Symphony Discord, Money Woes Trim Season by 3 Weeks

Times Staff Writer

The ongoing labor dispute between musicians and the San Diego Symphony Orchestra Assn. hit a new low Monday when symphony executives canceled the first three weeks of the 1986-87 concert season, which was to begin in 10 days.

Announcement of the cancellation came only hours after the musicians' union and symphony association failed in an 11th-hour attempt to agree on a new contract.

Cancellation of any part of the concert season is unprecedented, according to symphony officials.

"Our time has run out," said symphony executive director Wesley Brustad. "With the season scheduled to open one week from Thursday, we could wait no longer to notify our patrons or to handle the myriad of details that go into putting on a performance."

The decision to curtail the symphony's 25-week winter season by three weeks is the latest sign of the problems facing the financially troubled orchestra.

Last spring, the symphony teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. Only a frantic, 10-day fund-raising drive that raised about $2.6 million saved the symphony then.

Less than a year ago, the symphony's future glowed as brilliantly as searchlights on opening night when it moved in November into its new $4.8-million concert hall, the renovated Fox Theater downtown.

A continuing operating deficit, however, still haunts the symphony and is the reason San Diego symphony musicians are among the lowest paid of any major orchestra in the country.

About $1 million must be cut from the symphony's operating budget of $7.5 million to reach a state of "financial stability necessary for the survival of the symphony," in the words of Herbert J. Solomon, the San Diego lawyer who is president of the symphony association.

Solomon, in a "open letter to San Diegans" released Monday, said "every effort is being made to maximize income from all sources including increased ticket sales and contributed income. Even with all of these measures, the projected budget for this coming year still reflects an operating loss. It is, therefore, not financially responsible for us to offer more to the musicians at this time."

About 40% of the proposed $1-million budget reduction is to come out of the paychecks of musicians, whose contract expired Aug. 31 and who are now faced with proposals that not only would lower their salary but also would shorten their season from 45 to 40 weeks.

Negotiators for the union, the American Federation of Musicians, contend that the symphony's latest proposal would reduce the minimum salaries by 10.7%. The symphony association says its final three-year contract proposal, which the union unanimously rejected Sunday, amounts to a 7.8% reduction from last year's annual wages.

The symphony's contract proposal would cut the musicians' minimum wage from $21,250 a year to $19,600.

The terms offered by the symphony association--calculated with the concert reduction in place--include a pay increase of 3.7% and 40 weeks of work the first year, a 4.1% pay increase and 41 weeks of employment the second year, and a 3.9% rise in salary and 42 weeks of work in the third year.

Brustad said that, under the symphony's proposal, the wages of musicians would return to the level of their previous contract by next year and would rise slightly in the third year.

In response, the musicians say there is no way they can accept such a wage cut. Instead, union negotiators on Monday morning offered a "bare bones" alternative, a one-year contract calling for a minimum of $500 a week and 45 weeks of work.

Symphony executives, insisting instead on paying $490 a week for 40 weeks, turned the union's proposal down and then announced the three-week cancellation.

"We feel we made a very good shot at setting it today. . . . we want to see the season opened," said Liza Hirsch Du Brul, a New York attorney who is heading the union's nine-person negotiating team.

The difference between the union's latest offer and the symphony association's proposal amounts to "a little less than $500,000," according to Brustad. "We're absolutely at our limit. . . . the numbers can't change," he said.

Some musicians, such as Arlen Fast, a symphony bassoonist for eight years and a member of the negotiating committee, question how the symphony can ask for pay cuts when only last spring it assured patrons that the symphony was again on firm financial footing, after the $2.6-million fund drive.

Asked to respond, Brustad said: "I think what we want to tell these people is that we're protecting their investment."

The announcement of the cancellation didn't do anything to undermine the resolve of musicians, some of whom formed a tuxedoed informational picket line Monday in front of Symphony Hall.

"My gut feeling is they didn't have any intention all along of opening the season on schedule," said Peter Chase, a viola player who has performed with the symphony for two years. Asked whether further cancellations might begin to erode the musicians' solidarity, Chase replied: "I will not give in to any unreasonable proposal no matter what they do."

Expressing similar sentiments was Mike Fellinger, who has played bass trombone with the symphony for eight years.

"It's (cancellation) not the best sign, but I've seen it coming for weeks," he said. "I'm ready to hold out as long as I have to. . . . I would rather change professions before I would accept what they are offering, which is working for bargain rates."

While both sides in the labor dispute contend that they are at an impasse, it is an impasse without acrimony. They both say they are ready to meet again if new proposals are forthcoming.

Brustad said that, at Monday's ill-fated negotiating session, symphony negotiators suggested that a federal mediator may be needed to resolve the dispute, though neither side has formalized the suggestion.

Symphony officials say that, if agreement on a new contract is reached by Oct. 27, the symphony can begin performing on Nov. 13.

As for the canceled concerts, subscribers will be given the option of exchanging their tickets for a concert later in the season; receiving a refund for the canceled performances, or donating their tickets to the symphony as a tax-deductible contribution.

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