Pittsburgh Symphony is ‘at critical crossroad’

Pittsburgh Symphony is ‘at critical crossroad’


norman lebrecht

August 30, 2016

The orchestra has posted a $1.5m deficit and its new president Malia Tourangeau says it is running low on donors. The musicians’ contract expires next week.

There’s a looming $10m hole in the pension fund and the Heinz Hall lacks basic cabling for HD streaming.

Everything needs an upgrade. Report here.

pittsburgh heinz hall


  • Nick says:

    The mind just boggles at how so many Boards of American performing companies and their elected officials allow massive overspending year after year after year! And only when they reach crisis proportions are alarm bells rung. True, deficits can arise as a result of failing to achieve income targets – but as often as not this is a result of cloud-cuckoo optimism in getting budgets to balance instead of going and and marketing the hell out of the product. If budgets are unrealistic, CEOs and Boards should throw them out until income and expenditure can match with a reasonable degree of certainty.

    And why is it that these same people happily let musicians’ contracts expire without renewal at a far earlier stage? Perhaps it is a desire of Boards just to let a contract come to an end in the expectation of lesser terms and conditions being agreed. Whatever, the risks of extended lock-outs or strikes and their resultant PR battles and donor dissatisfaction must surely have an even greater effect, certainly in the short to medium term.

    • JOHN NEMARIC says:

      I live in Pittsburgh and have followed the PSO story for many years and, sadly, totally agree with you. This is the standard PSO practice ever since the 1975 orchestra strike. The symptoms basically the same and the results always the same.

      The savior’s (Malia Tourangeau – the pres) job seems to be to protect the administration and all their privileges while squeezing the orchestra for all they dream about…the dream being an non-union orchestra. Divide and conquer is their goal.

      Keep an eye on short terms developments and long term repercussions beyond Pittsburgh. This is the shape of things to come to quote a famous movie.

      • Roger says:

        The trouble for musicians is that American and world music schools are turning out thousands of great player who would love to have PSO chairs–for a lot less money. Detroit players took a huge cut a few years back. It’s a market thing. Every current orchestra musician could resign but the music would go on, possibly at an even higher level, if that even matters, played by their replacements–without a lapse in the schedule, I might add.

        It’s the times we’re living in and we have to accept change.

        • Fred Lasiter says:

          It’s a little like sports, though, isn’t it? I’m American, so I’ll use this analogy… Why in the world is Tom Brady payed so much to play quarterback? After all, my local college is pumping out plenty of quarterbacks that would just love to play in the NFL for far less money. Time to accept the way things are, Tom Brady.

          • Roger says:

            Do I detect a note of sarcasm? If I do, then, we’re not talking about winners and losers here and the Big Biz that pro sports is. We’re talking about nuances in the quality of performance that most listeners–and donors–don’t get. Yes, there is luck in football, but few who can do what Brady has done for years in the NFL. He will not be as easily replaced as virtually every musician in every top-tier orchestra. There is a glut, and that’s a great thing. Maybe orchestras should take their Brahms Symphonies to the orchestra gridiron. PDQ Bach might have been onto something, if you’re familiar with his spoof of the oboe cadenza in Beethoven’s 5th.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    Would HD streaming be a significant source of revenue for them if they had it?

    I hope that’s not taking priority over paying the musicians.

  • Concerned Citizen says:

    Funny how these ‘crises’ always seem to come up right around contract renegotiation time, though… Let’s all blame those greedy home-owning, local-tax-paying, community-enriching musicians. They’re the real problem.

    • Roger says:

      I think boards simply get tired of prying gargantuan sums of money out of donors, and especially when doing so gets harder and harder and also when they’re aware that, for the ends they’re trying to achieve, it may not be necessary. The Detroit board did that and the upshot was they gave the players a take it or leave it offer. Many left the orchestra and now, at a lower cost to the board, the orchestra still sounds spectacular. Unfortunately, for great musicians, that’s just the way it is–take it, or no job and no orchestra. The new American job scenario. A cynic might see it as being extortion.

      • iamamalted says:

        Poor, poor donors! (Yes, sarcasm alert!!!) The newspapers and writers on economics tell us that all increased economic gains have gone to the very top wealth stratum in the past thirty-five years, and yet the wealthy in each city can’t afford to pay their orchestral musicians (or other workers, for that matter) enough to keep them and their families in the same housing, health care, education and pensions that they could thirty-five years ago? A bad joke, it seems to me.

  • Skeptical says:

    If the situation is so dire in Pittsburgh and the major orchestras of the United States in general, how come we only see news of their imminent financial ruin around contract negotiation times?

    • Roger says:

      If you have a friend on the board, you could ask them. I think it’s a great question.

      • JOHN NEMARIC says:

        The PSO just like many other US orchestras and institutions claim for one reason or another to be “non profit” organizations. Interestingly enough, it seems like “non profit” organizations are always, almost always, in a perennial state called “red.” Seldom we hear them being in the “black” or to have a surplus.

        Here in Pittsburgh the health program called UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center) is a “non profit” health insurance organization. They have an incredible surplus every year apparently and they pay very little in taxes. Their surplus is not used to reduce the price of their services but it’s used for R&D and they go in their merry way with no consequences at all.

        And why is that you may ask. Well, and this is a so called hypothetical, suppose the PSO or the CSO, or the “blip” organization, has a surplus and they come to be to ask for a BIG donation. The logical and most frequent answer (I’m sure) will be: you are asking me for more $$$ and you have a surplus? You must be joking!!!

        Consequently, here in the US, these organizations ALWAYS are on the red otherwise they would never get a dime out of anybody. It pays to be on the red especially when a new contract is to be negotiated. As far as I know UPMC never solicits for donors because of their “surplus.”

        More analogies. Why don’t we have an orchestra draft once a year just like sports have it? That would solve the problem. Pay so much according to the importance or significance of the instrument…the tuba and the viola section will get the least $$$ for sure…give a contract for four years and then at the end draft another player who will be willing to play/perform for less…ad infinitum.

        I am talking about FAIR MARKET VALUE !!!

        Fair warning: if that becomes the new system hence no unions, the performers managers (lawyers of course) would reap most of the benefits. Why everybody hates lawyers so much? Though somewhat less than police!

        Please consider this novel and radically innovative business model. Thank you.

  • Roger says:

    IMO, any American worker who works as long and as hard as a PSO musician to gain the skills necessary to do his/her job as well as they do deserves the recognition that a high salary and job security give them. Any worker. If we don’t value that, then let’s just turn the whole work force into a TEMP one and watch America go down the tubes even faster than it already is. I think people/entities able to give large sums of money so our arts institutions can thrive are morally and socially bound to do so. Call it a quid pro quo. We help you get rich; you help us enjoy our arts and culture at the highest levels. We all benefit.

  • Dana says:

    The idea that the musicians of the PSO are replaceable is a bit problematic for two reasons.

    1. The union which represents the PSO musicians – the American Federation of Musicians – is a national one, which means that any reasonably qualified musician the PSO might try to hire as a replacement musician is represented by the same union they’re trying to avoid bargaining with by attempting to hire replacement musicians in the first place. The union tends to frown on its members responding to these sorts of hiring strategies.

    2. The musicians of the Pittsburgh Orchestra really are exceptional musicians. Speaking as a professional musician, I have no shame at all in saying that they are much much better than I am, and I am one of those “thousands of great players” you cite (my degrees came from institutions which regularly rank in the top five of the who’s who list of conservatories). Frankly, I have too much respect for the musicians of the PSO to pretend that I belong there, and if you really think that level of music making might even be higher with replacement musicians, you need to get your ears checked. Each one of these musicians is a living work of art. What you’re suggesting is the equivalent of a museum curator auctioning off all of his van Goghs and replacing them with the latest products of the top art schools of the day. There would still be art there, but to suggest that it might even be better off this way is an insult to the terrific work currently being done by the terrific musicians there.

    • Roger says:

      Two things you may not know: 1) Musicians in an orchestra are selected from any number of qualified auditioning musicians. The differences between them, at that level, is minuscule. As the principal violist of the Boston SO said to me 30 years ago, “The market is awfully strong out there.” It’s gotten stronger. Ask a PSO member. 2) We’re basically talking about union busting here. So, in extreme cases, as with what has happened in Detroit for example, the musicians may be forced to accept less because the board can’t come up with the money, or shut the orchestra down, which has also happened.

      The relationship between a union and management has changed considerably since about 1980 when Ronald Reagan pulled his little stunt against PATCO workers. More often than not, if there’s no sense of good faith, management can threaten workers with killing their jobs. Corporations outsource. Big Three workers in MI made huge concessions just to keep their jobs. I used the word extortion.

      You’ll notice that I praised PSO musicians and I think they’re worth all they can get. I also suggested that entities with the means have a moral and social obligation to ante up to keep cultural gems like the PSO flourishing. But, times they are a-changing and those with the means probably have a lot of organizations hitting them up.

      I don’t think we disagree.

      • Bill says:

        I never seem to understand the logic in these discussions. These orchestras are not supported by there concerts. They are supported by people donating money to pay for everything. We really don’t know if they have the money or whether the management is taking huge salaries. But I don’t believe that these musicians could make anywhere near these salaries outside of this venue,otherwise they would be there if they believe they are under paid. I enjoy the symphony,but I’m willing to only pay so much to see a show.

  • AC says:

    The music would go on, played by their replacements? I’m afraid equivalent “replacements” will be harder to come by if we allow a noble profession to be denigrated year after year, city to city. A musically talented child might instead be steered toward engineering, law, or medicine. What’s left might not make the orchestra sound as good.

  • Dana Huyge says:

    My apologies if I came across a bit snippily earlier; I got a bit fired up there.

    I’m aware of the level of competition at these jobs, having taken many of these auditions myself. We may have misunderstood each other; when you spoke of hiring replacements, I thought that you meant hiring musicians to sit in currently occupied chairs as the Louisville Orchestra tried to do in 2012. Under those circumstances, the PSO could certainly not expect to come close to their current standard, since their audition pool would be limited to the fringes of the orchestral world. Expecting attrition due to a new unfavorable contract would indeed be a different ballgame, and I agree that it would be somewhat more feasible, though I do think, too, that that would still present enough problems to enact at least a modest bump in the road.

    On the finances front, I’m sure that we would have a lot to say to each other about the state of arts funding in the USA, but I’ll restrict my opinion here to just Pittsburgh’s situation. I don’t discount the possibility that you have sources that I don’t, but it sounds like you’re speaking in generalizations and assumptions – assumptions which I would suggest are borderline irresponsible to make. You keep talking about Detroit. I’m going to talk about Minnesota. When the lockout was announced, there was an enlightening fact finding period, and a significant community response. Politicians spoke up, and community based support organizations sprang up. All of this was instrumental (pun ALWAYS intended) in helping the orchestra post a modest surplus last year. If Detroit is a symbol that sometimes orchestras just need to make an adjustment, then Minnesota is a symbol that we have every reason to take the long view whenever an orchestra announces a deficit. Anyone who supports the PSO ought to keep that in mind before assuming that the money just isn’t there.

    • Roger says:

      The money is always there, isn’t it? But maybe not the will. We do live in the richest country in the world. And, when you think about all of America’s great orchestras and the level of funding, I think we’re pretty lucky so far that people recognize what these add to our quality of life and are willing to support them. I think it will all work out. I went to school in Pgh. back in the 60’s. The orchestra was great back then. I thought one of my profs was going to jump off the 2nd balcony of the Mosque after Symphony Fantastique, she was so excited! I’ll never forget that as long as I live.