Holiday Spirit Takes a Hit at the Philharmonic

Members of the Bellevue orchestra want to retune their leader.

The Bellevue Philharmonic Orchestra may have just performed its annual Messiah concert on Friday, but peace on Earth is decidedly lacking across Lake Washington these days. The musicians, a new Executive Director, and the BPO board of directors are locked in a labor fight over contracts. The behind-the-scenes turmoil is reminiscent of the intense battles that have recently gone on at the Seattle Symphony, with players openly criticizing their leader and both sides lobbing accusations of intimidation and abuse.

The musicians want management to negotiate future contracts with them as a union. Executive Director Jennifer McCausland, finishing her first year at the helm, says it just isn’t a good time to unionize.

Before this year, the Philharmonic regularly comprised a group of about 60 musicians who had seasonal contracts that lasted a year. Players who underperformed would be weeded out over the course of the season, and everyone still playing at the end would be offered a contract renewal for the next year. The group also hired additional players for special concerts (such as Messiah).

But that all changed this summer. In a bid to make the group more competitive with other local ensembles, the board of directors hired McCausland, a former Seattle Symphony board member and owner of Apollo Music Ventures, a company that puts on smaller chamber-style events. McCausland decided to hold open public auditions for 13 string seats, rather than just automatically renewing the players’ contracts. “I would call that firing,” says principal clarinet Mary Kantor.

The musicians retaliated by sending e-mails and notes to fellow string players asking them to stay away from the auditions. So far that’s worked; Philharmonic management rescheduled auditions to the fall. McCausland eventually deferred the auditions completely. Nearly everyone in the ensemble went to a concert-by-concert contract.

In an interview, McCausland says she had to start making BPO players audition to bring up the level of the group. And if that meant pitting longtime members against all local musicians to hold onto their contracts, so be it. “That was the way that we were going to be able to determine what the community standard for playing was,” she says. McCausland adds that she expected a bad reaction to the change, but it was necessary “if we’re ever going to move to a competitive position with the other professional orchestras in the area.” In addition to the SSO, the Philharmonic competes with similar-size orchestras in Auburn and Tacoma, as well as many smaller ensembles throughout the area.

Bassist Bryce Van Parys says the musicians objected to McCausland’s move not because it would remove weaker players, but because little notice was given and string players were singled out. Van Parys and other players created a negotiating committee in September to bring the orchestra’s concerns to McCausland.

The BPO board met with the committee and offered the musicians a 44 percent pay raise per concert for the 2008-2009 season, but also reduced the number of concerts. The proposed contract provided no way for musicians to earn tenure, leaving everyone’s spot potentially up for audition each year. Van Parys says the committee went back to McCausland and asked that some means of achieving tenure be added. Philharmonic management wouldn’t consider it.

Without the money for legal counsel to fight, Van Parys says, the musicians decided in October to unionize. They approached the local branch of the American Federation of Musicians. According to Motter Snell, president of the local affiliate, the union formally asked McCausland and the board to voluntarily recognize the union for purposes of contract negotiation.

Both sides accuse the other of being less than diplomatic. In November, the committee wrote a letter to the Philharmonic board listing their grievances and accusing McCausland of using “threats and intimidation as a means to [further] her personal agenda.” The letter also makes reference to an impromptu meeting between McCausland and orchestra members the night of Oct. 21. The letter states orchestra members did not yell or pound their fists on the table, contrary to claims made by McCausland.

The fight is making fundraising more difficult in an already tough financial year, says Philharmonic board president Dale Miller. Miller says at least one potential donor backed out after speaking with one of the musicians—he doesn’t know who.

Miller says he’s all in favor of unions, being himself a former member of organized labor. But because of all the bad blood, he says, the board voted unanimously against recognizing the union. Miller adds that the board backs McCausland’s proposed changes, including reauditioning longtime members.

Around the time the negotiating committee, under Van Parys’ leadership, approached the Federation about unionizing, McCausland informed him he had been overlooked in the reaudition notices and would need to play for his seat. “We look at my being called out as retaliation,” he says.

McCausland says Van Parys’ reaudition notice had nothing to do with his union organizing activity. If anything, she says, she would like to see the musicians organized, but with so much in the air, it’s a bad time for major changes in the way musician contracts are handled. On top of that, she says, the orchestra is still trying to raise its profile, and she doesn’t want to start offering tenure to players just because they have a long history with the orchestra. “There is no way a part-time orchestra, a community orchestra on its way to becoming a professional orchestra, was in a position to offer lifetime jobs,” she says.

For now the whole thing is at a stalemate. Earlier this month, the Federation sent out a notice to local musicians asking that they contact the union if they are asked to play in any concerts during the season. Union organizers have successfully convinced potential new orchestra members to stay away from the auditions in solidarity; none have occurred so far.

Violinist Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi says she received an e-mail in the summer announcing auditions for openings in the string section. She declined. “It’s just weird to be called upon when you know your other colleagues are in the middle of a dispute,” Kransberg-Talvi says. “I don’t feel it’s appropriate to just take these people’s jobs away.” Kransberg-Talvi is the wife of former Seattle Symphony concertmaster Ilkka Talvi, who had major run-ins with Gerard Schwarz and was fired in 2004.

McCausland shows no sign of bending on the tenure issue. With all but nine Philharmonic players now on concert-by-concert contracts, McCausland could, in theory, hire new people throughout the year even without auditions. Kantor says people are contacting the union, saying they’ve been approached about playing—and have refused. But McCausland says the Philharmonic is hiring the regular roster of musicians first—those with full-season contracts in previous years—only offering seats to other musicians if they need extra help or have someone out for a concert series.

McCausland says she plans to bring in a Chicago-based orchestra consultant to work through the financial and personnel issues in Bellevue “so we can all live happily ever after.”

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