Why the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra strike matters to local musicians

The orchestra may be the only full-time gig in town, but the labor action has bigger ramifications.

A Heinz Hall maintenance worker posts cancelled signs on posters outside of the theater, as the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra strike continues, Downtown.

A Heinz Hall maintenance worker posts cancelled signs on posters outside of the theater, as the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra strike continues, Downtown.

Jasmine Goldband / THE INCLINE
Sarah Anne Hughes

It’s Monday afternoon — day four of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra strike — and about a dozen musicians are walking the picket line outside Heinz Hall.

Micah Howard, a bassist in his 21st season with PSO, is among them.

At issue: a demand from management that the 99-member orchestra take a 15-percent pay cut and a refusal by the musicians to do so.

This is “not about our individual salaries,” said Howard, chair of the musicians’ committee. “This is about maintaining excellence.”

The cuts, he said, would send a “message to the whole world” that Pittsburgh “does not care about excellence.” They would cause a “mass exodus” as many orchestra members would leave for other cities. (Five have already gone in recent years, he said.) They would take PSO from being an orchestra that a musician joins at the pinnacle of his or her career to a transitional one.

To be brief: These cuts, Howard believes, would destroy the orchestra.

‘A very real financial crisis’ … or ‘pure fiction’

PSO isn’t the only orchestra in Pittsburgh, but it is the only one that offers full-time work: a 52-week contract with a base salary of $107,000 a year.

It’s a competitive salary compared to other top U.S. orchestras, albeit one that’s already seen cut after cut after cut: 7.8 percent more than a decade ago, 4.3 percent after that, then 9.7 percent in 2011.

“The reason why we took those cuts before is because we wanted to help to address the financial issues while balancing it out with the artistic concerns,” Howard said. Management, he said, is longer interested in doing that.

An additional 15-percent cut would set base pay in Pittsburgh at $91,000 a year.  Across the state, meanwhile, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s recent and brief strike ended with a newly negotiated contract that will increase their base salary to $137,800 a year in three years.

PSO President and CEO Melia Tourangeau said in a statement that cuts here are necessary to “confront the very real financial crisis that we are facing.” According to Tourangeau, PSO is facing a “$20.4 million dollar cumulative cash deficit over the next five years.”

“Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra musicians are exceptional artists, and deserve every dollar and every benefit we can afford to offer,” Tourangeau said. “At the same time, at this moment in the Pittsburgh Symphony’s history, we absolutely must dedicate ourselves to a course correction to ensure long-term sustainability for the orchestra.”

Howard said management’s forecast is based on worst-case scenarios. It’s “bogus” and “pure fiction,” he claimed.

‘Musicians have to stand strong together’

There are currently 96 musicians in the PSO. Its contract calls for 99, although that number fluctuates as positions are vacated then filled via a rigorous audition process, Howard said. As part of the cuts, management has called to put a freeze on hiring three positions.

These 90-plus performers are part of The Pittsburgh Musicians’ Union, a chapter of the American Federation of Musicians, which has more than 650 members locally.

Local musicians who don’t have full-time work like the PSO depend on several gigs and freelance work like playing events and private parties, said George Clewer, union president and secretary.

Many musicians, for example, play in both the Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Orchestra, as well as for the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera.

“It’s very difficult to make a living,” Clewer said. “It almost can’t be done without supplementing your income.”

Teaching is one way many musicians do that in Pittsburgh. That includes violinist Rachel Stegeman, who has many job titles: adjunct professor of violin at Duquesne University; concertmaster of the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra in West Virginia and Youngstown Symphony in Ohio; and associate concertmaster for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra.

She’s also a substitute musician for PSO — but she won’t be filling in this time around.

“No one would cross the picket line,” she said. “Musicians have to stand strong together.”

Stegeman called her career as a freelance musician “fulfilling artistically.” While having so many gigs may seem overwhelming to some, putting a schedule together is like a big puzzle to her.

Rachel’s husband, Charles Stegeman, is also a violinist and freelance musician who works as concertmaster for both the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and Pittsburgh Opera orchestras.

Since the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre cut the live orchestra from performances of “The Nutcracker” more than a decade ago, Charles Stegeman said it “only uses musicians occasionally.” The opera, meanwhile, is run very well, he said, and “brilliantly managed.

“We have no strife,” he added.

Like his wife, Charles Stegeman teaches at Duquesne University. They both tell their students to be entrepreneurial, he said, and they show young musicians “how to have multiple income streams.”

“We teach independence,” he said, which is more in line with what millennials want from a career.

PSO’s Howard and Jeremy Branson, a symphony percussionist and vice chair of the musicians’ committee, both teach at Carnegie Mellon University.

“Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne, their music schools will be affected by something like this, because the level of talent of the players translates into the level of great teachers they have at the schools,” Howard said.

Branson said he schedules auditions for his Carnegie Mellon studio on the same days as PSO performances, so that student musicians can see the caliber of player they would be learning from.

“Every single time, every person that’s seen a concert says, ‘OK, I’m going to Carnegie Mellon University.'”

‘No matter what they offer’

For PSO musicians, it’s not clear when — or if — the strike will end. PSO management announced Monday afternoon that it’s cancelling performances until Oct. 27. Howard said management “didn’t even reach out” to musicians about that decision.

“They have no interest in meeting,” Howard said.

The orchestra will, however, still perform free, public concerts across the city today.

PSO members will continue to walk the picket line, and musicians like Rachel Stegeman — as well as her two kids — will join them.

“Sometimes you have to fight,” she said. “You don’t want to, but sometimes you have to fight.”

Where she and other professional musicians won’t be going? The Heinz Hall stage.

For members of the union, crossing the picket line has possible financial consequences — tens of thousands of dollars worth in fines, Stegeman said. But even for musicians who aren’t in the union, Stegeman said it’s important to show the PSO players “we’re very behind what they’re doing.”

It’s a lesson she had to teach her students after news of the strike broke.

She told them: “If they [PSO management] call you to play, you do not go to Heinz Hall — no matter what they offer you money-wise.”