The New York Philharmonic, Closed Till September, Is Winding Down Musicians’ Pay

Photo: Zach Mahone

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.

Less than a week after the Metropolitan Opera canceled the remainder of its season and invoked force majeure to abridge its labor contracts, the New York Philharmonic has shut down, too, at least until the scheduled opening night of the 2020–21 season in September. In an interview, Philharmonic president and CEO Deborah Borda said that the orchestra has negotiated a new interim deal with its musicians: They will be paid in full until March 31, and then accept reduced pay for the next two months. Health insurance and instrument insurance will continue through the remainder of the current contract, which expires September 20.

Beginning April 1, all musicians, regardless of seniority, will be paid the basic minimum salary of $2,952 per week ($153,504 per year). Although newly hired rank-and-file orchestra members won’t see their pay decrease, that represents a big cut for senior players, whose compensation can be much more. The most recent available figures show that in the 2016-17 season, concertmaster Frank Huang earned $622,421.

Beginning May 1, all musicians’ pay will be reduced by 25 percent until the end of the month. For the period after that, the orchestra will have to hammer out a new agreement with the musicians’ union, though a spokesman says the Philharmonic would not rule out furloughs. The agreement could potentially leave the musicians unpaid for nearly three months, unless the orchestra can salvage a few summertime events like concerts in the parks or the Bravo Vail! Festival in Colorado. Borda, who earned $1.8 million in her last year as president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, before moving to New York in 2017, said that the orchestra would formulate plans for furloughs and pay cuts for administrative staff this week.

Like their peers at the Met, Philharmonic musicians are represented by Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians. Colin Williams, who is the Philharmonic’s associate principal trombone and a member of the union’s players committee, told Vulture that musicians “are extremely grateful” to Borda, the board of directors, “and to everyone who has a responsibility to the organization that they have elected to help us weather, as an institution, this really difficult time.”

Williams believes it’s still possible that the Philharmonic will find a way to continue paying musicians after May 31. “We’re going to be in ongoing talks to see what we can do together as an organization. There might be ways that we can extend that forward,” he said. “There’s not a predetermination. We’re working together to see how long we can cobble something together that best benefits everyone, from the people who have a fiduciary responsibility to the organization, to the musicians ourselves.”

Local 802 had previously called on city and state officials to protect by law healthcare coverage and guarantee unemployment benefits to arts workers, both full-time and freelance. Williams echoed that demand on Monday, and emphasized the plight of the city’s freelance arts workers, who are particularly vulnerable to the economic consequences of disasters like the outbreak of novel coronavirus.. “I hope that elected officials will recognize that even though sometimes it’s harder for them to understand the role that musicians play, we still do play a pivotal role in the economic, cultural and spiritual lives of the communities we live in,” he said.

Summertime layoffs were once a standard part of the musician’s life. But in the 1960s, when orchestras in many cities had evolved into year-round, civic institutions, unionized musicians won the right to be treated as full-time, salaried professionals, rather than players-for-hire. Today, fees for visiting artists and full-time musicians represent $26 million of the Philharmonic’s $87 million budget. (A sizable chunk of that figure goes to music director Jaap van Zweden: Although his precise compensation hasn’t been made public, he earned $3.6 million in his previous post as music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.) In recent decades, as classical music has competed for prestige and audiences have had a much vaster range of cultural options, orchestras have struggled to support year-round contracts and the costs of building and maintaining new concert halls.

The Philharmonic recently embarked on a plan for a $550 million renovation of its home, David Geffen Hall. A fundraising campaign has raised two-thirds of the budget for a project that wasn’t expected to begin construction until 2024, but much of that money was raised by Lincoln Center, a separate organization, and can’t be tapped for operating expenses. “I can’t tell you how critical to our future plans the renovation of the hall is,” Borda said. “There’s so much deferred maintenance needed that we would have to pay $90 million towards that anyway, no matter what.”

Symphony orchestras are not nimble institutions. They plan seasons far ahead of time, and jostle to book soloists whose calendars are set in stone three and four years out. They also rely on audiences’ willingness to plan ahead. Subscription and ticket sales for the 2020-21 season were selling at a steady clip until a few weeks ago, but the advance box office has dropped even more drastically than the stock market. The orchestra’s endowment has taken a beating, too, falling from $210 million a few weeks ago to about $180 million today. Compounding the uncertainty is the $1 million question of how many ticket holders will demand refunds for canceled concerts rather than treating money they already spent as a donation.

Despite the emergency, negotiations over the interim agreement were smoothed by generally cordial relationships between musicians and management, not something either side could rely on when Borda last headed the organization in the 1990s. In 1995, acrimonious contract negotiations broke down just before opening night, and the audience waited in a quiet hall for nearly half an hour while the musicians huddled backstage, deciding whether to play without a contract or go on an immediate strike. More than 20 years later, Borda returned to lead the organization, this time as a legendary figure in the classical-music world, credited with having turned the Los Angeles Philharmonic into the country’s most dynamic—and highest-paid—orchestra.

This is the first time in the New York Philharmonic’s history that it has had to scrap a major chunk of a season. The orchestra’s predecessor organizations played through the Civil War, two global conflicts, and the 1918 flu pandemic, although concert seasons back then were always much shorter than they are today. The opening-night gala on September 20, 2001, was repurposed as a memorial to the victims of 9/11 with a memorable performance of Brahms’s German Requiem conducted by Kurt Masur. Two subsequent concerts were canceled.

“The New York Philharmonic is 177 years old: we’ll find a way forward,” Borda said. “Nobody knows how our entire social structure in this country is going to change, and orchestras are a microcosm of society.”

The New York Philharmonic Is Winding Down Musicians’ Pay