Hartford Symphony, Musicians Settle Dispute After Drawn-Out Public Battle

Hartford symphony union agrees to major cuts to save the symphony

HARTFORD — Its money problems are not over, but the vote by Hartford Symphony Orchestra's board Tuesday – after musicians' vote Monday to accept significant wage cuts — means that a major institution will continue to be part of the region's cultural landscape.

Participants and observers of the bitter, seven-month public dispute between HSO management and the American Federation of Musicians appeared relieved at the resolution, in the form of a four-year contract.

Mayor Luke Bronin said he was thankful "to everyone whose commitment and sacrifice made it possible for Hartford to remain a center of creative, groundbreaking, professional symphonic music."

Steve Wade, an oboist, said that some musicians cried as they spoke during four hours of discussion Sunday night, while others expressed anger, before voting on management's offer. He declined to say what the vote tally was, but said it was not unanimous.

"The vote reflects that we want to be on stage for a long time," Wade said.

Steven Collins, HSO director of artistic operations and administration, said it had been "very, very difficult for the musicians and frankly, for us, too."

"I think we have to earn each others' trust and respect," Collins said, adding that he believes that will come in time. "Everybody wants the same thing — a strong, vital HSO doing great work."

Most immediately, the orchestra has four concerts, beginning Thursday night, which will allow audiences to compare three candidates for a part-time assistant conductor job. Tickets are available for $42 Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and $39 on Thursday, less for patrons younger than 40.

Wade, who is entering his 20th year with the symphony, said management's final offer was slightly more generous than one offered earlier this month. At the lowest point, management was suggesting that the core musicians — those called on most often — would have about $14,000 worth of work. The American Federation of Musicians local agreed to a contract that pays $1,287 more a year than that, but is still 33 percent less than musicians were paid last year. The middle tier of musicians will earn 9 percent less than before, or about $12,500; the least-required musicians took an 18 percent reduction, to about $5,400 annually.

The musicians' cuts will begin as soon as the contract is signed, but this year's reductions will be for just part of the year. The contract extends through the end of June 2019.

Collins said the wage concessions will reduce what had been a projected $900,000 deficit in 2016 to about $500,000. He said management also has a plan to cut $350,000 in overhead and to raise an additional $350,000 annually. The orchestra raised $2.5 million last year.

"This is definitely a challenge. We cannot do this alone. We need the community's support," Collins said. "This agreement we've come to conclusion with the AFM, it's not a silver bullet, it's one piece of the puzzle."

Collins said he did expect that the combination of the overhead cuts and the wage cuts would make fundraising somewhat easier, because donors don't want to support a charity that seems to be living beyond its means.

Collins said although it was encouraging to hear so clearly that the community wants a strong local symphony, he said, "We need them to attend concerts, consider donating to the annual fund."

Wade said that listening to his colleagues Sunday filled him with admiration. He heard "such passion for the arts."

"I have never been prouder of the people I work with," he said. "I think the orchestra has never sounded better."

Conductor Carolyn Kuan publicly announced last week that she would take a cut commensurate to what the musicians will be taking — but whether that's 33 percent, $8,000, or some other amount, Collins said he couldn't say. Kuan's salary in 2013, according to tax forms that charities file, was just over $154,000, although she also received $24,240 in nontaxable benefits, including the cost of renting her apartment, automobile rental and travel costs. Kuan, who became the symphony's 10th music director in 2011, signed a six-year contract that begins in June.

After the Battle of the Batons, the orchestra is presenting Love Notes, which pairs opera, ballet and major classical pieces such as Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," with dancers, puppetry and a Scottish artist being flown in to do live drawing as the music plays.

Collins pointed to Love Notes as the kind of innovative presentation that could reach "a broader audience than quote, unquote, traditional classical music."

"It's always a fine line between maintaining a traditional audience, folks that want a traditional concert experience, and reaching out to engage people who are maybe wanting a different experience," he said.

He said he hopes in that future seasons The Bushnell can develop programming that will go beyond the minimum guarantees in the union contract.

Copyright © 2018, CT Now
28°