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Dissecting a standoff... If all else fails, take your cause to the people: It's a romantic gesture, for sure, mailing out thousands of letters in Houston and throughout the country, each one requesting a single dollar in cash to help preserve the quality and stature of a local institution that, in many ways, is just coming into its own.

But will it do any good?
The Houston Symphony musicians' union would like to think so. For seven months, the players wrangled with bottom-liners in the Symphony Society over a five-year strategic plan designed to improve the organization's financial health. The plan involves, among other things, significant cuts in musicians' salaries, along with hiring freezes and retirement incentives that would shrink the size of the orchestra. (By how much, of course, depends on who you ask: The union says 14 out of the current 97 players could go; the society says that it's likely to be a much smaller number.) Understandably, these moves have left the musicians -- whose previous contract with symphony management expired in May -- dumbfounded, and they fear the measures will provoke a "mass exodus of talented musicians" -- although, so far, only one player, violinist Isabel Trautwein, is said to be leaving as a direct result of the imposed changes.

Certainly, union representative Dave Kirk, the symphony's principal tuba, is hoping any sort of last-ditch tactic might, by some miraculous fluke, turn the tide in the players' favor. Rationally, however, he understands the recent letter-writing effort is destined to be more symbolic than anything else. Last month, symphony president Barry Burkholder went ahead and implemented the society's strategic plan -- 7.7 percent pay cut and all -- after negotiations reached a stalemate. At best, says Kirk, the union's grassroots campaign might raise somewhere in the neighborhood of $20,000 -- a drop in the bucket when measured against the $7.1 million deficit the Symphony Society proposes to eliminate by 2002.

Evidently, though, donations are pouring in, swamping the symphony's tiny administrative staff, which has experienced its own scaling-down of late in the form of various layoffs, pay cuts and salary freezes. As a response to each donation, the symphony is sending out a rather chilly and terse thank-you letter/receipt, urging donors to "please be aware that to process and acknowledge a gift this small costs the society considerably more than the contribution." Privately, Burkholder has expressed his frustration with the union's so-called "dollar campaign," dubbing it "malicious" and "irresponsible" in a scathing August 5 letter to Kirk.

"We estimate that each of the board members is going to be receiving about 2,500 [donations]," Kirk says. "[Our] wages have now been cut to where we're next to the bottom of all the full-time American orchestras. There are 18 of them; we are 17th out of 18."

Taking into account that the average annual salary of a Houston Symphony musician will remain at a comfortable $65,836 with the cuts, it may be difficult for average working folk to sympathize with the players' plight. In that income bracket, after all, it's highly improbable that anyone will be reduced to busking on the sidewalk to make up for the loss in earnings. For its part, the society maintains that the new pay scale (with a minimum starting salary of $57,595) is comparable to other orchestras with similar budgets ($17.7 million). And when you consider the low cost of living in Houston, it is "extremely competitive," the Symphony Society maintains.

But all that is beside the point, says Kirk.
"Obviously, we're highly skilled, professional people," says the 15-year symphony veteran. "Basically, there's about 5,000 of the jobs we occupy in the country. That's a pretty limited pool, and it was pretty hard to get there. Obviously, you can get by pretty well on $56,000 a year. [But] this has been portrayed as a wage dispute. That's missing the real issue. What it finally boils down to is artistry. [That issue] doesn't get covered by the press very well because it's not as sexy as a wage dispute. It's hard to portray to the average audience."

An elitist viewpoint? Maybe. But, to an extent, it's also a realistic one. For how can any major metropolitan orchestra expect to move forward financially while placing its quality and its reputation at risk? Those two realities simply don't jibe. Over the last nine years, music director Christoph Eschenbach has boosted the status of the Houston Symphony -- once seen as a competent ensemble with a good regional reputation -- to a level of international renown; that much is a given. But whether the moves outlined in the strategic plan will cause any significant injury to the symphony's good name is open to debate, and one can easily guess who comes out on either side of it. At risk of overstating the obvious, the society believes the measures will have no ill effect, and the players overwhelmingly think otherwise. Reality, for what it's worth, is likely to fall somewhere between those two extremes.

In light of all the pliable rhetoric that's been tossed around by the warring parties, it's often difficult to gauge exactly what is going down -- let alone its implications. One thing's for sure, though: By no means is the Houston Symphony the only big-city orchestra in the nation sucked into the supposed battle between artistic integrity and financial stability. The Atlanta, San Francisco and Philadelphia symphonies are among several ensembles that have endured strikes centered around economic issues, and the San Diego Symphony filed for bankruptcy last summer. While no one is contending that the Houston Symphony is in such dire monetary straits, both sides concur that it could be down the line if steps aren't taken now.

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