The holidays are not a time for the sounds of silence.
But since Nov. 3, the Spokane Symphony Orchestra management and its musicians have sounded only notes of discord.
The musicians went on strike in response to a symphony contract proposal that included a 13 percent pay cut for its 36 “core” players, who would also have to accept limits on outside gigs that occasionally conflict with the orchestra’s schedule.
The orchestra, Spokane’s pre-eminent cultural institution, has been knocked out of tune by declining ticket sales and donations to support its $3.5 million budget. The squeeze is hardly unique to Spokane. Like-sized organizations in Syracuse, N.Y., and Honolulu have folded.
In 2006, when times were better, the Spokane Symphony and its musicians worked collaboratively to reach a four-year deal that provided for raises, and increased the number of performances. The symphony was looking forward to moving into a dazzling new home, the Fox. All was well until the recession rolled across the land.
The musicians accepted a pay freeze in 2009 and allowed the symphony to expand its season into the summer, when performances more often conflict with other commitments by musicians who have never lived off their symphony salaries alone. In fact, their livelihoods are ensembles of adjunct professorships, classroom teaching and individual lessons balanced atop the symphony salaries and benefits that induced many to move to Spokane.
The musicians say forgoing that outside income jeopardizes their survival as professional musicians.
The symphony, meanwhile, has cut administrative expenses and made every other cost-cutting measure possible. The endowment has been tapped. Without season-end contributions from major donors to cover deficits, the organization would have operated in the red the last few years. Officers say they will not allow symphony costs to exceed income. Relying on “angels” is not a permanent solution.
Nor do they want a rotating cast of players or absences that compromise what orchestra subscribers hear.
They have been frustrated, too, by the musicians’ decision to bring in a national negotiator whose agenda is not necessarily the ongoing viability of the Spokane Symphony. Instead of a collaboration, the talks became a faceoff between union negotiator and orchestra attorney.
Until this weekend. The negotiator and attorney are on the sidelines as representatives of the musicians and board look for a resolution that preserves the integrity of the orchestra and the quality of its performances, yet gives musicians opportunities not just to earn more, but also expose themselves to other players and conductors who can improve their musicianship.
Both sides say they are looking beyond this impasse to a renewal of their relationship and greater community support. A standing-room-only benefit performance at Shadle Park High School indicated there is a wellspring of good will out there.
So, today is the day to restore harmony.
No one wants a Christmas “Nutcracker” ballet with an empty orchestra pit.