Orchestra Extends “Final Offer” to Players While Opera Talks End

by Gabe Bullard on October 20, 2011

The Louisville Orchestra and the Kentucky Opera have each taken firm stands against the local musicians union.

Orchestra management has given the players what they call the final offer for a new contract. It calls for any musicians who are currently in Louisville to be signed to a new contract, with an agreement that enough players will quit or retire by 2013 for the orchestra to only have 55 members.

The management and musicians have spent the last year debating how many players were necessary for a financially sustainable and aesthetically successful orchestra. Last month, the management proposed a contract that would hire 54 musicians, then add one more in subsequent years. The musicians countered with an offer to sign 57 players and add three more in later seasons. They said the offer would allow all the musicians from the previous season who haven’t left town for other work to play for the orchestra.

The management rejected that offer, but has put forward a new proposal.

“We’ll take everybody who stands ready to work,” says Orchestra CEO Robert Birman. “We will take every musician who is here, but [the musicians] haven’t told us what that number is.”

However, the offer stipulates that the orchestra will shrink to 55 players by June 1, 2013 “through attrition and retirements,” according to Birman.

Birman has long said an orchestra larger than 55 players is not affordable. If the offer is accepted, management will seek additional donations to temporarily hire the additional musicians.

“I think it’s best and most likely to get that support if there’s a guarantee built into the agreement that we will one day have a right-sized organization,” says Birman.

If the musicians don’t accept the offer by Friday at 4:00, the management will seek replacement players. That will be difficult, since the orchestra is on the American Federation of Musicians’ unfair list. Any players who perform for the orchestra would face severe penalties and fines. Birman declined to speak about the potential search for a new orchestra.

“We’re not going to spend a lot of time talking about hypotheticals,” says.

A call to the musicians’ representative was not returned.

But even if the offer is accepted, the management has not secured donors to pay for additional players.

“I think it’s best and most likely to get that support if there’s a guarantee built into the agreement that we will one day have a right-sized organization,” says Birman.

Birman previously told WFPL that long impasses damage the orchestra’s reputation and lead to reduced audiences. Musicians negotiating committee chair Kim Tichenor also told WFPL that the orchestra’s relevancy is at stake in the current contract negotiations.

Those negotiations have stretched into the current season and concerts have been canceled through the end of the year. When asked if he’d like to change anything about the way talks have progressed, Birman said he wishes a deal could’ve been struck before last year’s bankruptcy declaration so the orchestra could adjust to the “new normal:” a combination of economic and entertainment circumstances that’s led to the orchestra’s current state.

When asked if an orchestra is part of the new normal, Birman said yes, but “that decision will rest with the community.”

The Kentucky Opera has also ceased its negotiations with the players. Last month, opera management signed orchestra musicians to a shorter version of their orchestra contract for performances of Carmen. Director David Roth says that was a last-minute deal that cost $33,000 more than necessary. Roth offered the players a leaner per-performance contract for next month’s run of the Marriage of Figaro, which the players rejected.

Opera management released a statement saying they seek other musicians for next month’s performances. That will also be difficult, though the opera is not on the unfair list. Director Roth previously said the opera might use pianos instead of a pit orchestra.

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