Unfinished Symphony

The arrival of a brilliant conductor was drowned out by labor discord. Now the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra begins a new season -- with some strings attached.

The idea is a novel one. In an economic climate with dwindling patience for struggling arts organizations, a sizable endowment will help insulate the symphony should annual giving falter. It also removes some of the annual fundraising pressure, theoretically allowing the SLSO to concentrate on music-making -- and possibly to broaden its audience base with lower ticket prices.

"Would [Adams'] model take a lot of the pressure off and allow the orchestra to take more artistic risks? The answer is absolutely yes," Fogel says. "If it is true that many of the large orchestras are having a shortfall, maybe the current model isn't the right one. Randy Adams is a very smart man. I admire his finance knowledge and his willingness to look a business model in the face and say, 'It's wrong, and I think we ought to look for a different model.'"

During last winter's labor negotiations, the musicians agreed that the endowment should not be raided to fund salary increases. But they asked Adams to secure funding earmarked specifically for salaries. He balked.

Chicago Tribune music critic John von Rhein deemed incoming maestro David Robertson "the most gifted of the new generation of American conductors."
Chicago Tribune music critic John von Rhein deemed incoming maestro David Robertson "the most gifted of the new generation of American conductors."

"[Adams] says, 'No, I don't have that money to spend. The [money] is for the endowment, and I only have 5 percent,'" says Jan Gippo, who was on the negotiating committee and is the chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, a conference within the symphony's union, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). "He isn't going to pay us, because he's saying that he doesn't have enough money to sustain those rates."

The musicians inquired about a bridge loan similar to the $2 million bailout of 2001. "He said we're not going to have any more stopgap funding," Gippo recounts. "He wouldn't even think about it."

Responds Adams: "I couldn't find it. There were people willing to give $10,000 or $20,000 [toward a bridge loan], but I needed $1 million. And that would just delay the problem.

"You don't raise the kind of money we have in this community unless you have the trust and confidence of major donors," Adams adds. "To get that we had to regain trust from a number of people who were fed up with the symphony. If I had agreed to something that would blow our plan, we would not raise another penny."

Management called the ensuing work stoppage a "strike"; musicians called it a "lockout." Either way, it was a bitter conflict: Management cut off musicians' healthcare benefits, a move that came to light after cellist Melissa Brooks-Rubright brought her toddler to the emergency room with a fever-induced seizure and was informed by the billing office that she wasn't covered. Adams also barred English horn player Marc Gordon from recording in Powell Hall when he discovered that a member of the musicians' negotiating committee, principal trumpeter Susan Slaughter, was booked as a participant. And weeks into the work stoppage, Adams filed a complaint with the St. Louis office of the National Labor Relations Board alleging that the musicians had failed to file the proper paperwork and were therefore engaged in an illegal strike.

Fearing a fine, officials from the American Federation of Musicians local said the players would return to work for 30 days in order to satisfy the law, then walk out again. But after the NLRB in St. Louis suggested that the strike was illegal, the local urged musicians to head back to the negotiating table rather than put up a fight in federal court. A mediation session was arranged, and the musicians approved a contract.

Many players remain bitter, asserting that the AFM local bowed unnecessarily. Even if the court had ruled against them, they could have restarted the process after the required 30 days back at work. "How could that have happened?" Gippo asks rhetorically. "If the local had backed us. But they didn't. They sided with management. They betrayed us."

Before signing, the musicians passed a vote of no-confidence in Adams. But in the end they agreed to a three-and-a-half-year contract with base pay starting at $74,000, plus a $2,500 signing bonus (a gift from an anonymous donor). Salaries are to increase $1,000 per year, with a $4,000 bonus to be paid at the end of the final year. In the next round of negotiations, bargaining will open at $76,000.

Every musician interviewed for this article praised their executive director's fundraising prowess. But they fear Adams' cure may kill them.

"He saved us," says violist Lynn Hague. "He saved us by cutting off our arms and legs."

I've had a deal with myself to retire before I started sounding bad," says Marc Gordon between sips of Saint Louis Bread Co. coffee. "But watching what's been happening over the past three or four years here -- and then the eight-week work stoppage -- really pushed me to the decision. As I told Randy Adams: It is a miserable environment."

Far from "sounding bad," the Chicago native retired from the SLSO at the top of his game. Widely recognized as one of the nation's most gifted musicians, Gordon was snapped up for several concerts by the Chicago symphony when word leaked he'd be leaving St. Louis after 33 years.

"This orchestra has given and given and given," Gordon says of the musicians. "When is it going to come back? You can't ask people to give up so much for so long [without] paying them back. It's been too long."

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