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Harmonious agreement for Kansas City Symphony

Updated: 2013-07-05T12:40:07Z

By STEVE PAUL

The Kansas City Star

In a show of operational harmony, the Kansas City Symphony and its musicians have reached agreement on a three-year contract a full year ahead of schedule.

The new contract, effective July 1, 2014, and ratified by the Symphony board recently, includes a boost in musicians’ base salary and other enhancements.

By all accounts, negotiations were amicable and compromise came easily against a backdrop of orchestral pain and labor disputes across the country.

Symphony musicians have been locked out in Minneapolis for months. Contract squabbles have erupted in recent years in New York, Chicago, Denver, Indianapolis, San Francisco, Jacksonville, Fla., and elsewhere. The new concert hall in Nashville, Tenn., has been on the verge of foreclosure, and the financial future of its orchestra remains wobbly.

But here, the Symphony is coming off its second straight successful year in its new performing home, Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Ticket sales rose again, and the Symphony eked out an unplanned $200,000 surplus on its $13.5 million budget.

“We wanted to settle early as a signal that not only are things going well, but we all want to be part of a proactive plan,” said Frank Byrne, the Symphony’s executive director and principal negotiator.

“We are very proud of the positive relationships and mutual trust between our musicians, staff and board,” Byrne added in a statement. “Combined with the transparency of our organization and our commitment to artistic excellence and the Symphony’s future, these are key elements to our ongoing success.”

Added William M. Lyons, the newly appointed board chairman: “I don’t mean to sound boastful, but we do stand out right now as an orchestra performing well on many fronts versus other orchestras across the country.”

The new contract covers 80 musicians and spans a 42-week season in which Symphony musicians typically appear in more than 150 performances for the Symphony, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and the Kansas City Ballet. In the season that ended last month, Symphony musicians also made 60 appearances in the orchestra’s Community Connections outreach programs at schools and elsewhere.

Musicians will see their base pay rise a bit more than 8 percent over the three years of the contract. In the forthcoming 2013-14 season, the base salary is $50,065; by the 2016-17 season, that will increase to $54,284. Musicians also will get small increases in family health insurance coverage, their retirement plans and seniority pay.

Although their compensation remains on the low end of the scale for orchestras of similar size, the tradeoff for many of the musicians is the Symphony’s relative stability and the long-running commitment by the board and staff to aim high artistically and to improve musician well-being, said Susan Martin, a Phoenix attorney who has represented Symphony musicians here since a foundational labor agreement in 1998.

“No one would disagree that the musicians are underpaid,” said Martin, who also serves as general counsel for the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians. “They deserve a lot more than they receive. But that’s not the controlling factor here.

“What we see in the Kansas City Symphony is a culture of mutual respect,” she said. “A lot of orchestras talk about respect, but the Kansas City Symphony really practices it.”

Symphony officials and musicians are well aware that as the orchestra has grown artistically in recent years, more of its players can compete nationally and could move on to bigger outfits elsewhere and easily double their pay. The Symphony just recently announced the departure of two players, who took positions in Chicago and New York.

Their colleagues tend to view that as a badge of honor as well as an opportunity to hire some of the best young musicians in the country, who are increasingly attracted to a place with a reputation for labor peace and high artistic achievement.

“I think that what perhaps makes the difference,” Martin said, “aside from mutual respect, is a sense of optimism. Things are looking brighter and brighter. That really goes a long way to helping the musicians accept less-than-ideal terms and conditions.”

Brian Rood, a veteran trumpeter and chair of the musicians’ negotiating committee, attributes the Symphony’s success to the rare continuity of board, staff and artistic leadership. He and everyone else noted that Shirley Helzberg’s longtime guidance — she recently stepped down from the board’s chairmanship — has been crucial to the orchestra’s fiscal and creative successes.

Rood also applauded artistic director Michael Stern’s leadership, not only on the podium but in the community as a champion of music in general and the Symphony in particular.

“I believe that people do have a sense of relief here,” Rood said Tuesday, “but I think we’ve come to expect that of ourselves here in Kansas City. The difference here is that we have all the ingredients for a successful orchestra.

“You have to have musicians who are dedicated and committed, and we have that in Kansas City. People come to the stage with excellence on their minds. But it’s not just musicians. We have a terrific staff that is very hard-working.”

Lyons, the board chair, was proud of the fact that ticket sales cover nearly 40 percent of expenses, making the Symphony one of the top producing American orchestras of any size. But the bottom line, he said, remains a challenge each year with considerable fixed costs coming from musician compensation and Kauffman Center rent.

“I think we’ve done a very good job in our negotiations with musicians,” Lyons said, “of getting that balance of providing advancement in their compensation with not outspending our revenue stream.

“I think we’re in an exceptionally good place. We can now look four years ahead of having a stable musician relationship. That allows us to concentrate on making music for the city.”

And making music, of course, is the heart of the matter.

“Anyone who talks about classical music dying need only take a look at Kansas City,” said Martin. “It’s alive there. It’s so exhilarating. It’s very inspiring.”

To reach Steve Paul, call 816-234-4762 or send email to paul@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at sbpaul.

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