‘Old friends’ live another day: Musicians’ concessions save LO from bankruptcy

Mar 21, 2006 at 10:15 pm

Bob Bernhardt turned to the audience during the Louisville Orchestra BB&T Night Lites performance last Thursday at the Brown Theatre, and spoke of the musicians behind him as his “longest, oldest friends in music.”

Bernhardt, the principal pops conductor, said he has known many of them since he joined the orchestra 25 years ago. He then bowed his head and sighed before adding, “I still have enormous hope.” He referred to a possible solution to avert the Orchestra’s impending move toward Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The Brown audience responded with a standing ovation.

On Monday, Orchestra management and musicians fulfilled the hopes articulated that night in the Brown and recently by arts aficionados across the area by reaching an agreement on a five-year contract that saves the organization $1.9 million in expenses. That will be accomplished by reducing musicians’ salaries and benefits during the term beginning Sept. 1. Under the agreement, the orchestra will continue with a full contingent of 71 members while agreeing to many changes in work rules. Musicians will reduce their paid vacation time from four weeks to two, take fewer sick and personal days, and pay 20 percent of their health insurance costs. Currently they pay 1 percent.

“Recognizing what the problems were and where we want to go was very difficult,” Tim Zavadil, a clarinetist and spokesman for the musicians, said during  a press conference Monday at the Kentucky Center. While negotiations clarified the Orchestra’s financial situation, he said, it did not convince members that reducing it from 71 to 53 musicians, as management proposed, would solve the problem. “By maintaining 71 musicians in the orchestra, we will attract better musicians and a better music director,” Zavadil said.

Throughout the season, Louisville Orchestra has been considering seven candidates for the music director position. (It became vacant after the Orchestra declined to renew Uriel Segal’s contract at the end of the 2003-04 season.)

Meanwhile, the organization must raise $1.2 million before September to overcome its current deficit. Management has not decided whether all of the concerts scheduled for the 2005-2006 season will be performed.
Orchestra board president Joe Pusateri said the organization reached the brink of bankruptcy after it had run an average $800,000 annual loss over the past 15 years. It last faced bankruptcy in 2003, but that was averted in part through donations and after the musicians made several concessions in their old contact. After recognizing significant financial shortfalls last fall, management initiated early negotiations with musicians over the contract that begins this September.

The “real turning point” in the current negotiations, Pusateri said, came two weeks ago after he had a five-hour meeting with musicians. That meeting led to further talks about changing numerous work rules and the musicians’ annual base salary. The base salary will go from $34,968 for 42 work weeks this season to $25,575 for 31 weeks next season, and then rise to $34,225 for 37 weeks during the 2010-2011 season.

Pusateri added that some of those work rule changes would benefit Kentucky Opera, which spent $134,000, or 10 percent of its direct production costs, on orchestra services this year. Those services involve three orchestra rehearsals of the opera music, a rehearsal with the singers, and playing during performances. Most of the services require working longer hours at a time, Kentucky Opera General Director David Roth said, and most orchestras have unique clauses with opera companies to reflect the needs of producing operas.

Both Pusateri and Zavadil, on behalf of the musicians, pledged to rebuild the organization so this situation will never again arise.

Michael Davis, the orchestra’s concertmaster, also spoke Monday, saying Louisville Orchestra’s stature in classical music circles often goes unrecognized in Louisville, and that it’s important for the community to understand the concentrated practice that musicians put in to shape notes and play music with proper nuance. He also referred to the many concessions musicians have made in past contracts, saying, “The orchestra has given back many times over the years to this institution.”

He then painted an optimistic scenario in which the orchestra plays the “Star Spangled Banner” and “My Old Kentucky Home” at the opening of an NCAA championship game at a new arena.