Breaking: Kennedy Center backs down on sacking its orchestra

Breaking: Kennedy Center backs down on sacking its orchestra


norman lebrecht

April 07, 2020

We don’t have details yet from both sides but it looks like Deborah Rutter has made a humiliating climbdown in her bid to dismiss the orchestra during the virus crisis. The musicians are now demanding the reinstatement of sacked members of staff.

Here’s what the musicians have just told us:

The Musicians of the National Symphony Orchestra are pleased that a settlement has been reached to resolve the grievance filed by our union challenging the Kennedy Center’s decision to furlough musicians beginning this week. That action was not permitted under our collective bargaining agreement and, under the settlement, musicians will not be furloughed. In recognition of the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Kennedy Center, however, we have agreed to modify our collective bargaining agreement to make substantial economic concessions. Our agreement also will be extended for an additional year, through the beginning of September 2024. This will provide financial stability to our musicians during this difficult time.

We are grateful to have a collective bargaining agreement and a union—the D.C. Federation of Musicians, AFM Local 161-710—to protect us. Not all Kennedy Center staff are so fortunate. We urge the Kennedy Center to bring back the Orchestra’s staff as a matter of fairness and so that our venture can flourish. We need their talents to help start new musical projects to present to our patrons and the larger world. The musicians of the National Symphony are pledging at least $50,000 of our own money over the next 10 weeks to help support our NSO staff colleagues. While it is not enough to make them whole, we hope that it helps materially as well as demonstrating our respect and admiration for them.

Throughout this process, the NSO musicians, as always, have been willing to work with management to try to find creative solutions to difficult problems.


UPDATE: Here’s the house version from Ms Rutter’s office:

After several days of collaborative discussions, Kennedy Center leadership and the musicians of the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) have reached a new agreement, a significant step in stabilizing the institution as it faces financial challenges resulting from the global COVID-19 pandemic. The NSO musicians have agreed to a restructure of their current contract resulting in payroll savings of nearly 35% (over $2.5 million) through early September, as well as further savings realized through a wage freeze in the 2020-2021 season and delayed wage increases for the duration of the contract. Combined, these financial sacrifices total approximately $4 million and represent a substantial long-term investment in the Kennedy Center’s future. NSO musicians and NSO management have also agreed to form a joint working group to discuss alternative ways to share new and archived NSO content during the current pandemic closure.

This recent agreement with the NSO musicians, along with previously announced administrative staff furloughs and pay reductions through May 10 and critical $25 million from the CARES Act funding, are key measures in a multi-pronged plan designed to ensure the Kennedy Center will be able to re-open its doors and stages, re-employ its artistic and administrative staff, and secure the Center long into the future. The Kennedy Center has committed to covering full healthcare benefits for all its furloughed employees during this time. The Kennedy Center closed its doors on March 13 and will remain closed until at least May 10 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is an unprecedented time for all of us here in D.C. and around the world,” stated Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter. “The severe economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have unfolded at an incredibly rapid pace, requiring all of us to work together and demanding the highest levels of strategic and creative thinking to solve our problems in the long-term. We are grateful to the musicians of the NSO for partnering with us and that, together, we have found a way forward.” 


  • Enquiring Mind says:

    What is the situation with the Opera House Orchestra?

  • Anonymous says:

    Rutter is just the worst. How could she possibly have botched this whole thing so badly?

    The Kennedy Center needs some actual leadership at the helm. Now that Kaiser has worked his magic in Baltimore, maybe it’s time for a homecoming to fix Rutter’s mess.

    • Omar Little says:

      That’s adorable that you think Baltimore is fixed.

    • KC Will Survive says:

      As typically happens on such blogs and comment sections, the people who know very little about a particular situation have the strongest opinions. It’s easy to stand back and throw stones, without knowing more of the story. The internet gives even the under-informed a platform.

      Michael Kaiser to the rescue? You’ve got to be kidding!
      The place is completely different and thriving, since he departed. Ms. Rutter, who came at just the right time, is saving our national cultural center in the middle of a horrific circumstance for the performing arts. Few know how many people it takes to produce 2,000 performances in the building each year. Granted 365 of them are free (what a wonderful gift to the community) but when the other 1,600-plus of those ticketed performances cease, how can The Kennedy Center be expected to continue to pay everyone? There is no revenue being generated. Zero. The $25 million recently appropriated by Congress, contrary to common belief, was not a check for $25,000,000 that was deposited into the bank account of the Kennedy Center. That is the uninformed, overly simplistic view. It’s not that simple. The amount, although seemingly large, is realistically not, when compared to what it costs to run the memorial to JFK. It merely allowed them to continue curating the memorial, with a slashed or non-existent-salaried skeleton crew, for another 4 to 6 weeks. Just because there are no performances doesn’t mean that there isn’t extensive planning (both artistic and financial) going on.

      I’m not actually sure how they are going to be able to pay the “sacked“ [eye roll] orchestra. I guess they will continue to scramble to make it work, somehow. It’s tough.

      The NSO is merely one constituent to be considered at the The Kennedy Center. How is it fair that they will continue to be paid for doing nothing when so many others (at least a dozen other unions?) are furloughed? The AFofM’s chest beating is predictably typical and, as usual, takes an embarrassingly tone-deaf, entitled position. People are out of work. People are sick. People are dying.

      Many are waaaay too quick to rush to judgement on this. Walk a mile in Deborah Rutter’s shoes and then let’s see what you have to say. If you knew what she engages in daily and how she fights for arts in this country, you would be quite more empathetic. She is exactly the right person to lead The Kennedy Center through this unimaginable crisis. She has the support of her Board of Directors and is working diligently to keep the center afloat. At least there will still be a Kennedy Center on the other side of this mess, thanks to both her tireless dedication and the work of her immediate staff (the ones not furloughed). The survival of The Kennedy Center depends on many people making financial sacrifices…honestly, much more so than the NSO players are making.

  • Michael says:

    Norman, can you please explain how when AskonasHolt lays off employees as a result of the pandemic, you accept the description of “furlough”, yet when the Kennedy Center does the same for its employees, they have (per your headline) been “sacked”. Furloughing (a temporary, unpaid layoff) and sacking (termination of employment) are not the same thing; you know that full well. Nothing to do with the correctness of the decisions, which can obviously be debated, and spare us the obfuscation that one is a private company, the other a public institution – you are demonstrating personal, petty, tabloid bias. Please grow up. Thank you.

    • M says:

      DEBORAH Rutter referred to possible “REHIRING” of NSO members. Whatever she has now agreed to, keep an eye on her.

  • Guest 123 says:

    It is telling of Deborah Rutter and Gary Ginstling’s management philosophy to leave out such an important detail that the musicians had to then state themselves, the plea to reinstate the staff. Why avoid mentioning the staff at all in the Kennedy Center release? It is counter intuitive that the musicians are more concerned for the staff than either Ms. Rutter or Mr. Ginstling. The musicians clearly know the necessity of having staff, why don’t Ms. Rutter or Mr. Ginstling?

    • Sketchy Gary Ginstling’s concern for staff only goes as far as his own personal and career interests. During his time in Indianapolis, he willfully threw staff members under the bus to suit his own ends, and he left the ISO in terrible organizational and financial shape when he escaped to DC. The whole handling of the NSO matter has Sketchy Gary’s fingerprints all over it. Much more to come…

  • CA says:

    Is anybody else wondering if other orchestra furloughs will be overturned in similar fashion?

  • Brian from Washington says:

    One of the few bright lights of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the creative ways that orchestras are finding to make their music available to a stay-at-home public. An example is the Rotterdam Philharmonic’s Beethoven 9th that went viral with a couple million hits.

    If the NSO wants to play in the musical big leagues, it needs to do big-league streaming of new and archived performances like Rotterdam and so many of its peers. In that respect, the Kennedy Center/NSO plan for a “joint working group to discuss alternative ways to share new and archived NSO content during the current pandemic” closure seems lame. In Washington joint working groups are formed when the parties don’t want to do anything fast, or anything at all. I’m not holding my breath in anticipation of seeing creative steaming of NSO content anytime soon. I hope I’m wrong.

    • celloenvy says:

      how you do you expect the NSO to do that when the proper staff members to see this sort of thing through are furloughed?! Did that thought ever occur to you? The Kennedy Center website is NOT in the control of the NSO musicians.

  • Nathaniel Rosen says:

    So happy that management changed its mind.

  • Judy says:

    From the outside looks like – Rutter played the cards right to get a better agreement for financial stability for the next years ahead. Opened up that agreement when she had the chance and made it happen. Not the most humane way to do it, but it worked!

  • Loop says:

    I realize this is months old but it doesn’t add up at all. In the conference call, Rutter explained their path is unsustainable and the compensation cuts agreed to won’t put a dent in their financial model’s problem.