Lexington Philharmonic, musicians at odds over new contract

rcopley@herald-leader.comMarch 7, 2013 

Music director Scott Terrell conducted the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini " on Sept. 14, 2012. Photo by Rich Copley | staff.

RICH COPLEY — Lexington Herald-Leader Buy Photo

Add the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra to the list of American orchestras that have run into difficult contract negotiations between management and musicians.

In negotiations that have been going on since April, Philharmonic Orchestra Committee chair Dave Shelton said musicians are concerned overall with a reduction in the number of performances they are getting to play. They also have specific concerns with a proposed non-compete clause for musicians contracted by the orchestra and the removal of a peer-review process for musicians' dismissal and demotion.

Philharmonic board chair Gregory K. Jenkins, who is leading negotiations for orchestra management, said most of the sticking points are related to fiscal and artistic changes that the orchestra must consider in renegotiating its agreement with musicians.

Shelton said, "We're concerned that management is following the spiral downward, and that by offering less full orchestra music to the community, it will be more difficult to raise the money that they need. Our biggest fear is that the Lexington Philharmonic is on a fast track to becoming irrelevant in Lexington."

Since the arrival of music director Scott Terrell in 2009, the orchestra has reduced the number of main-stage classical concerts it presents at the Singletary Center for the Arts. In the just announced 2013-14 season, there are six Singletary Center concerts plus a performance of Handel's Messiah at the Cathedral of Christ the King. During the tenure of the previous music director, George Zack, who retired in 2007, the orchestra routinely presented eight main-stage concerts a year.

A larger issue, Shelton said, is that the orchestra is presenting more smaller works that don't require the forces of 70 to 80 musicians that used to populate the Singletary stage.

Jenkins said, "We've been doing more innovative programming, looking at more contemporary music, new venues, and as a result of that, we have seen an uptick in our audience numbers in our subscriber base. From 2010 to 2012, our subscriber base is up 41 percent."

Since Terrell's arrival, the orchestra has received generally good notices from observers, including Herald-Leader music critics.

Jenkins said that was a turnaround from declining audiences for full-orchestra concerts a few years before.

Nathan Kahn, a negotiator for the American Federation of Musicians who is taking over representing the Philharmonic musicians from a retiring colleague, said that defies national trends.

"If you look at orchestras across the country, orchestras that bring in the crowds are doing the big pieces," said Kahn, who represented Philharmonic musicians in negotiating their 2004 contract. "Audiences do want to hear the big pieces like Tchaikovsky and Brahms."

Since July 1, the musicians have been working under the terms of their previous contract, which went into effect July 1, 2008, and expired June 30. Musician contracts have generally been renegotiated every four years.

Some negotiations have been stickier than others, all parties said. But the non-compete clause and peer-review issue were new and particularly concerning to musicians, Shelton said.

The non-compete clause, according to information supplied by Shelton, says: "Musicians who accept an individual contract from the Lexington Philharmonic agree to not participate in services of an orchestral nature with more than 20 musicians, within a 30-mile radius of Lexington, that do not provide working conditions and wages equal to or more beneficial to the musician than those outlined in this agreement."

Philharmonic musicians often play in ensembles for groups including the Lexington Singers and Lexington Bach Choir as well as local churches.

"That was one that literally made our jaws drop," Shelton said. "We can't accept the non-compete clause that they proposed. ... It is a deal breaker."

Kahn said, "In 35 years in this business, I have never seen anything like this."

Jenkins said the proposal was made in response to organizations, specifically the Kentucky Christmas Chorus, that were declining to hire the Philharmonic and then employing a pick-up orchestra that included Philharmonic musicians at a lower rate.

"If that's the case, their beef is with the other organization, not the musicians," Kahn said.

In the peer-review issue, management is seeking to move to a position where the peer-review board that used to evaluate musicians cited for demotion or dismissal is advisory and without any actual authority.

"That's something that's changing across the industry," Jenkins said. "Is it appropriate for the orchestra to have veto power over what the employer may think about a certain employee's artistic ability?"

Kahn said a majority of orchestras have a peer-review process.

The disagreements put the Philharmonic in league with many other American orchestras experiencing heated negotiations in a changing economic and cultural environment. The Louisville Orchestra's musicians just signed a new contract after three years of negotiations and a strike.

At this point regarding the Philharmonic, all parties said they are hopeful that they can work through the issues without any work stoppage.

"The bottom-line issue is we want to play," Shelton said. "But these issues are a real concern."

The next round of negotiations have not been scheduled, parties said, but are expected to be sometime in April.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: copiousnotes.bloginky.com.

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