Contract extension keeps Philadelphia Orchestra playing, for now

Posted: July 10, 2011

Players and management of the Philadelphia Orchestra have opted for labor peace - at least for a few weeks.

Rather than seeking to abrogate the current contract and impose a new one in bankruptcy court, the Philadelphia Orchestra Association offered musicians an extension on a concessionary contract through Nov. 13.

Players, in residence at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, voted Friday to accept the extension, which keeps the base minimum compensation at $2,400 a week, or $124,800 annually (though most players make more, and some much more).

This gives both sides more time to reach a long-term deal while the association's Chapter 11 case continues. It also means this summer's planned residencies in Montreal and Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and three-week European tour in August and September can proceed without fear of a work stoppage.

"One hopes this gives both sides the time to find a solution," said cellist John Koen, chairman of the members committee.

Less certain is the October start of the orchestra's regular season in Philadelphia. In the current agreement, the association has the right, as of Aug. 22, to ask U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Eric L. Frank to replace the terms of the contract. (Before the extension, the association could have made a July 1 request to impose new terms.) Under bankruptcy procedure, the judge would hold a trial and render a decision after several weeks. If players responded with a strike, the 2011-12 season could be disrupted.

Talks between management and musicians have continued with assistance from George H. Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, who has solicited proposals from both sides.

The main area of conflict involves not wages or work rules but pensions. In its bankruptcy petition, management is seeking to change its contract with players, and says it would like to change the pension from a defined-benefit to a defined-contribution plan.

Cohen has declined to comment on the talks. But according to two sources involved in the talks, he has said he cannot be optimistic because positions of the two sides have remained unchanged.

The American Federation of Musicians has taken the position that any liabilities owed to the pension should be paid by the association, even if it means tapping some of the orchestra's $120 million in endowments. The association says that money must remain untouched.

The bankruptcy judge, after holding a July 1 phone conference with lawyers, agreed to a July 21 hearing to begin an exploration of whether the orchestra's endowments should be used to satisfy any pension liabilities it might incur if it insists on withdrawing from the current pension plan.

Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or Read his blog, "ArtsWatch," at


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