When Linda Proach and Valerie Pankratz founded the Plano Chamber Orchestra in 1983, the musicians played for free to help get it started. Now, as it begins its 17th season, the once-harmonious group, which changed its name to Plano Symphony Orchestra in 1998, faces discord over money.
The musicians and their union, the Dallas-Fort Worth Professional Musicians Association, are demanding salaries comparable to those paid by other local orchestras. They also want more control over which concerts and rehearsals they attend. The Plano Symphony Association is willing to raise the musicians' pay, but the two sides are split over how big those raises should be. The association is also seeking guarantees that the musicians will actually show up to play.
By the time the orchestra's first contract with the musicians expired August 31, the musicians' committee, which includes union President Ray Hair, with the musicians, had already submitted a proposal to the association. The proposal includes a pay raise from the current rate of $63.75 per rehearsal or concert to $78.50. The rate would increase by $5 a year for the next two years of the contract. The musicians are also asking for a pension fund and a clause that lets them "opt out" of the service contracts up to 21 days before they are to perform or attend a rehearsal. These contracts are signed in July when the musicians choose which concerts and rehearsals they plan to attend from the next season's schedule.
Management rejected the proposal. Plano Symphony Association executive director Alice Hobbs says the opt-out clause would compromise the symphony's ability to find enough musicians for its concerts. "They want the right to change their minds about the ones they signed up for 21 days before the concert. During certain times, especially the holidays, we'd be hard-pressed to find enough people to fill each spot with only 21 days' notice," she says. "We like for them to have the opportunity [to accept jobs with other orchestras] if it will not create a hardship for our orchestra. We need them to give us the time to find a substitute. We expect them to take better-paying jobs sometimes, but our orchestra's artistic integrity should not be impaired by independent contractors changing their minds at will. I find it amazing. They're saying the contract is basically meaningless."
The symphony association has submitted its own contract proposal, which offers a 34 percent pay raise. The first year, musicians would earn $69 for each performance or rehearsal they attend. Principal musicians in each section would earn $81. The amounts would increase over the next four years of the contract to $87 and $100, respectively. Hair says the symphony's proposal does not put the Plano musicians' salaries in line with other local orchestras whose musicians earn $70 to $75 per job.
"That still puts them farther and farther behind the orchestras that neighbor Plano. It's about Plano's willingness to pay the rate, which they can well afford to do. The Plano Symphony Association has said they want to stockpile money. We feel that is at the expense of the musicians whose performances helped raise that money in the first place," he says.
Hobbs counters that the symphony does not have a stockpile, just a cash reserve it uses like an endowment. The budget, she says, is made from the interest off the reserve, ticket sales, gifts, and fund-raising.
The symphony association is also seeking greater commitments from the musicians who sign on with the orchestra. The symphony is made up of a core of 35 musicians on a "basic hiring list." Before the season begins, musicians who audition and win seats on the list must choose which concerts and rehearsals they will attend. Currently, they must attend at least half of the performances and rehearsals or they will lose their guaranteed jobs and be placed in a pool of substitutes the symphony uses to replace or add members. The symphony wants to raise the attendance requirement to 75 percent.
Musicians complain that the higher attendance rate will curb or end their chances to play with other local symphonies, including the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Dallas Opera Orchestra, which is how many of them earn their living.
"I think it's very punitive, very unfair, very unrealistic with the way musicians put their lives together," says Pankratz, who also plays with the Richardson Symphony Orchestra and substitutes for several other local bands. "Most of us play in other orchestras and have to try to meet all their standards. We have to try to juggle our schedules just to stay in them."
Her fellow co-founder and violinist Proach says, "We're independent contractors. We can't just work for one symphony." Both are on the basic hiring list and serve on the negotiating team.
Hobbs says that she tries to schedule the orchestra's concerts around other local symphonies to accommodate musicians who play in multiple orchestras, but that it's difficult since the symphony doesn't have its own venue and the contract with the musicians' union requires them to schedule so far in advance. "We realize that what we offer is only supplemental income to the musicians. They can't live off of it. And we realize that a lot of the members have to play in several organizations. We realize that when they get a more substantial offer they want to accept it," she says, adding that the Plano orchestra also needs musicians who attend and play regularly.
"We feel [a higher attendance rate] will help us grow artistically and create a consistency in the musicians. That should make a better orchestra that plays together more often and has a more consistent sound," she says. "They'll have the chance to get to know each other musically. I think it gives musicians confidence to play together frequently."
The two sides are meeting this week, but not to discuss proposals. Instead they will discuss a musician's grievance under the old contract, which was extended to allow the musicians to rehearse and play with the orchestra while a new contract is negotiated. Meanwhile all contract negotiations are stalled. Hobbs says the symphony's proposal is "very generous." Hair maintains that the symphony has the money to meet the musicians' demands, but would rather save it or use it to raise staff salaries.
"Why do they expect their musicians to play for so little?" Hair asks. "Is it so they can go back to the country club, sit down in front of the big screen, and brag that they got someone to do this for them? Why is it so important for them to beat the musicians out of one more dollar?"
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.