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Salvaging a symphony

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Contrary to what my father used to say, you don't always get what you pay for. Sometimes you get much more. The SA Symphony — and San Antonio — are getting a hell of a deal with the rates paid musicians in our soon-to-be 75-year-old orchestra. As the 2011-12 season approaches its finale, the Bruckner Blockbuster this Friday and Saturday (June 1-2), attendees of recent symphony concerts have received a little extra item, a handout with the words: "A Message from the Musicians of YOUR San Antonio Symphony" on its cover. Inside, the brochure points out that while orchestra musicians in Houston and Dallas are paid respectively $80,000 and $82,000 a year, SASO players receive $30,000 per season. But San Antonio is an ever-polite town. Instead of publicly haranguing management, the pamphlet endorses the mayor's SA2020 plan and its emphasis on the arts, and calls for an endowment fund drive to support the symphony. 

Last week Bruce Ridge, chairman of the players' organization, the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM), stopped in town. Over drinks at the Esquire Tavern (I suggested he try one of their signature cocktails, the Bittersweet Symphony), the labor organizer and double-bass player in the North Carolina Symphony made a few comments that perked my ears up.

"I hear orchestras all over the world, from San Juan to Honolulu, and the San Antonio Symphony is truly one of the finest orchestras in the country," said Ridge. "They are artistically outstanding, but I wonder if people here know they have that talent in residence." Part of the problem, insists Ridge, is national, and comes from within the industry itself. "If you have money to give, and you find a group saying they are not sustainable and have to change their model — why would you give your money?" he asked. "Businesses with far less to offer that have mastered the tool of messaging have learned how to market drivel, and we have not effectively learned how to market masterpieces." And what of the common perception that audiences for arts organizations — from museums to orchestras — are graying, dying out? "In 1969 Time magazine ran an article saying that America would lose a third to half of its orchestras in the next decade," said Ridge. "It didn't happen. I was in the lobby of the NY Philharmonic a couple of years ago during a concert, and there were so many young people that afterwards I found myself wandering the streets of New York wondering how we could change the concert experience to make sure we still appeal to the older generation. It's anecdotal, but yes, I see younger people." A new contract asking SA Symphony musicians to accept an $8,000 pay cut was turned down by the players' negotiating committee last fall.*  (The U.S. poverty level is $22,350.)  As the 2011-2012 symphony season comes to an end, contract negotiations continue.

* The original text stated incorrectly that the contract offer was "turned down by local ICSOM representatives." Contracts are negotiated by a committee of symphony members who are members of the Musicians Union, Local 23, AFM (American Federation of Musicians).

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