The Louisville Orchestra’s contract with its musicians expired at midnight Wednesday. That means the players are not being paid, they do not have insurance and do not have any guarantee they’ll have jobs when the next season starts. There’s hope for a new contract, but amid contentious negotiations and ongoing bankruptcy proceedings, that hope is diminishing.
Talks for a new contract began last July. When they broke down, the orchestra filed for Chapter 11. Negotiations picked up again earlier this year as the end of the contract loomed, and orchestra management has put forward what CEO Rob Birman calls the last, best and final offer.
“The footprint of this organization will be smaller than it has been in the past. That’s sort of a priority, given the state that we’re in,” says Birman.
Rather than keep 71 musicians on salary for 37 weeks, the proposal introduces a tiered system. 71 players will sign contracts, but 40 of them will be paid for 30 weeks. 18 “B-players” will be paid for 20 weeks and the final 13 “C-players” will only be paid for ten weeks.
“They’re going to have a hard time finding musicians, especially to fill out the B and C contracts. As it is, 30 weeks of work, even, winds up to be about a $27,000 a year salary,” says musician Kim Tichenor.
She and the other players long argued that there are enough people in the area who like classical music to sustain a 71-member, full-time orchestra. Tichenor admits that would require more fundraising work, which the musicians have consistently pushed for.
“My great fear is the Louisville Orchestra as we know it goes away for a few years, it won’t come back, that the will, the spirit, the desire in the community for a symphony orchestra is just so much hot air the financial and physical support is not there to sustain it,” says arts writer Thomson Smillie.
Smillie says the management may be willing to compromise, but he doubts the deal will get much better for the musicians. If the players want their demands met, they may have to take a drastic step…like starting their own orchestra.
“I think that’s the best chance—if they could set up a group of their own that’s self-managing,” says Smillie. “Many of the great orchestras of the world like the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony are self-directing. The players are the board of directors are the management.”
The musicians have already moved in that direction. They’ve been performing on their own, under the name Keep Louisville Symphonic. Tichenor says that could be the seed for a new orchestra, but she’s not making plans for it just yet.
And unless that happens, there won’t be a change in orchestra management. The reorganization plan submitted in bankruptcy court calls for Birman and the board of directors to retain their positions.
“Traditionally when a group would file for bankruptcy, it wouldn’t be very long before you’d see an accelerated rate of attrition on the board and the management side,” says Arts consultant Drew McManus.
But without a change in negotiating partners or much chance for compromise, it’s inevitable that the ensemble that emerges from bankruptcy, if one emerges at all, will be different, either smaller or run by musicians. And if the latter option is taken, the musicians won’t necessarily find self-governance any easier.
“They’ll go through the exact same process and challenges the current organization has gone through, but sometimes just a change in the people working the process can lead to a better result,” says McManus.
No new negotiations are scheduled between the musicians and the management.