Sunday, October 13, 2002

Orchestra mix of pros, amateurs

Is the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra — a mix of professionals and amateurs — a professional orchestra? Does it matter that music director J.R. Cassidy's musicians are paid below union scale?

Mr. Cassidy pays his players honorariums, not wages, complains Eugene Frey, president of Cincinnati Local No. 1, the musicians union. The union sees that musicians receive a fair wage and contributes to Social Security, Worker's Compensation, Ohio Unemployment and expenses such as parking — items that may not be provided if a player is an “independent contractor.”

“We're in business to make sure musicians are paid fairly for their efforts,” says Mr. Frey. “That's something (Mr. Cassidy) won't acknowledge.”

Arrangement not unusual

Everyone is paid at least a stipend, Mr. Cassidy says. Ever the entrepreneur, he has, on occasion, encouraged his musicians to donate their pay back to the orchestra. This year, an initiative allows musicians to boost earnings a little by selling subscriptions.

To have paid professionals and serious amateurs in the same orchestra is not an unusual arrangement, says Jack McAuliffe, vice president of the American Symphony Orchestra League, a national support organization. Some orchestras fall between fully amateur — like the Cincinnati Community Orchestra — and fully professional — like the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, in which musicians makes their primary living from the orchestra.

“We do not have terminology for professional or amateur, because so many are a hybrid in terms of how people are paid,” Mr. McAuliffe says. Of the nation's approximately 1,300 adult orchestras, only 125 to 150 have budgets of more than $1 million.

An orchestra that aspires to become more professional is a valid goal, Mr. McAuliffe says.

“Typically, there is a group of people who share the vision,” he says. “That group may be musicians in the orchestra, it may include the music director or conductor, it may include the person with administrative responsibilities, and it has to include the board. It is most likely to happen rapidly if significant portions of all four of those responsibilities share the same vision, and it's a viable vision.”

Still, the downturn in the economy could make it tougher for a small orchestra to survive.

Economy is a fear

“There's never an easy time for orchestras,” Mr. McAuliffe says. “When the economy turns tighter, it does get harder. And it's true for the large as well as the small.”

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has reservations that a growing orchestra might drain potential audience away from its own concerts, as well as money. There's the risk that local financial resources will be stretched too thin, says Daniel J. Hoffheimer, chairman of the board of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, “so that we would be left with many weak institutions instead of a fewer number of strong ones.”

“Institutions like the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Cincinnati Zoo and the (CSO) each have taken over a century to achieve their world-class level of excellence. . . . They are fragile institutions that can too easily be damaged or lost without proper care and attention,” Mr. Hoffheimer says.

Says Mr. McAuliffe: “There are those people who are strong supporters of the arts, and everybody goes to them. When the economy gets tighter those people get stretched thin.”

— Janelle Gelfand

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