds. "It's now more of a band than an orchestra," says double bassist Tom Bresnick, whose fate remains uncertain at this point. He added, "Decisions about who stays and who goes in an orchestra should be made by the artistic leadership, like the music director, not the administrative staff or board." In the wake of David Stahl's death, that position now sits vacant.

The fact remains that the players were forced to vote on acceptance of the contract knowing full well who was likely to get the axe if the "yes" votes prevailed. As violinist Brent Price, whose job was lost, puts it, "I feel as if I've been cannibalized by my colleagues." Still, he understands why many of them who are deeply invested in the community — homeowners and those married with children — felt compelled to vote for desperately needed paychecks. He pointed out that the board has played a "divide-and-conquer" card, in effect "driving a wedge between the players and pitting them against each other." This is bad news for an organization whose musical product depends on close artistic teamwork. Price adds, "This strengthens the negative precedent that the board can play this numbers game again in the future whenever it chooses to, as they now know that we're willing to fire our own."

Percussionist and frequent CSO spokesperson Ryan Leveille feels unqualified to remain a fair mouthpiece for the players, with such a diversity of opinion among them. But he advises that every effort was made to avoid such a divisive new contract. "We went to the board on several previous occasions, offering to accept much lower salaries in exchange for keeping everybody's jobs intact," he says. "But the board would have none of it and offered the new contract as a final ultimatum: the only possible alternative to bankruptcy."

Then there's the issue of musical quality: one which most of the players can agree on, no matter how they voted. Twenty-four players do not an orchestra make. Full orchestral works by major composers require at least double that number, and concerts of such music will require extensive hiring of imported freelance "subs," an unpredictable process at best. While many freelancers are excellent musicians, many are not, and there's no way of knowing whether the best of them (also the most in-demand) will be available for any given event. And it's safe to say that most of them, having never competed for orchestral jobs in national auditions, can't match the skill and musicianship of the CSO's players. Thus, both personnel and collective quality can be expected to vary considerably from concert to concert.

Hopes have been dashed, feelings have been hurt, and tempers have flared. Nobody, not even those whose jobs were spared, is happy with the current state of affairs. Some members have even voiced knee-jerk reactions to the effect that the board's contract offer should've been turned down and bankruptcy declared, hoping that a new orchestral phoenix will eventually arise from the ashes.

But perhaps wiser voices are deeply troubled about player losses but see the current contract as the best chance the CSO has to retrench and begin work toward restoring both lost positions and overall orchestral quality. And they see fresh board leadership as the starting point in the process. After all, both the players' initiative to resolve the NLRB complaint and the steering committee's report call for replacing the current board. Several prominent players are already looking ahead to new contracts in the near future, and some have even spoken of interim measures, like the staging of independent benefit concerts in the coming months to put some money in the pockets of their fallen colleagues and even fund continuing medical benefits for them.

There are many other facts, details, and gray areas to the overall situation that are beyond the scope of this article. But the main issues are here to ponder. The votes have been counted, and a new course for the CSO ­— practical or not — is being charted. Let's hope that, once tempers have cooled and ruffled feathers smoothed, we can all come to understand that almost every heart affected here is in the right place, and that we can begin to see all of this as a new beginning — the start of a healing process that will soon restore the CSO to its former strength and glory. I'm sure that's what David Stahl would've wanted.

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