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American Orchestras Face Financial Difficulties

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The American orchestral scene has been anything but harmonious of late. As the Detroit Symphony Orchestra enters the eighth week of their grueling strike, two other orchestras recently took significant belt-tightening steps.

Musicians in the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra ratified a new two-year contract last week that cuts players’ employment from 52 weeks to 45. The new agreement also reduces their base pay for the current season by 13.5 percent.

The current agreement, adopted five years ago, expired July 31. It was agreed that the new contract would be for two years, allowing for a review of the FWSO’s financial situation in 2012 and the possibility of reinstating the pay cuts.

Meanwhile, contract talks between the Louisville Orchestra and its musicians have hit a sour note. Musicians released a statement last week contending that they have been asked to cut the number of contracted players from 71 to 55, and for the remaining musicians to accept lower pay. They also say they’ve been asked by the orchestra’s administration to play a shorter season, from 37 weeks to 31.

The musicians' union said the orchestra was threatening bankruptcy if the union did not agree to significant cuts and concessions. Speaking to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Robert Birman, the orchestra's chief executive officer, disputed the claims in the statement, but would not comment further on negotiations or the orchestra's financial health. The orchestra's troubles come on the eve of its 75th anniversary year.

Across the U.S., arts groups have seen attendance and donations slip over the last two years. Endowment values are rising in some quarters, but many lost significant income when the stock market went south.

The Detroit strike, which began October 4, is being closely watched, with no sign of either side being ready to concede. At issue are proposed pay cuts of about 30 percent and changes in work rules that would broaden the definition of the players’ jobs. So far it has led to the cancellation of 27 concerts. It is feared that where Detroit goes first, other cash-strapped cities may follow.