Unionized musicians from the Springfield Symphony Orchestra are planning a free concert on the steps of the city’s Symphony Hall Saturday at noon to protest orchestra management’s handling of ongoing contract negotiations.
In a June 1 statement, the newly established organization Musicians of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra expressed concern that the “orchestra is in peril” because leadership has neither scheduled nor advertised any events for summer 2021 or the 2021-22 subscription season, unlike peer regional orchestras in Hartford, Albany, and Providence.
“We’re going to play ... to bring some kind of symphonic music back to Springfield, because the board’s not willing to do that right now,” said violinist Beth Welty in a phone interview from her Waltham home.
The orchestra’s board and administration see things differently, taking the position that no future plans can be set in stone unless a musician contract is settled — neither a contract with music director Kevin Rhodes (which expired May 31) nor concert dates and repertoire. “We have a plan for a season, and the ability to implement that season hinges upon reaching an agreement with the musicians’ union,” said SSO interim executive director John Anz in a phone interview. “We can’t announce the season until the musicians agree to the current offer on the table.”
This approach has rankled the musicians, who are members of the Local 171 chapter of the American Federation of Musicians. In prior negotiation cycles, SSO players have continued to work under expired contracts until new terms were agreed upon. The most recent contract expired in August 2020, during the shutdown. “I’ve been in the orchestra for 38 years. We have had seasons planned and advertised long before the contracts were settled,” said Welty. “There was never an impediment to marketing those to the public.”
Labor attorney Harvey Mars, who represents Local 171, said in a phone interview that the SSO’s approach took the musicians by surprise. “We really thought that they were going to start coming up with [programming] and partnering with the musicians back in March,” he said in a phone interview.
Mars, a classically trained trombonist who plans to join the performers on Saturday, bristled at the SSO’s insinuation that the musicians are at fault for the delay. “These musicians haven’t played in 18 months. There’s nothing more that they want to do. But quite frankly, they need to have a fair contract, and we already have the terms of a previous agreement that sets the groundwork for what a season could look like.”
But with the SSO taking the stance that the previous agreement would not be feasible given the orchestra’s financial situation, negotiations have reached a logjam — one that took an additional turn when the administration’s three-person bargaining team dissolved following the late April departure of executive director Susan Beaudry and the expiration of two board members’ terms of service. Anz, who served as the symphony’s director of development starting in 2019, has stepped into Beaudry’s role while the symphony searches for a new permanent leader.
The SSO put forth its first proposal since Beaudry’s departure last week, a few days after musicians went public with their concerns. The proposal would only encompass the 2021-22 season, which would be a “partial season,” starting in late fall, Anz said. The offer includes five performances, a decrease from the SSO’s usual eight or 10 concerts per season, with a complement of 60 musicians — a reduction of 10 players from the previous contract. Performances are also not stipulated to take place in Symphony Hall, the orchestra’s longtime home.
“We do not expect to be able to get our full audience back, and our audience was not full to begin with,” said Anz. “That is one of the things that we need to be able to test before we commit to a multi-year contract. ... We are offering a season that allows us to go to stage and allows us to tolerate as much financial risk as we are able to at this time.”
But as other regional orchestras announce upcoming seasons and drum up excitement for the return of live music with outdoor summer concerts, the SSO musicians are feeling snubbed and suspicious that shorter seasons and reduced resources would become status quo.
“The most basic things that any board of directors should be doing aren’t getting done,” said Welty. “Our music director’s contract expired, so we literally do not have a music director anymore. For a board that’s saying ‘we’re worried about the viability of this orchestra’ — well, you’re not doing anything to keep it stable so it will be viable.”
In the meantime, the musicians hope that their concert will help bring their situation (plus some live music) to more ears. “We’ve got a brass quintet, we’ve got a percussion ensemble. If we have enough strings and some winds, we might try to do a Brandenburg Concerto,” said Welty. “It’s going to be a little potpourri of music, just to get something going.”