Musicians Seek Evaluation of Symphony Management

San Diego County Arts Writer

Representatives of the 90 San Diego Symphony musicians asked Wednesday that outside symphony experts be hired to evaluate the orchestra's business practices.

"We, the musicians, feel that there has been a long period of mismanagement," said Lynn Johnson, a former San Diego Symphony violist who is now an official in the American Federation of Musicians' national office in New York.

The unusual request was made to the symphony's board of directors during a midday meeting and was aimed at ensuring future financial solvency and boosting the 76-year-old orchestra's sagging credibility about the validity of its management, the musicians said.

The symphony's last-ditch drive to avoid bankruptcy went over its $2-million top Saturday with an outpouring of large and small contributions from San Diegans.

Although their request was couched in polite terms, orchestra representatives let the board know that they want something concrete done to prevent past mistakes from recurring.

"We . . . feel that now is the time for the symphony's board to take action in order to ensure that this organization will be run properly from now on," Greg Berton, chairman of the musicians' orchestra committee, told the board. In a statement, Berton suggested that the board hire a panel of symphony managers to review the orchestra's operations and management. He said that, in a similar situation in 1982, the Syracuse Symphony, which had "an overwhelmingly large accumulated deficit," brought in a board of expert symphony managers. After analyzing the operations, they made suggestions that were implemented.

Berton said the changes in Syracuse markedly improved the orchestra's operations. He said the effect of such a study in San Diego would be enhanced credibility for the symphony and a likelihood that new symphony donors might step forward.

Symphony Executive Director Richard Bass said that, while he plans to call the American Symphony Orchestra League to determine the cost of a review of operations, he was skeptical of any direct benefits from such an action. "I have complete confidence in what the league consultants have to offer," Bass said. "But I'm sure it will be nothing I'm not aware of. I've served on these consultancies myself."

While Bass didn't think there were direct benefits in such a review, he concurred that a review would be good for the orchestra's credibility.

Last week community leaders underlined a perception in the business community that the orchestra is not well-managed.

"The symphony may be absolutely right in their evaluation of the books as being well-managed and well-run," Mike Madigan, a vice president of Pardee Construction Co., said last week. "But there's a public perception out there now that's a concern. That perception must be dealt with."

Symphony board President M.B. (Det) Merryman reacted positively to the musicians' presentation, saying: "The orchestra has a lot of good ideas. We appreciated their input."

The musicians also gave the board members copies of a chart showing 10 other orchestras with similar budgets but with higher minimum pay scales. Among major orchestras, the San Diego Symphony has one of the lowest minimum annual wages.

But board member Carol Randolph said the chart did not indicate the size of the orchestras, the size of the orchestras' endowment (San Diego's is minuscule), or whether the listed orchestras had its own hall, with attendant overhead. Randolph said the answers to those questions are "the kinds of things that informed board members should know."

Orchestra members are being asked to submit to pay cuts. Symphony management would like to cut four weeks from its 45-week contract with the players. That would amount to a 10% retroactive pay cut.

Bass has already cut four members from the symphony's administrative staff in recent weeks and leveled a 10% pay cut applicable to all staff members, although it is not retroactive. "That would be illegal for hourly employees," Bass said.

Berton said that, while he will listen to management's position, he will not agree to a pay cut now or when negotiations start for the next agreement.

"Negotiations are scheduled to begin 60 to 90 days before the expiration of the contract," Berton said, which is Sept. 1. He added that the orchestra members are unwilling to take a pay cut.

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