In the Big Five, are principal flutes paid less than oboes?

In the Big Five, are principal flutes paid less than oboes?


norman lebrecht

July 09, 2018

In light of the discrimination suit against the Boston Symphony Orchestra, we thought it might be useful to check the pay grades of principal flutes and oboes in the other four so-called Big Five US orchestras.

These salaries are negotiable. They depend on experience, on personality, on status, on maestro opinion and on what the player might earn elsewhere is he or she got the urge to take a walk. When two principal flutes walked out on the Met, that orchestra took a serious hit in the breadbasket and has not yet fully recovered.

So here’s what we found.

In Philadelphia and Cleveland, the principal flute earns more – quite a bit more – than the principal oboe.

In the New York Phil and Boston, the oboe is much better paid.

In Chicago, the figures are not available from public tax records.

So it’s a draw.

The top pay for these players ranges from $265,000 in Cleveland to, in New York, $410,327.

More will doubtless emerge should the Elizabeth Rowe case come to court.



  • MacroV says:

    Two principal flutes didn’t walk out on the MET; they won auditions for other jobs – Chicago and LA. This site has been over this issue many times: the MET is a great orchestra, but life is short, operas are long, and so after a few years in the MET, some players decide they might prefer life in a symphony orchestra rather than an opera orchestra. And that’s pretty much it.

    As for Rowe, it seems pretty obvious: Ferillo was the biggest oboe star in the business when he went to the BSO, so had negotiating leverage. Rowe was moving up to a much bigger job, just glad to be there, and had much less leverage. Now, you’d think the gap would have closed a bit over 14 years, but apparently not. The BSO should probably fix that; the money they’re saving isn’t worth the poor publicity.

    I do take issue with her lawyer citing how many (more) times she has been called on to play solos (which I assume mean some kind of concerto appearance). Presumably she was paid additional fees for those, so they don’t need to be reflected in her base salary.

    • Herr Doktor says:

      As a regular BSO listener, I have to say, Ferillo is an extraordinary player. I’m not trying to slam Elizabeth Rowe, but she seems generically excellent. That is, she’s reliably fine, but by the same token I don’t hear anything distinctive in her playing that puts her into the stratosphere of ultra-elite performers. This is unlike one of her predecessors, Jacques Zoon, who was arguably one of the most outstanding musicians in the entire orchestra, if not the single most. His playing just never ceased to amaze me; hers never ceases to be excellent but unremarkable.

      If I’m to trust what my ears exclusively are telling me, John Ferillo deserves to be making $70,000 more a year than Elizabeth Rowe.

      • Brucknerliebhaber says:

        I totally agree on your musical points.

        • Herr Doktor says:

          I’m flattered by that. I’m surprised our paths have not crossed in real life, Brucknerliebhaber, especially since Bruckner is (also) my very favorite composer, and not by a small margin.

    • Bruce says:

      I figured that the point about how often she’s been asked to be a soloist was meant to indicate the high level of respect for her artistry. Her argument, if I’m understanding correctly, is that the organization obviously thinks she’s good or they wouldn’t have asked her to do all these solo appearances, so her salary should reflect that high opinion of her work.

  • Olassus says:

    Oh God, the “Big Five.” That was the 50s!

  • anon says:

    The NYP principal oboe earns $410,327?? Really??

    • william osborne says:

      A reminder of who American orchestras serve. A system by and for the wealthy.

    • Robert Holmén says:

      Just enough to afford an efficiency near Lincoln Center.

    • anon says:

      The NYP principal bassoon, who’s a woman, should sue immediately for equal pay, afterall the law is equal pay for equal WORK, and the bassoon requires a lot more work being bigger and heavier than the skinny tiny oboe, and even the reeds are bigger and thicker to slice… The law is not equal pay for equal artistry, just equal WORK. ; )

  • anon says:

    In theory, gender equal pay is an excellent idea, but what happens in sports, when gender cannot possibly be used as an excuse to explain pay disparity, when obviously, talent is the sole determining factor?

    Has the music world, because it cannot have single-sex teams, lost all ability to judge talent and to compensate talent accordingly?

    I’m afraid henceforth, it is just some non-expert labor board or judge who arbitrarily decides that every player must have equal talent with every other player, if both players are not of the same gender.

  • Bob Tonucci says:

    Frankly, I’ve had more memorable musical experiences at Boston Philharmonic concerts:

  • Doug says:

    The last 56 Olympic 100 meter dash competitors are of West African descent. Not only do I demand Affirmative Action for European and Asian descent runners, I demand reparations!

    See how ridiculous “equality of outcome” is now?

  • George Young says:

    Well, in Chicago you have to go back to the records for 2013, the last full year before the principal flute decamped for Berlin and before the principal oboe decided to return to San Francisco. And the answer is – Flute 288K and Oboe 274K.

    There you have it! Flutes by a nose.

    • Max Grimm says:

      Regarding base pay, yes. Regarding all pay, no.
      If you look at total compensation they received from the CSO at the time you get:
      – Mathieu Dufour (flute) $310.154
      – Eugene Izotov (oboe) $312.330

  • Louie says:

    I realize this may seem a sacrilege to some but this is the reason that I wished American Orchestras used set over scale and seniority as European Orchestras do. The current model leads to resentment, competition and erodes the institutional culture. When principals make salaries that are completely non relational to their colleagues, one could argue that they really should not even vote on minimum salaries during contract negotiations. This approach is just ugly capitalism and has nothing to do with ensuring good music making.

  • Benjamin C Garrett says:

    My main question is, what role does the fact that oboe players have to make their own reeds play into salary. I know that oboe players have to spend many hours a week on their reeds. I would assume that at the top teir level, he has to spend at least 10 hours a week on reeds. So here’s a little math, if we assume 10 hours a week, at $50 an hour, for 50 weeks, that’s $25,000. I’m guessing his hourly rate is actually higher, but basically my point is that oboe players have a higher amount of prep work to prepare for performances, which means they should be compensated at a higher rate. Probably bassoon players too.

    • Sarah says:

      Yes, but flute players have tons more notes per square inch of music. You can’t compare oboe and flute (or any of the principal winds) in terms of what they have to do to prepare themselves. It’s apples and oranges. They are both equal in importance and dedication.

      • Bruce says:

        Sarah has a point. The principal oboe will sound terrible if s/he doesn’t spend hours & hours working on those goddamn reeds; the principal flute will sound terrible if s/he doesn’t spend hours & hours working on all those goddamn notes. So the idea that “my reed-making is more valuable than your practicing” or vice-versa is a bit irrelevant.

        • Benjamin says:

          I respectfully disagree. I have studied enough scores to know that flutes and oboes have a similar amount of notes in orchestral music. And in many baroque and classical period music oboe is used but no flute. So the argument flute players have more notes doesn’t hold water. And at that level practicing is about efficiency and I would argue that all instruments need approximately the same amount of practice time to stay sharp and ready. I’m a horn player, and even though I have “less” notes then a flute player, that doesnt mean I have to practice less than a flute player to be prepared for performances. It means my practicing looks different. So I stand by original premise. Working on reeds is exclusive to oboe and bassoon, and logically there should be compensation for that required time. Does that account for the $70000 difference, no. But does it change the perception a little, I think so.

  • Mike Barbour says:

    Pay should be a set rate, period. X amount for 1st, 2nd, 3rd and so on. It should not be based on anything else. Bonuses can be based on how many solos or whatever. But, pay should be set and all principals should be making the same rate. They all have to work the same, practice pretty much the same so pay should be the same. Then, when you audition for a position you find someone worthy of that pay. If you don’t, then hold off filling it until you do. There are many excellent players and eventually you’ll find the right one. Then you can give raises depending on how long they are there etc. That’s the only reason there should be discrepancies in pay for 1st chairs, 2nd chairs etc.

    • Bill says:

      Mike, they don’t all have to practice the same. The principal flute or oboe is responsible for much more music than the principal tuba. The concertmaster has countless solos under their fingers, not so the principal second violin or viola (except if they are trying to get another job).

    • Al Triplett says:

      So would 4th Horn be paid more than second, or third, considering? Or Contrabassoon less than second? Lol! I just hope labor, and management, can come to an agreement, so I can listen to good music, performed by the best possible musicians!

  • Al Triplett says:

    I’m a longtime, semi-professional ( =I rarely get paid) Tuba player, who worked 30 years as a Union Steam Fitter during the day. In my union, all Journey Level Tradespeople made the same, base rate! Foreman were compensated at an additional 10% above the total Journey Level compensation, and could supervise no more than 10 Journey( and apprentice) level persons. General Foreman was a 20%-30% increase over Journey pay, depending on the particular contract. No General Foreman was permitted to supervise more than 50 tradespeople. For any musical group to succeed, there needs to be a certain minimum skill level to enable proper performances of a given work. The Tuba, as the last addition to the Orchestra, is used less than other, longer standing members of the orchestra. But it would seem foolish to try and poor boy a qualified performer on that instrument. That player will be needed periodically, and needs to be as proficient as any other principal player! Perhaps musicians need a stronger union? I can envision the concert master at 30% over scale, principals at 10-15%… no matter how marvelous any of the principals are, the group as a whole is still only as strong as it’s weakest link…

  • MWnyc says:

    The implication of the suit seems to be that Rowe is being paid less than her oboe counterpart in the Boston Symphony partly because she’s female.

    With respect to the comparison Norman is making in this post, it’s worth noting that of the principal flute and oboe players of the Big Seven (the “Big Five” plus L.A. and San Fran), Rowe is the only female.

    (NB: the principal oboe chair at the L.A. Phil is currently vacant; the rest of the section, including the associate principal, is female.)