Pittsburgh Symphony Harmonious, But Struggling with Debt

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The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is the example of an orchestra for which everything seemed to be going well. Last week it signed a new concertmaster, 27-year-old Noah Bendix-Balgley, who took a top prize at the 2009 Reine Elisabeth Competition and came in third at the 2008 Long-Thibaud International Competition in Paris.

In June, Pittsburgh's musicians signed a three-year contract agreement that included a 9.7% pay cut and a change in their health care plan. It was approved almost three months before the last contract expired. Lawrence Tamburri, the orchestra’s president and CEO, said that the lack of labor acrimony stemmed from a healthy institutional culture.  

“Agreeing to this is unprecedented,” he said to this reporter last month. “It’s in part because we’re transparent. [Musicians] know what we say is true so there’s a sense of credibility from our management and board side."

Now we learn that the orchestra is also in considerable debt. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports the orchestra lost about $3 million in 2009 and 2010, due in large part to flat attendance and a $1.5 million cut in state funding. Tamburri told the newspaper that he expects that a rise in ticket prices will be needed to keep the organization stable. He maintains that the current prices are among the lowest in the country for an orchestra of its size.

In facing financial troubles, Pittsburgh is hardly unique among mid-sized orchestras in the U.S. Yet it hasn't faced nearly the rancor seen at the Detroit Symphony, which experienced a crippling six-month strike last season, or the Philadelphia Orchestra, which is trying to pull itself out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Tamburri noted that since the economic downturn in 2008, the orchestra was taking steps to demonstrate a shared sacrifice, such as immediately reducing administrative staff by 11 people and instituting a two-year wage frieze. He also noted that the orchestra has negotiated lower soloist fees, in some cases, though declined to cite specific examples.

“I don’t expect things to get better quickly,” said Tamburri. “I do think that the field is in a type of transition. I don’t think anybody knows exactly what that means. It’s not the most flexible art form. That’s true. We have to focus on our perceived value in the community."