Friday, September 3, 2004

Contract talks key to budget for symphony

By Janelle Gelfand and Cliff Peale
Enquirer staff writers

Negotiators for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the union representing its 99 musicians remained behind closed doors most of this week, trying to fashion a contract to replace the one that expires Sunday.

The talks are among the most difficult in memory because of the symphony's $1.8 million budget deficit over the last two years.

An anonymous gift wiped out that deficit, but the orchestra is facing increased pressure to balance the budget for the fiscal year that started Wednesday.

With the contract deadline looming, the musicians decided Wednesday to continue playing while talks are going on.

They have not voted to authorize a strike.

The new season begins Sept. 10.

The Cincinnati Pops is playing this weekend at the Blossom Festival near Cleveland.

Both sides have declined to comment on the talks. But they acknowledge that they aren't easy.

"I would characterize the talks as typical for this stage in the process," said Dan Hoffheimer, whose term as chairman of the orchestra trustees ended Tuesday. "Obviously, there are conflicting interests that have to be compromised. But both sides have the same things in mind."

The symphony is one of several nationally negotiating new musician contracts. While there is pressure to cut salaries, many are trying to cut benefits or even ask musicians to take unpaid vacation that would reduce expenses.

Many musicians here would be expected to oppose such a proposal, because that would compromise the 52-week schedule that helps attract the best artistic talent.

In 1994, the orchestra narrowly averted a strike authorized by the musicians' bargaining committee. If the new contract is not settled this month, it could endanger the orchestra's first planned European tour with music director Paavo Jarvi in late October.

For the past decade, the Cincinnati Symphony has remained the 10th-highest-paid orchestra in the nation. Under the current contract, the starting salary for orchestra musicians is $89,050, but about half make more. The top salary is $178,520 for first-chair violinist Timothy Lees.

Orchestra officials have cut expenses by eliminating programs such as the Bach & Beyond summer concert series, and tried to help the bottom line by raising ticket prices for the upcoming season an average 25 percent.

Additional cuts could include the Home for the Holidays revue, and more ticket-price increases could be on the horizon.

The two sides issued a joint statement Thursday.

"Over the years, the success of our negotiations may be credited in large part to the trust and mutual respect we have for one another," they said.

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