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Last season's deficit was reported at $1.7 million ($400,000 more than the previous season), topping off an accumulated debt of $7.1 million. And, seeing as this is a symphony budget and not a Microsoft expense account we're talking about, a seven-figure deficit is nothing to sneeze at. Evidently, the symphony's chief donors agree. "They basically said that they weren't going to continue to give [us] money in large doses unless we balance our books," says Burkholder.

The musicians argue that they didn't create the mess and shouldn't be punished for it. Symphony administrators, they say, have come by their multimillion-dollar bank debt by choice, borrowing money for operating expenses over the past few seasons while allowing the symphony's $43 million endowment to go largely untouched. The way Kirk and the others see it, the organization is actually in its finest economic shape ever, with a plump endowment that could easily be tapped to cover the outstanding debt.

"They get substantial earnings from the endowment," Kirk says, adding that the society has been reducing its draw on its earnings in order to build up the endowment.

"From a financial standpoint that may be wise, but every time they've done that, of course, it's increased the deficit," he says. "And now, they're trying to get the money [to pay that off] from us."

As you might surmise, Burkholder paints a different financial picture, and its relative bleakness hinges on the persistently large discrepancy between revenue and expenses over the last two decades. He says the symphony had little choice but to reduce its take of earnings to 6 percent last season after endowment donors deemed the previous 78 percent too high. Put simply, the costs of employing musicians and presenting performances have almost always exceeded income from ticket sales and contributions. Moreover, Burkholder adds, depending on the endowment to pay ongoing expenses is a move that would never be condoned by the symphony's patrons, as it amounts to chipping away at the organization's nest egg and jeopardizing its future. Even so, the question remains: How fat does a endowment need to grow before its size warrants a little more dipping into for the sake of, well, artistry?

"We think it needs to be about $70 million," Burkholder replies, pointing out that an endowment of that size would provide substantial enough earnings to pay off last season's $1.7 million deficit.

If that's true, responds Kirk, "they need to go out and raise money for the endowment. That doesn't say that the musicians have to take a pay cut."

It's hard to say where Eschenbach stands, since he's studiously refused to speak on the record about the dispute. Although he had initially voiced concern over the strategic plan -- even hinting that he might leave his post if it was put into action -- the maestro recently extended his contract with the symphony through the 199899 season. Even so, Kirk is adamant about stressing that such a move should not be misinterpreted.

"They claim that he has signed off on [it]," Kirk says. "But nothing could be further from the truth. He has signed to be the conductor of the orchestra for another two years. But a lot can happen during that time."

The players, meanwhile, return to work August 21 from a four-week vacation. They'll be more disgruntled than ever, perhaps, but ready to play nonetheless. Aside from the dollar campaign and an unfair labor practices complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board in July, the musicians' union, it seems, has little planned at this point. As time wears on, the players will likely see their options narrow to a pair of obvious choices: Either a) suck it up and concede to the Symphony Society or b) take their grievances to the picket line. Not surprisingly, Kirk would rather not comment on the likelihood of either.

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