For many orchestras around the country, labor disputes seem to be the order of the day.
In recent years, orchestras large and small have been buffeted by bitter negotiations and threats of strikes. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Fort Worth Symphony, Louisville Orchestra and Hartford Symphony Orchestra all have had labor issues.
The Kansas City Symphony, on the other hand, is a shining model of the way things can be when musicians and management work together with mutual respect and a common goal: making great music.
Late last month, the musicians of the Kansas City Symphony voted to ratify a four-year contract that will give them a 19.7 percent increase in wages over four years, as well as greater benefits in health care and long-term disability insurance. The agreement was reached in eight meetings with no attorneys present.
“Something special is happening here,” Frank Byrne, Symphony executive director, said. “In my 15 1/2 years with the Kansas City Symphony, I have seen a transformation in the culture of the organization, and that is not by accident. I and my staff have worked very systematically to build trust and relationships with our musicians, and it has paid off wonderfully — this most recent contract negotiation being very important evidence of that.”
The current contract — 2015 through 2017 — increased 11.3 percent, so the latest contract is a significant move up for the Symphony musicians, whose wages lag behind those of many others around the country.
“We are on the lower end of salary compared to other orchestras,” said Brian Rood, who is third/utility trumpet player with the Symphony and chaired the negotiating committee. “I would also say that the board and the management know that, and I think that is one of the key reasons you see a 20 percent salary raise in the next four years of the agreement.”
In an unusual move, Rood made a presentation to members of the executive committee, stressing that the musicians wanted the Kansas City Symphony to become a destination orchestra.
“We were losing too many talented musicians to other orchestras, and while we will not be able to keep them from going to Chicago and Boston and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, maybe we could do more with salary and working conditions to keep them from going to Utah, Oregon, Nashville or even Cincinnati,” Rood said. The 2016 base salary of a KC Symphony musician was $51,537, according to Symphony records.
Luckily, the musicians had a strong advocate in the Symphony’s executive director. Byrne was trained as a professional musician, but his career path took him into administration. While he is concerned about making budgets, he is sympathetic to the concerns of his musicians.
“Honestly I don’t see how one could do my job without having that connection and that commitment to music,” Byrne said. “So when we talk about any number of issues, the musicians know that I am aware of what it takes to perform on a professional level, the sacrifices, the commitment, the pressure, everything that goes with it, and that they have someone who is respectful of the work that they do. That has been very beneficial in the many conversations that we’ve had.”
Rood agrees that Byrne is respected by members of the Kansas City Symphony.
“Certainly those of us who have served on committees and interact more frequently with Frank have come to see him as one of the strongest advocates for the art form, for the Kansas City Symphony and for the musicians,” Rood said. “But even the regular musicians, even newcomers, see how much he loves the orchestra and loves the musicians.”
Byrne believes trust and transparency have been at the core of the good relationship between musicians and management. Four musicians are on the Kansas City Symphony’s board of directors, with two musicians on the finance committee. Byrne says the musicians are aware of everything the board discusses and the musicians see the same documents that the finance committee sees.
One senses that the orchestra’s esprit de corps is at an all-time high. With a new performing arts center, sold-out concerts, happy musicians and prudent management, it would seem that the Kansas City Symphony’s peaceable kingdom could last well into the future.
“We take none of this for granted,” Byrne said. “I believe we have so much opportunity here in Kansas City, a city that loves and values the arts and loves what we do at the Kansas City Symphony. That gives us an enormous responsibility. To have the opportunity and not realize it would be tragic, so we continue to work together every day, our board, our staff and our musicians, to achieve things even beyond all that we have achieved so far.”
Reach Patrick Neas at firstname.lastname@example.org.