Slash in pay allows symphony to play on

Musicians agree to two-year, 15 percent cut

Staff writerMay 11, 2010 

— The musicians of the North Carolina Symphony have agreed to a 15 percent salary cut during the next two seasons to help the debt-ridden orchestra recover from the severe economic downturn, symphony officials said Monday.

The musicians' union voted last week to ratify a contract modification that will enable the financially strapped symphony to save $1 million annually in the next two years.

"It is a stunningly significant sacrifice from our 68-person orchestra," David Chambless Worters, the symphony's president and CEO, said in an interview.

"We would not be here right now without the musicians' spirit of shared sacrifice, cooperation and partnership," Worters said.

The change will mean that the base pay for a symphony musician will drop from $59,400 per year to $47,956 per year.

"No one likes to take a 15 percent pay cut," said John Ilika, principal trombone and chairman of the Orchestra Committee, the union group. "But we felt like it was a necessary thing to do, and we are doing it with our heads held up high."

Ilika said the pay cuts are a particular hardship on single wage earners and on parents. "It's a real problem."

He said many symphony members have had to take economy measures.

"I drive a '94 Saturn with 290,000 miles on it," Ilika said. "I'm living on borrowed time. I'm making it last as long as I can."

On the plus side, Ilika said, the administration has made a big effort to include the musicians in their efforts to make the organization more effective.

Although he is not part of the musicians' contract, star Welsh conductor Grant Llewellyn has agreed to a 10 percent pay cut, reducing his annual salary from $206,975 to $186,278.

Reducing spending

The N.C. Symphony, like orchestras across the country, has struggled with sharply declining revenues during the deep recession. It has reduced its annual operating budget from $14.1 million to $11.6 million for the year that ends June 30 through a series of austerity measures - cutting salaries, postponing expensive guest artists and declining to perform more elaborate pieces of music.

Last year, the symphony's management asked the musicians to reopen their existing contract to take a one-year cut of their compensation of 17 percent for the 2009-10 season. The salary cuts were made largely by reducing their contracts six weeks from 43 weeks to 37 weeks.

In April, the symphony's management asked the five-member Orchestra Committee, Local 500 of the American Federation of Musicians, to once again to reopen negotiations. Under the modified contract, the musicians will work 38 weeks in 2010-11 and 39 weeks in 2011-12.

Years of debt await

The cuts will result in a 19 percent savings in total compensation, including benefits, from the existing contract, Worters said.

Worters said the symphony is now projected to break even for the first time in several years for the fiscal year that ends June 30. But he said the organization was still saddled with more than $3 million in debt borrowed from its line of credit to operate during the past several years. It will take several years to get out of the red.

He said the symphony has raised $6.6 million of its $8 million goal that it needs to claim $1.5 million in matching state money that the legislature last year agreed to put up.

A fundraiser is planned June 8 at Meymandi Hall featuring saxophonist Branford Marsalis and other jazz musicians.

About the symphony

The North Carolina Symphony is one of 50 major orchestras in the country. Although based in Raleigh, it holds concerts around the state and has a major educational mission through North Carolina schools.

The symphony gets about 40 percent of its budget from individual and corporate donations, 30 percent from ticket sales, 20 percent from legislative appropriations and 10 percent from other sources such as local government grants and endowment earnings.

rob.christensen@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4532

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