Stalled negotiations have pushed New Mexico Symphony Orchestra players into the cold—with picket signs.
Seven NMSO performers were supposed to play the Buddy Holly tribute concert on Saturday, Oct. 3. But they were outside the event protesting. In their stead, traveling musicians forged ahead with the concert at Popejoy Hall, scheduled before the start of a more than monthlong contract dispute. Carla Lehmeier-Tatum, cellist and chairwoman of the NMSO Players Association, says they did not want to picket instead of play but felt they needed to get their message out to those attending. The NMSO musicians carried signs reading, “I wish I was playing for you guys tonight.”
The contract between the musicians’ union and NMSO expired on Aug. 31, leaving 75 musicians without jobs or health benefits and postponing the start of the orchestra’s season. Negotiations are ongoing, but information won't be released until Friday, Oct. 10.
NMSO President Eric Meyer says pay and other cutbacks are needed because the organization is facing a far lower income this year. This is caused by a sharp drop in individual and corporate contributions and investment earnings, he says. NMSO even applied for federal stimulus funding, Meyer adds, but was rejected.
According to NMSO, half of its roughly $5 million operating budget for 2009-2010 comes from donor and fundraising sources. Ticket sales account for about 40 percent of the budget.
Lehmeier-Tatum says the performers understand the economic climate and have agreed to make sacrifices. But they want to address the fairness of who’s making sacrifices within the organization.
“Should musicians who have spent their lives developing their talents—and tens of thousands of dollars for their own instruments—be asked to subsidize the economic engine that the arts represent in our community?”
Carla Lehmeier-Tatum, cellist and chairwoman of the NMSO Players Association
“These musicians have worked diligently to provide New Mexico with a symphony orchestra of high caliber and national reputation," she says. “They wish nothing more than to sustain and to grow this level of achievement, education and outreach capacity.”
In August, musicians were asked to give up 25 percent of their salary. Some musicians said management has since proposed another 25 percent, which would mean a 50 percent cut overall. All of this comes in addition to a loss of 6 percent in benefits, termination of their pension and an increase in their work weeks from 39 to 44 per year. The proposed salary for next season is $15,715, which is less than the $15,937 the orchestra’s core musicians made 17 years ago. Lehmeier-Tatum goes on to say that to get the same 1992 pay, adjusted for inflation, the orchestra would have to raise salaries. Yet, she adds, the president’s salary has seen significant increase since 1992. NMSO was not able to respond to our request for administrative salary information by deadline.
She says there are other ways to balance the budget without choking the musicians. “Should musicians who have spent their lives developing their talents—and tens of thousands of dollars for their own instruments—be asked to subsidize the economic engine that the arts represent in our community?” she asks.
According to the orchestra administration’s FAQ, staff members including the president, music director and resident conductor took a 14 percent cut in their total compensation package in April. Several positions were eliminated and others were left vacant due to dwindling finances. The administration contends NMSO musicians are paid slightly above the national average, and the staff size is smallish when compared with similar orchestras.
All sides agree that more private donations and corporate sponsors would be a big help during this time. The 77-year-old NMSO was formed during the darkest days of the Great Depression.
Thomas Heady, a Players Association volunteer, says musicians are being treated horribly by the administration. Heady is also a horn player, though not with the orchestra, and says the musicians that perform with the symphony are on par with the world’s best.
“This is a huge loss to not only Albuquerque but the whole state,” Heady says. “This is an amazingly good symphony.”
Sean Kennedy, 21, a University of New Mexico tuba student, agrees that if the contract negotiations aren’t resolved soon, it won’t just be music lovers who lose something special—students at UNM will be punished, as many NMSO musicians are also professors. Having a first-class symphony, he adds, also draws top-of-the-class student talent from around the country.
“UNM would suffer greatly,” Kennedy says. “Without them we would not have the great music, great talent that is offered at UNM.”