administration labor issues the orchestra world union

is the oregon symphony the future model for the symphony orchestra?

You have to wonder. We have a deep pool of highly talented and skilled players. We “punch above our weight” as our outgoing President, Elaine Calder, likes to say. We’re paid about 50% less than we should be. Our player complement is 15% down from the CBA mandatory minimums (amended by side letter). Our season lasts 38 weeks out of the year.

Now, look at some of the opening proposals that managements of some 52 week orchestras have made in the past few months and weeks:

  • Indianapolis Symphony – reduce season from 52 to 36 weeks; reduce player complement from 87 to 63; cut salaries by 45%.
  • Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra – cut salaries by 57-67%; cut season from 37 to 35 weeks, some players down to 20 or 15 weeks; cut salaries by 15%.
  • Atlanta Symphony – 12 weeks of player furloughs (cutting season from 52 to 40 weeks); cut salaries by $20,000.

Interesting, eh?

The Oregon Symphony’s solution to its budgetary woes in the face of an unprecedented downturn in the local and national economy was reached over a period of several contract negotiations, and with the pain equally shared by both the management and musicians. To our credit, the musicians of the Oregon Symphony have been remarkably pragmatic about what is/was possible in our particular corner of the world – and to a large extent, so has our board and management. The musicians would love to be playing year round and making a commensurate salary, I’m sure. Management would love to have a $100 million endowment fund and guaranteed long-term stability. But together, we figured out what was possible and sustainable, and though it involved pain on both ‘sides’, we made those changes and have put ourselves in a place where stability is no longer a pipe dream, and growth is no longer inconceivable.

But as Elaine Calder would say, we’re in Portland – not somewhere else. What works here may not be applicable to another region. So, to look to the Oregon Symphony and see a new model for the symphony orchestra is a tempting, but ill-advised decision to make. It’s easy to slash and burn. It’s very difficult to build. I look at Indianapolis with their $100 million dollar endowment. How much of that is unrestricted? Calder took the bold step of raiding our unrestricted endowment funds to eliminate the deficit that threatened to send the OSO into bankruptcy – and at that point our endowment was scarcely $30 million at most. The board and management could have asked for that $6-8 million to come entirely out of the musicians’ pockets, both in terms of salary and weeks worked, but they did not. Perhaps some of our brother and sister organizations should look at that part of the Oregon Symphony equation.


By Charles Noble

I'm the Assistant principal violist of the Oregon Symphony.

10 replies on “is the oregon symphony the future model for the symphony orchestra?”

Trust is the key word that defines the tenure of Elaine Calder at the Oregon Symphony. Trust and transparency. Over the 35 years I have been here the musicians have worked to build communication with the board, now serve on the board, and invest heavily in ongoing decisions about how to best be the institution we are chartered to be for our community. Leaders like Elaine are few and far between: willing to open the books, open to new ideas, willing to listen. But she was also tough…tough enough to say no when she had to, fire staff if she needed to, do the heavy lifting every day. Few saw her heart of gold beneath the toughness, but I did, and others did as well. We will miss her, but she leaves an example of how to lead in tough times.

while on the topic of hard decisions & tuff choices, i noticed just yesterday that the OSO is replacing this coming season’s britten “war requiem” with lvb’s 9th symphony.

perhaps a sound financial move but a VERY disappointing programming change, just the same.

now, PLEASE don’t replace the season opener’s percussion concerto by kalevi aho with a drum machine accompanying large & lauderdale running a spate of show tunes. ok?

yes, yes, i know, such a decision would stroke the box office tills, but still . . .


Just to be clear, Bob: the program change was Carlos’s decision, once he understand the financial challenges we’re facing this year without a line-up of superstars to stoke the box office. And yes, Thomas Lauderdale is in that list, along with Joshua Bell, Renee Fleming, Lang Lang et al.

But you’re getting a Hindemith overture and a rare Britten work for orchestra, choir and tenor before the Beethoven, and the promise of the “War Requiem” in 2013/14 – so I hope you aren’t asking for your money back! And yes, the Colin Currie program next week is very much intact.

hi elaine,

thanx for your note.

great to know the britten “war requiem” will be coming up in 13-14. as we know, 2013 is benji’s 100th birthday.

say, given the superstar status of bell, fleming & lang, may i request that they possibly be put to use for something other than the same old sorta fare? my sense is each one of them would sell out the joint no matter what they offer up. for example;

+ bell – corigliano’s “red violin concerto” (composed for josh)
+ fleming – dutilleux’s exquisite song cycle for soprano & orchestra that was written for renee, “le temps l’horloge”
+ lang langerace – tan dun’s hugely theatrical piano concerto (“The fire”) – scripted for LL, as well

now, wouldn’t something like the above may more sense (cents?) that yet another round of the yawning norm?

and, since you’ve gotten me started on fun ideas, here comes a kicker that will make the OSO beaucoup bucks AND be a memorable occasion like virtually nothing else. ready?

“eine kleine L & LL”
+ lang lang plays a concerto – ok, ok, tchaikovsky or some other pot boiler if not the tan dun (30′)
+ lauderdale tickles m. daugherty’s screamingly fun “le tombeau de liberace” for piano & orch (16′)
+ l & ll play nice with poulenc’s concerto for 2 pianos & orch (18′)

now, here ya have three solidly sold-out houses with the option of adding extra shows due to popular demand. this program would be absolutely unique for the OSO and the artists in question. people would talk about it for years AND curmudgeons like me would even queue-up their rumps for tickets to THIS “circus.”

please know that kooky though this idea might appear, i am 100% serious in voting for it.

i am also 100% serious in requesting that you float me a substantial consultant fee if you elect to go with this. :)))



and, you could throw a work on the program by a local composer that might go some distance in appeasing those in our midst that would like to see/hear more music actually made in PDX. for example, how ’bout david schiff’s “speaking in drums” for timpani & strings? you have a schmokin’ timpanist that would pummel this to bits!

ok, basta.


yes, i did know that.

however, it seemed that since she took the time to post “after office hours” that i’d share a few final thoughts with her . . .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.