Music News & Reviews

Differing visions for Philharmonic lead to contract stalemate

Conductor Scott Terrell and the Lexington Philharmonic as well as the Lexington Singers performed at the patriotic concert at Transylvania in 2012. The Philharmonic has been a fixture at the event.
Conductor Scott Terrell and the Lexington Philharmonic as well as the Lexington Singers performed at the patriotic concert at Transylvania in 2012. The Philharmonic has been a fixture at the event. Herald-Leader

After more than a year of negotiations, the musicians of the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra have not signed a new contract, saying they are concerned about the direction of the group under music director Scott Terrell.

The orchestra has received steady audience support and reviews that have been positive to glowing since Terrell took the baton in the summer of 2009. But musician representatives say they are troubled by diminishing performance opportunities and a perceived preference for hiring out-of-town musicians over local players with long histories with the Philharmonic.

The musicians' contract with the Philharmonic is renegotiated every four years; the bargaining has not made news in well over a decade. Most parties involved acknowledge they have become more contentious this time because it is the first contract to be negotiated since Terrell became the music director, succeeding George Zack, who held the post for 37 years.

In the last contract negotiations, in 2008, the musicians received a 12 percent pay raise. But musician representative Dave Shelton says that has been more than offset by fewer opportunities to perform for many of the musicians.

"Not only are we making less, but we are not playing with each other and for our audience as often," Shelton wrote in an email. "Being a member of the LexPhil was never about money for us — this is why we are unhappy. How can we be expected to play well together when we rarely see each other?"

Philharmonic executive director Alison Kaiser says the size of the orchestra has not been reduced but acknowledges the number of musician services have decreased over the past few years due to a variety of factors including financial constraints and artistic decisions to program works that require fewer musicians.

"We are sympathetic to the concerns of the orchestra members," Kaiser said. "But we have to do that through the lens of our responsibility to the public."

Artistic differences

The conflict is different from those that have bedeviled orchestras around the country that have experienced strikes, bankruptcies and even closures, particularly during the recession. The issues in Lexington appear to be more artistic.

At the heart of the conflict that first became public in March is a tension between what the orchestra has been and where Terrell is taking it.

Kaiser said the orchestra has been trying to innovate in its programming to appeal to broader audiences, a move that sometimes requires fewer musicians.

Shelton says a "full orchestra" is considered more than 60 musicians. In recent seasons the Philharmonic has frequently played with fewer players, including February's presentation of the Ástor Piazzolla tango opera María de Buenos Aries, which employed only 13 instrumental musicians, a number of them not being regular orchestral musicians.

Since Terrell's second season with the Philharmonic, the annual performance of Messiah has been with a small Baroque-style orchestra at area churches, which is how Terrell says he prefers to present Messiah.

Since Terrell is not involved in contract negotiations, he did not want to comment for this story, Kaiser said.

"We want to play the masterworks of the repertoire in full orchestral concerts and be afforded dignity and respect by management," said Dave Shelton, Philharmonic Orchestra Committee chair. He and Nathan Kahn, a negotiator for the American Federation of Musicians, which is representing the Philharmonic musicians, say fewer programs with smaller orchestras is depriving Central Kentucky audiences of a full-orchestral experience.

Kaiser contends the Philharmonic is giving Lexington an orchestra that is trying to lead in a changing classical music landscape.

"This is an orchestra that did the same kind of programming for decades, and now it's going through change, and that can be hard," Kaiser said. "Not doing new things would expose us to unacceptable long-term risks.

"What we are doing is trying different programming, venues, concepts and repertoire to engage a broader audience. But there is no playbook for this."

Divisions remain

Orchestra management and musicians began negotiating in April 2012 for a new contract to replace the one that expired in June. The latest discussions came the weekend after the Philharmonic's season-finale concert, May 10. Khan says progress was made on some issues such as mileage reimbursements for musicians.

But the orchestra and musicians remain sharply divided over broader issues.

Probably the most divisive issue is a "non-encroachment" clause that would preclude Philharmonic musicians from playing "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."

The orchestra management, in a written statement, said, "The proposal is not intended to impact musicians playing for weddings, churches or community organizations." The proposal is to protect the Philharmonic from being outbid by its own members when third-party groups are seeking to contract orchestras, the statement reads.

"I have never seen anything like this, in all my years working with orchestras," Kahn said.

Musicians say the non-compete or non-encroachment clause — depending on who you talk to — could limit their opportunities to play at the same time they say their performance opportunities with the Philharmonic are being cut.

"That is an enormous issue to a freelance musician just trying to pay rent," said Tina Simpson, a Philharmonic violinist who is also involved in the contract negotiations.

"We won't sign a contract with a non-compete," Shelton said.

'Full orchestra'

The most enduring issue in the negotiations has been a reduced number of performances of large-scale classical pieces that involve a "full orchestra" of 60 or more musicians, Shelton said. The move has hurt orchestra cohesion, he said, and has delivered a financial hit to many musicians who have seen their number of concerts cut. All Philharmonic musicians play on a per-service basis.

Shelton said that since the end of Zack's tenure in 2008, the average annual pay for Philharmonic musicians has dropped from about $5,000 to around $3,000. Overall, in an analysis Shelton says orchestra management provided him, total compensation to musicians by the Philharmonic has dropped from $462,644 in Zack's final full season of 2006-07, to $337,000 in the most recent season.

The musicians want a new contact to guarantee five full-orchestra concerts a year in its first year and eight by the end of the contract. Kaiser said 70 percent of next seasons concerts will reach that full-orchestra threshold, but she rejected the idea of writing musician numbers into the contract.

"We plan to continue to program large orchestral works," Kaiser said. "They are part of the classical canon and great music that builds curiosity for more great music. But as we build a musical organization, we have to respond to changing needs.

"What we don't see as healthy is writing repertoire into contracts," Kaiser said. "That does not give us flexibility."

Hiring outside Lexington

Another change chafing the musicians has been the hiring of players for parts not usually in the orchestra or to substitute for absent musicians. Shelton said they are seeing a trend away from using Lexington musicians.

Exhibit A for the musicians union has been the hiring of a Cincinnati-area saxophonist James Bunte for the May 10 performance over Miles or Lisa Osland, married Lexington saxophonists who usually play when the Philharmonic needs that instrument.

"We certainly were insulted," Lisa Osland said Thursday.

Kaiser declined to discuss that specific situation, but noted that a number of regular Philharmonic players hail from the Cincinnati area. She said 75 percent of the musicians who play with the Philharmonic are from Kentucky and 25 percent are from outside the state.

Musician representatives say it is a waste of resources to pay for players to come in from places as far away as Chicago or Washington, which Shelton cities as a troubling trend, but Kaiser said they are all paid the same rate, none are flown in and there is a cap on mileage reimbursement.

Positive reviews

Despite the conflict between management and musicians, LexArts President and CEO Jim Clark said the Philharmonic had a positive review by the united arts fund's allocations committee earlier this month. In the most recent round of allocations from LexArts' annual Fund for the Arts, the orchestra received $165,000 in general operating support, the largest grant the fund gave.

"The grants committee was very pleased with the management as well as the artistic direction," Clark said. Observing ticket sales, he added, "From our perspective, the community is voting with its feet."

Both parties interpret ticket sales figures differently. They have generally remained steady since 2007, but there was a bump in attendance during the two-year search for a new music director from 2007 to 2009.

The average tickets sold per concert in the orchestra's premier MasterClassics series of 2012-13 was 1,110, down slightly from 2011-12 but up slightly over Zack's last full season as music director.

In recent years, the orchestra has touted subscription sales increases as evidence of its success. A chart provided by the Philharmonic shows 611 subscriptions sold in Zack's final season and a high of 1,080 in the 2011-12 season. There were 932 subscriptions in the just-completed season.

There is a marked decline in overall ticket sales for other series, including family concerts, and the orchestra no longer offers pops concerts, which drew an average of 510 patrons in Zack's final year, the last year of the series.

What's next?

A next round of negotiations has not been set, and neither party said they see an immediate possibility of a work stoppage.

"We want to play, that's why we're doing this," Shelton said. "We've seen what's happened in other cities, and we don't want that here."

LexArts' Clark said, "It doesn't do anybody any good to feel like so much negative energy is surrounding good performances. And regardless of what tensions are there, they are playing really good music."