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.

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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