Boston Symphony cuts to the bone

Boston Symphony cuts to the bone


norman lebrecht

April 19, 2020

Members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra have unanimously agreed to take a 25 percent pay cut through the end of August. The musicians have also agreed other restructurings of their time provision over the next two years.

Seventy full-time employees have been placed on furlough with health benefits, starting April 20.

Mark Volpe, BSO President and CEO, will give up half his base salary. BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons will not be paid for cancelled performances. Boston Pops Conductor Keith Lockhart will also take ‘a substantial cut’.

No decision has yet been announced about the Tanglewood Festival in August.


  • fflambeau says:

    Volpe makes almost $1 million a year, so his pay cut isn’t likely to hurt much.

    This is also odd because I believe the BSO has the largest endowment of any orchestra in the world, around $380 million. Is this really necessary?

    • Jeff says:

      25% paycut doesn’t look that horrifying considering their salary and also considering that a huge majority of orchestral musicians in the US took a 100% paycut and are now on unemployment. That they are still receiving a salary is impressive.

    • NYMike says:

      I believe near $600 million counting ownership of Symphony Hall and Tanglewood.

    • anon says:

      If one thing comes out of this whole mess, I hope it’s a general understanding of the point and structure of endowments. Endowments don’t function like a cash savings account for you to draw on whenever you desire. Most of the funds are for restricted use to support specific programs and initiatives, not general operating expenses and payroll. The concept behind an endowment is to maintain the bulk of the holdings and only draw on the interest generated by the investments. If you borrow from the endowment, you are robbing from your future to possibly survive the present.

      • OrchSpork says:

        To add to this, philanthropic donations are designated for specific purposes. Often, contributions for the endowment are estate gifts that must be counted for the fiscal year in which they are announced, even if the payout is years later. Occasionally, donors will consent to converting endowment gifts to operations gifts, but that’s not particularly common.

    • Marge O. says:

      Has Volpe reduced his million dollar salary plus lavish benies?

  • Tamino says:

    Bravo to Nelsons to not insisting on getting paid the full amount. I’m wondering though if his agency will get some kind of compensation, since agencies are fully out in the storm with this catastrophe economically?

    Tanglewood could find a middle way to keep a distance between people, if the risk is still a reality by then? It’s such a large venue, and outside on the grass the distance could easily be kept anyway?

    The community in Tanglewood will struggle with the losses, should the festival be canceled completely.
    Wishing all the best.

    • Anon says:

      It’s not just the audience that has to be considered. Imagine the spit flying around in a brass section. The whole orchestra would have to rehearse and perform at a safe distance. No. Just no.

    • Bruce says:

      Yes, it could be rough on the people who work in the fancy hotels and restaurants…

      • JustAGuy says:

        Are your ellipses meant to convey sarcasm? If so, are you under under the impression that the people who work in fancy hotels and restaurants are themselves fancy and rich? Because I wager they are mostly people living check to check that depend on tourism to feed their families.

    • Music Director says:

      This is absolutely ridiculous to praise Nelsons for not insisting on being paid for the cancelled concerts!
      99,9% of Music Directors are not getting paid for the cancelled performances in USA, North America and worldwide. A force majeure clause prevents all of us from being paid for the cancelled performances!
      I am sure the same clause applies to his BSO agreement. But with juicy GMD salary in Leipzig this mediocre and highly overhyped, pathological (and not very good…) copy of late Mariss Jansons, he is nowhere near being in trouble financially:-)

    • Bob says:

      And what about the orchestral musicians? As an orchestral musician who plays in the wind section, not to mention the rest of the ensemble that sits practically elbow to elbow for many hours a day, I’ve yet to hear or read anything, anywhere, concerning the performers’ health risk.

      The musicians are in a Petri dish where one can even smell the breath of their stand partner, especially in the wind section. We are the “lungs” of the orchestra and are at extremely high risk because of the nature of our profession.

      The whole orchestra and our chorus is at much higher risk than any group in the general population outside of doctors, etc. on the front line.

      Social distancing for concert goers is one thing. I just don’t see how musicians of the orchestra and chorus go back to playing again any time soon for these reasons.

      • Alphonse says:

        So you’d rather shut everything down and forgo making a living because of the relatively minor risk of contracting this glorified flu? Cower in fear in your home (because Big Daddy government told you to) and struggle to put even the most meagre amount of food on the table? This insanity has to stop. Enough.

        • John Kelly says:

          You must be watching Fox News. Consider yourself thoroughly and criminally misinformed.

          • Bob says:

            And far right talk-hate radio which is 99% of it here in the US. You can spot these cultists anywhere.

          • Enquiring Mind says:

            C’mon, between Fox and CNN how can anyone identify the evil twin?

        • Bob says:

          I would prefer that it be non-deadly for us performers to return to work as defined by enlightened local public health officials that understand the specificity of our problem.

          I’m sure our union will be heard from informing these local health officials. The politicians sure aren’t going to be able to keep the bar high enough – at least the ones that don’t or won’t follow the science.

        • Petengu says:

          The risk is the lung damage associated with the virus.

        • Amos says:

          Please feel free to join the demonstrators standing elbow to elbow protesting efforts to keep them alive by requiring stay at home measures and practicing social distancing. To prove your point when you require a vent after contracting the “glorified flu” you should leave a DNR order.

      • Kolb Slaw says:

        Depending on positioning, what about the harpist who may be receiving the breath of the whole section? All the more reason to have them behind the strings at the front.

      • Enquiring Mind says:

        String and percussion can wear masks so maybe string orchestra concerts will be the first step back. For variety the Music for Strings, percussion, and Celesta.

  • Larry says:

    The staff goes on furlough. Norman, does this mean they get no pay at all?

    • TJSN says:

      Larry, yes that’s correct. Those furloughed receive no pay. They are eligible to apply for unemployment. Those who are on the BSO’s health plan will continue to receive those benefits while furloughed. Also, one thing not mentioned in Norman’s summary is that the remaining staff will be taking a pay cut on a sliding scale from 5-15% (depending on salary).

  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    Seems fair and equal since it is across the board. Should not matter what one made before the pandemic as those salaries reflect market forces.

    More importantly, this pay scheme shows the orchestra and the outside observers that everyone is sharing the burden.

    And just because the orchestra has a large endowment does not mean it should be used for this purpose. The idea of an endowment is to make sure there is an orchestra for Boston 100 years from now.

    • DirtLawyer says:

      And how much of the BSO endowment is unrestricted?

      By way of example, I know of a school with a $200 million endowment, but only $29 million of it is unrestricted, meaning it has had to make draconian cuts to ensure its very survival.

      • Kolb Slaw says:

        Aside from the endowment, they are a huge money-making machine. The most-successful orchestra in North America, by far.

        • Old Man in the Midwest says:

          Due to alcohol sales at the Boston Pops and Tanglewood.

          But it is wise to be prudent and not squander the endowment – restricted or not.

          If musicians are staying at home and not performing their costs are reduced since they are not commuting, paying for parking, meals in between double services, and expenses for reeds, strings, bow rehairs, etc.

          A 25% haircut seems fair if they are at home and practicing during the interim.

  • Music Lover says:

    Tanglewood is indeed a very large venue. However, if procedures remain the same, there are major issues involved. The lawn crowd can be managed by the number of tickets sold. But what about the lines of thousands of patrons lined up at the front gate and the Lion’s Gate and the East entrances standing 6 feet apart waiting to get in? The shed can sell tickets for every third seat to observe physical distance, but what happens at intermission. Does everyone stay in their seat? How do they keep the washroom facilities disenfected with all those patrons using them in a twenty minute span of time? A third of the Fellows in the Institute orchestra are from overseas. If they are allowed to fly in are they quarantined for 14 days? And the BSO has 100 people playing inches away from each other–as does every orchestra. Masks don’t do the job if you play the flute. Unfortunately, not a pretty picture.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    People adjust their way of life — mortgages, charitable pledges, school and college tuition obligations, homes and other assets (not to mention taxes, alimony requirements, and a host of unadjustables) that need to be maintained, to their expected income. So a 25% cut, even if it is 25% of a lot of money, can still sting. And those furloughed are hurting more, and will hurt yet more if there is a deadline for health benefits.

    But without getting too deeply into abattoir vocabulary, I do not think this is cutting to the bone. They are still cutting through meat and muscle. We’ll know it when they hit bone. And even then you have not hit marrow yet.

    • Sabrinensis says:

      This could end up having a positive effect on the administration of the BSO; in my time there they were known for having just about the largest administrative staff in the industry. A cull along with the reassessment of salaries for higher ranking employees could help the organization to thrive in the future. While the players plainly deserve to earn the most money, frankly, no conductor or executive director deserves a million dollars for such work. They should cut Nelsons’ pay to 400-500K at the least and dare him to walk.

  • Joel Stein says:

    I think this step is a prelude to cancelling Tanglewood.

    • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

      Sounds like a possible commission:

      Prelude to Cancelling Tanglewood

      Koussevitsky would have had Copland or Bernstein write a work for this event.