Chicago musicians take a softer tone

Chicago musicians take a softer tone


norman lebrecht

March 30, 2019

The striking musicians have delivered this reasoned appeal to the Board and mailed it to friends of the CSO as their strike approaches its fourth week.

Dear Friend of the CSO,

Amid all that you may have heard from the media or others, we write to explain why we, the Musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, have had to withhold our services and how you may help bring Chicago’s Orchestra back to work again.

It’s fairly simple. For more than 50 years, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been touted as the nation’s finest – able to draw talent from across the globe. The Orchestra has served not only as an ambassador to the world, playing on virtually every continent, but we have also brought thousands of patrons to hear our 123 yearly concerts.

While the prestige of the Orchestra has attracted the requisite talent, so too has the Orchestra’s reputation for supporting those who spend their lives and their fortunes preparing and playing for the city and the world – both while they are performing and when they retire. In fact, for more than 50 years Chicago has offered musicians the nation’s top salary and retirement benefits.

That has changed with the current CSO Association’s administration. In the last seven years the Orchestra’s salary has not kept up with inflation. Further, the Orchestra’s benefit package has fallen behind that of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Now, the Association is attempting to change a fundamental tenet of the security of the Orchestra – and American life – our pension plan.

Our current defined benefit plan – one in which we agree that part of our earnings will be deferred and placed into an account that will yield a certain benefit to us each year when we retire – is not strange or unusual. Although private employers’ defined benefit pension plans have waned, such a plan is what every American who works currently has – it’s called Social Security.

Management says that keeping a pension plan is too risky. What they really mean is that individual musicians rather than the Association should assume 100% of the risk that comes with any long-term financial projection.

What is particularly ironic about this, is that contrary to the impression put forward by the Board of Trustees, according to the Board’s own actuaries, keeping the pension plan, as the Musicians suggest, would actually save the Association money – between $11 and $36 million over 10 years.

Let us be clear, this is not just about us. With many of the musicians already vested, our concern is truly about the future of the Orchestra – its ability to retain and attract great talent – a concern shared by Maestro Muti, Daniel Barenboim, and many of the world’s other finest orchestras and leaders.

Behind the specifics we worry that the Board of Trustees may have veered from its historic responsibility and mission.

We’ve seen a change of words. For decades the mission statement was clear that the Orchestra was the heart of the endeavor:

“The central mission of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association is to present classical music through the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to Chicago, national and international audiences. The mission is supported by four mutually reinforcing elements: Artistic excellence, continued international preeminence in the field of orchestral excellence; Audience development, leading audience development initiatives; Education, superior education and community programs; and Financial stability, fiscal responsibility for long-term stability.”

Recently it has been changed to:

“With the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at its core, the mission of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association is to enrich, inspire and transform lives through music, community engagement and education—locally, nationally and internationally.”

But we are worried by more than words.

We are worried that while saying the Orchestra is at its core, the Association has spent little more than one-third of its revenues on the Musicians with the remainder going to administrative, marketing, building and other expenses. This, despite ever-increasing ticket revenue and donations to the Orchestra, an endowment of more than $300 million and a $60 million unrestricted investment fund.

We find it worrisome that the Board of Trustees feels a greater obligation to the bond holders of a debt they incurred in the late 1990’s when they borrowed $145 million dollars (and for which they continue to make a yearly $5 million interest-only payments) than they do to meet their obligation to contribute to our pension, an amount less than the interest on the bonds.

We worry that this “mission and funding drift” endangers one of Chicago’s greatest public assets.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is not a private corporation – it is the property, the inheritance and the legacy of the people of Chicago. We want to make certain we can protect it.

To help:

You can go online and sign a petition to the Board of Trustees at; you can write to Jeff Alexander, President, CSO Association at, or call 312-294-3210.

You can attend one of the free “From the Heart of the Orchestra” concerts being given by the CSO Musicians at venues throughout the city.

For details, additional information on issues, schedule of upcoming free concerts and more, please visit and be sure to Follow us on, and on


The Musicians of the Chicago Symphony



  • anon says:

    “The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is not a private corporation – it is the property, the inheritance and the legacy of the people of Chicago.”


    1) If CSO musicians were employees of the City of Chicago, they would not be pulling in a starting salary of $160K or throwing money at a music director at $2 million, if they did, they’d be sued up to their eyeballs by every public advocacy group in the city and run out of town by every elected official in the city.

    2) Their municipal pension plan would now be underfunded and facing insolvency, and the city’s commitment to fund their pension debt in the next 40 years would require heavy taxation of the people of Chicago who would probably demand in reduction in salary and a change of pension plan!

    Good thing for the musicians that the CSO is a private entity supported by the wealthiest families of Chicago that can afford to indulge the musicians in their wages and benefits (though it appears the gravy train is coming to an end).

    • opus 131 says:

      The statement does not say that the musicians are city employees, just that in a larger sense they are part of the city’s legacy, and that the city as a whole takes ownership for them. Judging from the overwhelming support the musicians have received, this is incontestable.

  • Patrick Neuman says:

    Do your job. Get back to work while continuing negotiations. Your support comes from those who attend your performances. If you don’t perform you start to loose this support! There are lots of options for people who are interested in the arts. Keep the CSO performing during this process!

  • Realist says:

    These musicians and the music directors they cite live in a world that no longer exists. The demand for orchestras is not sufficient to support these compensation and benefits packages. The board of the CSO has been spineless over many years and have simply not put a sustainable plan in place. For anyone that cares about the CSO, the planet, or anything for that matter, they need to put long term sustainability first. The ultimate question is whether the board will fold as they have done time and time again over the years or will they finally do what is necessary to preserve this great asset for future generations.

  • fflambeau says:

    How is this a “softening” of their position? It looks to me like that position is hardening.

    • Bruce says:

      The headline says softening of tone, not position. It’s more of an attempt to say to the public, “Let us try to put a human face on the reasons why we have taken such a hard-ass position.”

      Keep in mind that their intended audience is “Friends of the CSO:” those who are in a position to help support the orchestra; namely, people who may quite possibly have such a salary (or higher) and a similar pension plan at their current job — or are retired and living on such a pension plan now — and can understand the angst that would come with the prospect of losing it. I don’t think they’re talking to people like me, who have never had something like that and never will. (Lest I sound resentful: I don’t mind not being rich, but I don’t resent CSO musicians for making more than I do, any more than I resent them for being in a better orchestra. I hope the well-to-do of Chicago, and every city with an orchestra, recognize the value of what they have in their orchestra and will [continue to] contribute to its support.)

  • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

    The CSO musicians are not living in reality.

    The benefits that they are striking over are of a past era.

    To argue that everyone should have these benefits is irrelevant. Companies are not going back to the past ways of working with their labor force in terms of pension benefits.

    The CSO board has made an offer that includes salary raises that are competitive given the cost of living in Chicago. Having a sustainable business model is key to longevity of the organization.

    Looking at pure dollar amounts is foolhardy and the money that the players are losing by being on strike will negate any raise should they end up coming to an agreement (which they ultimately will).

    • Old Man in the Midwest says:

      I was going to help them picket but by the time I arrived they had all gotten into their Volvos and driven back to Kenilworth and Oak Park.

  • anon says:

    1) “the Association has spent little more than one-third of its revenues on the Musicians”

    The musicians complain that management is shifting investment risks in the pension plan to them. Well, hiring a professional portfolio manager costs a lot, a fixed salary as well as 1% to 10% of the portfolio depending on its size. So which is it, do it yourself or pay someone to do the dirty work? Afterall, you can reduce 50% of operating costs by getting rid of the unionized stage crew, orchestra members can bring out their own damn chair and music stand! (Plenty of community orchestras do!)

    2) “the Board of Trustees feels a greater obligation to the bond holders of a debt they incurred in the late 1990’s when they borrowed $145 million dollars”

    Hello, that was for the renovation of your home, symphony hall. It’s like one spouse reproaching the other for paying down the mortgage instead of going on vacation in Europe.

    • Kelly says:

      That unionized stage crew facilitates a relentless production schedule. Best to remain silent than offer solutions based on ignorance.

  • Chuck says:


    Many have indicated unwavering support for the musicians’ cause. This includes blog commenters, politicians, fellow musicians, etc. These “100% support” people are doing something that is easy to do, which is having ideas about how other people should spend their (other peoples’) money. I do it all the time. So, I’ll put my $0.02 in here.

    As a long time double-subscription CSO subscriber and lover of the sound-production quality of the orchestra — let’s be honest: it’s extraordinary, it never becomes old, is hugely enriching and amazes on a regular basis — and the incalculable hard work needed to produce it is something that anyone who cares about music should be grateful for. In the current situation, I feel like I’ve relocated to a desert with all the cancellations: I had/have(?) tickets to 7 CSO/Symphony Center events between March 14 and April 14. It is always a thrill to be seated in Orchestra Hall, especially right before a concert begins. On a personal note, I was so looking forward hearing Jennifer Gunn performing the two piccolo concertos, and also to the CSO performing Bluebeard’s Castle under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen. Music lovers owe a real debt of gratitude to founding Music Director Theodore Thomas for setting the orchestra’s “music gene pool standard” at a very high level, and it has been subsequently reinforced, nurtured and developed by Frederick Stock, Fritz Reiner, George Solti, Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti (as well as Principal Guest Conductors Carlo Maria Giulini, Claudio Abbado, and Pierre Boulez, and Principal Conductor Bernard Haitink). This legacy is fairly incredible. Music lovers in Chicago and around the world have benefited not only from Theodore Thomas being the orchestra’s first Music Director, but also from Chicago businessman Charles Norman Fay’s invitation in 1889 to Maestro Theodore Thomas to establish the orchestra. Their legacy endures.

    Regarding the strike, my opinion is that each side needs to compromise, and that each side is being unrealistic (each on a different matter).

    Defined benefit plans are no longer financially feasible for organizations (except for Social Security, which the musicians note and they are right, but the U.S. Government owns the currency printing press and can print money at anytime, sometimes with disastrous results, whereas private organizations cannot print their own money). A defined contribution plan is not something to fear. What is required, in addition to reasonable contributions to the plan by the administration, is a very low cost investment option for equities, such as the Vanguard 500 Index Fund (an expense ratio of 0.04%, or $4 per $10,000 invested). The importance of low costs cannot — cannot — be overestimated, as brilliantly illustrated in the “American Tailwind” section of Warren Buffett’s 2018 Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder letter. I suggest anyone reading my comments here do themselves a favor and spend 10 minutes reading Buffett’s American Tailwind section noted above, available online. The CSO administration is probably paying financial advisors currently for the defined benefit plan’s investments’ structure; but, financial helpers in the aggregate cannot add value to investments, due to their advisory charges. Rather than adding value, they hinder value creation, by the amount of their charges. It’s quite possible that musicians taking charge of their pensions, following Warren Buffett’s advice, will do better than they would under the current plan. I was given the option by my former employer to stay or switch, and I opted to switch into a defined contribution plan, as I thought I could do better. I simply followed Buffett’s advice, and had faith in America for the long run. As Buffett said somewhere, we have the secret sauce in America. The CSOA presumably has to be invested in mixed investments, such as fixed income in addition to stocks. A musician controlling his or her own investments doesn’t have to do this. His or her money will do much better if put 100% into a low cost S&P Index fund and kept there for long time. Market crashes under this scenario are to be welcomed. We have population growth and productivity growth in this country over time. As Buffett says, our children will live better than we do: how many of us would like to go back just 25 years: no internet, no Amazon, no You Tube, etc.

    On the CSOA side, my opinion is that the musicians’ pay needs to be increased more than is being offered. If the CSOA position prevails, the musicians will be losing something they believe is very important to them (the defined benefit plan). Something significant must be offered in return. I say increase the musicians’ pay a lot, until it hurts, and then a little more. Our treasured musicians need to be very well paid. As Maestro Muti said in his first concert as CSO Music Director at the concert in Chicago’s Millennium Park on September 19, 2010: “…in this great city, you have a fantastic orchestra….the history of this orchestra is for the future of the City of Chicago…” I for one hope the future isn’t on hold for much longer.

  • drummerman says:

    I guess the musicians don’t realize that tens of millions of hardworking Americans have no pension at all. Social security is not a “pension.”

    Furthermore, the idea that they can’t “retain and attract” talent is ludicrous. Do they really think that someone will make a deliberate decision not to audition for CSO because they don’t like the pension plan? Or, if someone wins an audition, will they turn down the job because of the pension plan?

    They talk about the administrative staff. Guess what…those staffers get no pension and are not protected by a union contract.

  • CSO fan says:

    The players do well to point out the change in mission statement, as well as the shrinking percentage of the budget devoted to the orchestra. Calls for a fiscal sustainability ring hollow in light of the many frivolous, wasteful, ill conceived, or poorly executed endeavors pursued by management. Next time you come to Symphony Center, peek into the gift shop and remember it was once part of a very expensive ‘education center’, then drown your sorrows at the violin-shaped bar in the rotunda that used to serve as its reception desk. This is one of many follies I’ve observed over the years.

    Donors to the CSO have been generous with their support, but they are often distracted by the latest new ‘initiatives’ or highly touted ‘outreach efforts’ that leave little to show for themselves in the long run. Management has often failed in its duty to direct the donor support towards fulfilling the mission of the organization. It is shameful that only the players seem to have the true purpose of the CSO in mind. Giving money for the players retirement or healthcare won’t get your name on anything. It won’t get you lunch with Yo Yo Ma either, but it might actually do more to sustain the organization in the long run.

  • opus 131 says:

    Read the two mission statements carefully. Note that in the second one, there is no reference to “classical music” and there is no longer any acknowledgement that the Association has a duty to keep the CSO among the preeminent orchestra in the country or the world. In their own words, the trustees have announced that they no longer consider maintaining the quality of the orchestra as part of their job.
    That is why they no longer choose to keep up with their peer orchestras’ contract. It is a lot easier to maintain a mediocre orchestra, and the trustees have cynically decided to shrug off their public trust. That is what this strike is about.

  • Ben says:

    Dear CSO musicians:

    You ain’t the only people who are upset. Chicago PD is very upset too. Instead of showing up en masse to redirect traffic a few nights a week at the Symphony Center, now they have to catch criminal, patrol streets full of drunk and gangs, etc.

    The people of Chicago are very angry too. The police is spending more time giving traffic tickets (such that they could stay away from catching criminals / patrolling streets full of drunk and gangs, etc)

    Unfortunately, the rest of the world may not miss you as much as you think.

    Not when you moan on the street in utmost agony simply because you will need to curb your cravings on fine dining, summer home, side business, cruise ship travel in Europe, etc, after your “retirement”.

    God Bless.

  • anon says:

    If the CSO is the property of Chicago, then here are my demands as a stakeholder in exchange for your pay raise and direct benefits pension.

    Sign a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) with the City that provides:

    1) All orchestra members must be a resident of Chicago (i.e., not some leafy suburb)

    2) The orchestra must reflect the ethnic and gender diversity of the city, i.e., 35% black players, 28% hispanic players, 5% Asian, 50% women

    Ditto for soloists

    3) Composers played must also reflect the ethnic and gender diversity of the city (and I don’t mean 1 concert for Cinco de Mayo and 1 concert for Chinese New Year!)

    4) The next mayor of Chicago will be a black woman, hire a black woman music director

    5) The orchestra must provide more than 1 free concert per year to Chicago (monthly would be a good start)

    6) No more Ravinia, the orchestra must stay in Chicago over the summer

    If you can do that, you should get double your pay and double your pension.

    • guest49 says:

      Frankly, this is ridiculous. That CSO should have the best musicians that win the audition without regard to their skin color or gender. How many black conductors would even qualify for a job like the CSO?

      • barry guerrero says:

        . . . at a least a few. There are some very good ones out there. They don’t have cute Italian accents though.

    • Dd says:

      If the CSO is owned by the City, then they would not be paid more than Firefighters or Teachers or Police. They serve fewer people. They would be paid less.