Who fixes the pay of principal players? A music director reveals all…

Who fixes the pay of principal players? A music director reveals all…


norman lebrecht

July 09, 2018

Leonard Slatkin has responded to our recent posts about disparities in pay between principal wood and woodwind players in major US orchestras. We had suggested that the music director has something to do with it. Slatkin confirms that this is indeed the case.

He writes:

Most of the people writing about the situation have failed to point out how raises are doled out. At least with my three music directorships, the process was the same. At some point in the season, the artistic administrator and sometimes the executive director would meet with me. We would go over the entire orchestra list, budget in hand, and would try to figure out who deserved an increase and who did not. It was a laborious procedure but seemed to be the only one that everybody could agree on.

I have no idea how it works in Boston. It will be important to understand this going forward, if indeed, discrimination is determined to be a factor.

If the suit actually goes to court, which I doubt, the result could have an overwhelming impact on the orchestral world.

Let’s say that Elizabeth wins what she is asking for, which is parity with her counterpart in the oboe section, plus damages. It is very easy to see the other principals, regardless of gender, asking for the same thing. This puts the cost to the orchestra at a premium, possibly one that cannot be afforded. And other orchestras will literally follow suit, causing potential labor disputes or even bankruptcies. A strange outcome could be that the oboist’s salary is cut back to bring the two closer together.

But what if she loses?…

Read on here.



  • Carl DiOrio says:

    Kudos to Maestro Slatkin for taking the time to send this informative note. As a longtime scribe myself I can tell you such gestures are enormously appreciated by us ink-stained wretches (turned digital denizens).

  • drummerman says:

    Since principal contracts are negotiated outside of the CBA, one can negotiate for whatever one wants to ask for. Do we know, for a fact, that Ms. Rowe asked for the same salary as Mr. Ferrillo when she negotiated her very first contract? Since Ferrillo has been there 3 years longer than Rowe, one assumes he has negotiated at least one (three year) contract more than she. Therefore, he may have gotten his last pay raise because he’s been there longer. I mean: it’s theoretically possible that if Ms. Rowe asked for a raise of $70,000 when her contract next came up for renewal that the BSO would have granted it.

    This only a guess since we don’t know all of the facts but — theoretically — the pay discrepancy may have nothing to do with gender. Don’t forget: the BSO hired Doriot Anthony Dwyer as principal flute way back in 1952 and Ann Hobson Pilot, an African-American female as principal harp in 1969, so there is somewhat of a tradition of being gender “blind.”

  • boringfileclerk says:

    Most of us knew this, but those in the loop generally kept silent. Slatkin is brave for opening up about the process, and giving us his honest assessment. I’m pretty sure he cleared this with his lawyer and made sure all his ducks were in a row before blogging about this. Would other music directors be so willing to also come clean?

  • Doug says:

    Thank you, maestro, for not just sitting back and allowing the Juggernaut to roll over yet another institution of our civilization.

    • Musician says:

      Like he sat back, said nothing, and cashed his check when the DSO was out? I seriously doubt the process he described of giving orchestra members raises is common.

  • anon says:

    Isn’t the BSO oboe in his 60s and the flute in her 40s? Aren’t 20 years of seniority and experience worth $70K?

    • Will Duffay says:

      No. They play the music in front of them as well as the orchestra and audience expect regardless of age, nationality, sex or experience. You’re paid for your job not your history.

      • qwerty1234 says:

        That’s not entirely true. Most orchestras offer some sort of seniority pay the longer they’ve played with the ensemble. I’m not sure of the specifics in Boston, but that is definitely the case in the orchestras I play with.

  • Bill says:

    How does her pay compare with his, 3 years prior? If those two graphs pretty much coincide, then this is a tempest in a teapot. If the graphs are similar, but his is always appreciably higher, then she may have something worth talking about.

  • Rob says:

    Just pay em all the same

  • Orchestra Musician says:

    According to Leonard Slatkin:
    “We would go over the entire orchestra list, budget in hand, and would try to figure out who deserved an increase and who did not.”

    Not exactly. If a CBA guaranteed a rise in pay and benefits, it would apply to all musicians who were covered by the contract, whether or not they “deserved an increase.”

    Privately negotiated contracts are an entirely different matter, and may include benefits such as extra time off, concerto appearances, private dressing rooms, additional cartage fees for large instruments (tuba, harp, contrabassoon, etc.), and possibly other individual perks.

  • Luigi Nonono says:

    Of course pay must rise with experience. It’s called suffering and stress reward. A newcomer does not have the same expertise and knowledge.
    Auditions are rarely truly blind. There are many ways for the jury to know who is playing. When I did auditions, the blind was a blackboard, so the feet were clearly visible, and female feet clearly differentiated from male feet by their shoes, if nothing else. That’s enough to skew results. Then, if the order of players is leaked to them by the personnel manager, if they are informed previously of who the winner must be, well, then, it has been “fixed.”
    Then, there are the auditions where when the conductor wants someone, and the orchestra hates the conductor, they deliberately choose someone opposite, or where the orchestra is trying to steal a principal away from another orchestra solely for rivalry’s sake…
    After concertmaster and principal oboe, I agree that the Principal Harp should be the next-highest paid, as their instruments easily cost $50,000+ and are often damaged by stagehands; they have to play cadenzas and concertos at a moment’s notice, and, of course, when playing, play far more notes than any other player except the pianist. The harpist also defines the beat when playing, not having a delay in onset, and adds unique and vital color to what can otherwise be a dull band. They also need more years of study, and parts require much preparation time merely for sight-reading because of pedaling and fingering and such. It’s simply a far more complex instrument and role to play in the orchestra than any other.

    • Bill says:

      If an expensive instrument is all it takes to merit a pay bump, most of the string section will be entitled. $50k for a good bow and instrument doesn’t get you very far these days.

      As for the onset time argument, what a bunch of malarkey. The harpist does not define the beat, and learning how to anticipate the proper amount based on position on stage and responsiveness of instrument is a skill every orchestral musician has to master.

      I have yet to come across a IRS Form 990 where the principal harp was one of the top five most highly compensated individuals in the orchestra. In fact, I just checked LA Phil, Chicago, Dallas, NYPhil, Philly, Cleveland, SF Symphony, and Boston, and not a single one of them apparently feels that the principal harp should be next highest paid after CM and oboe, as all of those orchestras had the top 5 spots filled by non-harpists.

    • Bruce says:

      A blackboard?? Oh dear.

    • Bruce says:

      Also the orchestra usually has its own harp. The harpist can use their own instrument if they prefer but (as harpists have told me), if the orchestra’s instrument is at all acceptable, they prefer not to because moving it between home & hall takes a toll on the instrument.

    • Greg says:

      Even principal harp is essentially a part-time job given that a huge amount of the repertoire does not call for harp. There is no justification for paying a harpist a salary comparable to other principals. Establishing salaries by the cost of the instrument is also absurd. I don’t get paid extra because the upkeep on my Audi may be more than the upkeep of a co-worker’s Honda.

  • william osborne says:

    In the EU there are no negotiated individual salaries, and yet many orchestras there like the LSO, Berlin Phil, Vienna Phil, and Concertgebouw compare very favorably with our top orchestras. This clearly demonstrates that these high salaries are not necessary.

    It is also especially harmful to squander money on salaries like this when our arts funding is so low compared to other countries. We rank 39th in the world for opera performances per capita. We do not have ensembles devoted to contemporary music like Ensemble Contemporarin or Ensemble Modern. Major EU cities have multiple full time orchestras while ours have only one, NYC being the only exception and even its two are extremely low by comparison. And yet we let these top orchestras shamelessly drain away the funds from our donor base with grotesquely disproportionate salaries .

    The classical music community needs to give serious thought about how to bring our orchestral salaries back in order and insure a more equitable distribution of funding in the community. How can this be done?

    • Adista says:

      Yes, musicians should always make as little as possible. It’s like, noble or something, right?

      • Sharon says:

        In Europe much classical music training is free or close to free because universities are free. In the US the major conservatories have tuition costs of $40,000 per year and up. Musicians have to recover the cost of their training somehow.

        Having said this, in other areas of entertainment (and let’s face it; that is what classical music is) star players’ salaries are negotiated because of what they bring in box office receipts as opposed to what the box office receipts would be had the star player not been there.

        This is true in theater as well. For Broadway, off Broadway, and even off-off Broadway productions I pay more for the ticket if there is a well known actor/actress in the play.

        Does anyone who attends a classical music concerts, except another professional muscian, know or care who the section head or concertmaster is, and would he or she determine whether or not to buy a ticket based on this?

        I doubt it.

      • william osborne says:

        Big difference between little as possible and $500k. As I note, pay should be good and fair, not paltry but not so high that it unnecessarily drains the donor base away from other arts groups.

    • Anon says:

      Sorry, William, but that is incorrect; certainly in the UK there are plenty of individually negotiated deals (more at the upper end of course), and I’m reasonably certain there are those in continental Europe too.

      • william osborne says:

        None in Germany with rare exception. And I doubt the special contracts in the UK are anywhere near as high as those in the States.

  • Andrey says:

    As far as I know in some other orchestras MD is not involved in this process. This question is in hands of CEO.

  • Nurhan Arman says:

    This is an ongoing issue of contention among orchestral musicians. Kudos to maestro Slatkin for revealing his way of dealing with the issue. In my view all principal players must get paid at the same level regardless of their instrument’s difficulty, popularity or importance. This is the modus operandi at Sinfonia Toronto and other orchestras where I have been music director. Section players also received equal pay as negotiated collectively. When a principal player negotiates his or her own contract and receives higher salaries and perks, it effects the morale and working culture of the orchestra. It also makes it harder for the section musicians to obtain well deserved raises in their contract negotiations.

  • MacroV says:

    I find the situation Mr. Slatkin describes a bit bizarre and would be surprised if it’s common practice. Base pay is set by a CBA, overscale through negotiation by player and management (and does any orchestral player employ an agent or lawyer to negotiate?). But midseason meetings to dole out bonuses or salary increases? I find that implausible. I CAN imagine a meeting where the MD tells management that a particular musician is so outstanding and critical to the orchestra that he/she deserves more money, or where management is presented by a demand by a player, and they run it by the conductor for his/her input.

  • Robert H Wilkins says:

    It is interesting reading all of the thoughts re this issue of pay disparity in orchestras.Much of my life was involved in salary negotiations with orchestra musicians. What has not been mentioned (I believe) are some of the realities of these discussions. In some orchestra CBAs (collective bargaining agreements) for each year of the contract there is a base pay (scale) that every member of the orchestra receives. Then(depending on the orchestra) there are designated percentages over scale for titled players (example…Principal 33% overscale…Associate Principal 20% overscale…Assistant Principal 10% overscale…..overscale title pay varies by orchestras). Concertmaster pay is often individually negotiated w/o regard to percentages.

    Then…individual players have the right to meet with management (at any time) to make the case that because of their level of artistry…faithful tenure in the orchestra…et. al. they too are deserving of “overscale” do to their personal circumstances with in the orchestra. It is a given that principal oboe, principal horn along with some others are more than likely to receive significant overscale payments. But certainly high artistic level of playing and distinguished tenures certainly are often duly noted.

    I must say, in 43 years of these discussions, I do not recall any discrepancies in decisions based on gender…hopefully they were based on merit within the confines of realistically what was available to raises outside of the CBA in the company budget.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      The line “individual players have the right to meet with management” is key. Men are (1) more likely to meet, (2) be more forceful in the meeting, and (3) have their claims accepted. Hence they get paid more. Subtle, but ultimately resulting is wage differences between men and women.

      • Robert H Wilkins says:

        Per your comment that women don’t have the moxie to play hardball in contract (read salary) negotiations….far less so than men….wow…

        Surely you have missed many of these meeting in which I was involved over the years. Some of the toughest, most contentious negotiations I have had have been with women players. Believe me…no pansies are they!!!! They can be as tough or tougher than any male player!!!!

  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    Principal salaries should be set by the market rate of the player involved. John Ferrillo came from the MET and when he arrived in Boston, they must have had to match or beat the MET salary. If he had a percentage clause in his contract (over base), then his salary would increase accordingly.

    If he considered other offers during his tenure, he could have gone back to management and said “match this or I must leave”.

    It is not clear if the disparity is due to gender discrimination or that the market value of Ferillo is more than Rowe.

    But if everyone is paid the same amount (among principals), real superstars may resist coming to the BSO when they can make more in situations that allow for more pay.

    Slatkin is correct. In the end everything comes from the same bucket so to speak. The budget is created and payroll is doled out as a line item expense.

    But the manager and the conductor have to be able to move things around to attract and retain the top talent (principals) while giving the rank and file a good base to make a decent middle class living in the town that the orchestra operates in.