Colorado Symphony Musicians Agree to Pay Cuts While Board Flees

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Since 2008, pay cuts have moved through the orchestra business like an endless timpani roll, with one ensemble after another agreeing to reductions or freezes as they seek to help meet shortfalls in funding. In Pittsburgh it was 10 percent. Baltimore 12.5 percent. Detroit 23 percent.

On Friday the Colorado Symphony musicians voted to accept emergency cuts of their own – totaling nine percent – but not before a full two thirds of the orchestra’s board of directors resigned, apparently tired of the musicians’ unwillingness to move quickly enough.

The vote came after a report by the CSO board acknowledged a $1.2 million debt at the end of the 2010-2011 fiscal year (on an operating budget of $12 million). The musicians’ pay cut represents over half a million dollars in revenue for the CSO. According to an orchestra press release, members of the administrative staff have also agreed to unspecified cuts. (A representative for the musicians did not respond to requests for comment.)

Originally set to take place last Tuesday, the musicians postponed the pay cut vote to Friday, after being given a little over 72 hours to approve the measure. It is unknown if any of the 20 board members will return following the proposal’s ultimate passage; so far none have.

While ticket sales increased nearly 19 percent last season, from $4.55 million in 2009-10 to $5.4 million in 2010-11, the financial report providing the impetus for Friday’s vote concluded the CSO “faces a high probability of demise within the next two years.”

Beyond its financial woes, the organization faces additional challenges. Following the departure of Marin Alsop in 2005, Jeffrey Kahane’s departure as Artistic Director in 2010 has left the orchestra without a public face. A hugely galvanizing force to any arts organization, the right choice in an artistic director could add significant momentum to a financial turn around, and play a hand in smoothing relations between musicians and management.

In November of 2007, Denver voters approved $60 million dollars to be awarded towards the refurbishment of the CSO’s current Boettcher Concert Hall. The money was part of a $550 million bond issue, contingent on the symphony itself raising $30 million, a goal the organization failed to reach.

The pay cuts are not the first the CSO musicians have faced. In 2009, their pay was docked 24 percent, from approximately $54,000 to a little over $41,000.

CSO is not alone in its challenges, of course, as many orchestras face dwindling ticket sales and donations in the sluggish economy. While salaries are in flux, simply cutting some of the orchestra’s ranks isn’t exactly an option – by definition the ensemble must be large and requires many sections. The approach of moving all orchestra musicians to a per-engagement payment system may save money, but musicians contend it would have a detrimental effect on artistic quality.