Pops Musicians Seek Public Support

Officials involved with the recently-announced merger of the Pasadena Pops Orchestra with The Pasadena Symphony remained mute this week over claims by outraged musicians that nothing less than a mass firing is taking place.

And, results of two preliminary meetings held this week with the Professional Musicians Local 47 regarding charges of unfair labor practices and grievances against The Pasadena Symphony and the Pasadena Pops management were not released as of press time.

In the meantime, the soon-to-be fired musicians have launched their own website, www.pasadenapopsmusicians.org, in hopes of building public support.

The drama began to unfold late last month when the Pops musicians were informed just prior to their opening concert for the season at Descanso Gardens that there would be a merger of the two entities and their services would no longer be needed for the next season because their chairs would be filled by The Pasadena Symphony members who had right of first refusal to perform.

Under the new structure the Pops will officially dissolve on Oct. 1 and the name of the orchestra changed to Pasadena Pops Symphony, it was announced to the media. The Pasadena Symphony would still be conducted by Jorge Mester, who has been with the symphony for 25 years, and the Pops would still be conducted by Rachael Worby, who joined the organization in 1999. There was no mention in the announcement that the 65 Pops musicians, 40 of whom are tenured, would lose their jobs.

Attempts to reach Hal Espinosa, president of the Professional Musicians Local 47 executive board, for comment were unsuccessful. Telephone calls made to Worby seeking comment were not returned. Tom O'Connor, executive director of The Pasadena Symphony, was reached, but said that he could not comment on the subject.

According to several musicians affiliated with the Pops orchestra, the news of their firing came out of the blue. Orchestra members were in shock and disbelief, followed by anger that their orchestra would be taken over and they were losing their jobs without any forewarning, they said.

Letters to musicians

What made the sting of losing their jobs even more intense for the Pops musicians was that a letter was sent first to The Pasadena Symphony orchestra members telling them of the disbanding of the Pops orchestra and that they (The Pasadena Symphony) would be playing the next summer season.

According to Michelle Byrne, former chair of the Pops' musician's committee, after the Pasadena Symphony members received their letters, Henry Reed, acting executive director of the Pasadena Pops Orchestra, entered the Pops' rehearsal room saying that he had some letters for the musicians to read at their break.

Byrne said that after Reed put the papers on a table and was about to walk out the door, one of the musicians asked if he could read the letter to them immediately, which he did. The letter told of the merger and also mentioned that the entire orchestra was fired, according to Byrne. Another musician asked if there would be any severance pay for the musicians and Reed answered in the negative.

"The public needs to know this is not a merger but a takeover — a mass firing. I, along with many others, stand to lose our health insurance if we are fired from the Pops," Byrne said. "We have played our hearts out for this community, we hoped that we nourished [the audience's] summer souls. Please, don't let us disappear."

Many of the Pops musicians are founding members who have played with the orchestra for nearly 20 years, according to Byrne. The musicians in the orchestra dedicated most of their summers to playing at the Descanso Gardens venue, often turning down higher paying jobs with other orchestras because they felt loyalty to the Pops.

Paul Castillo, chair of the Pops' musicians' orchestra committee, said this week that he looks at the firing of the entire orchestra as a social injustice.

"It is an injustice to the community where we have played for nearly 20 years and to the subscribers who have been loyal to our orchestra," Castillo said. "I also feel it is not only an injustice to the musicians who put their heart and soul into the music, but to the institution itself. I think the bottom line is that we are trying to keep this orchestra together and we hope the community will support us in this effort."

Grievances filed

Since Worby has been onboard as conductor, problems within the Pasadena Pops organization have escalated, according to numerous musicians who declined to be identified for fear of retribution. They say that in recent years they have filed more than 30 grievances through the union against Pops management for demoting or dismissing people without cause or not following proper procedures.

Although the union's leader, Espinosa, could not be reached for comment for this article, he did say in a letter to musicians that the National Labor Relations Act and the master agreement between the Pasadena Symphony and the union require the orchestra to bargain with the union before implementing any new terms of employment for its musicians or those of the Pops. No bargaining took place, Espinosa wrote.

According to Espinosa's statement, Local 47 issued a written demandafter receiving news of the merger through a Pasadena Symphony press release, that the Pops Orchestra immediately begin bargaining with the union over its decision to dissolve Oct. 1, so that the merger could take place.

The union says that it had no knowledge that the consolidation of the two groups was imminent. Espinosa said that he had participated in a meeting with Pasadena Symphony representatives on May 21, during which time he was advised that the orchestra was only researching a potential purchase of the Pops' assets.

Espinosa also said that the orchestra would negotiate with the union over the effect the deal would have on both symphony and Pops musicians. The Pops charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board aimed to ensure that the final resolution regarding the staffing of future Pops concerts is the product of collective bargaining.

This weekend the Pasadena Pops will hold its second concert series in Descanso. The Pops musicians say they are committed to playing their best because they are professionals, but the sadness of what has happened to them remains.

"I believe that our orchestra has a distinctive voice and we respond to the joy that the audience gives back to us. I feel hurt that all of us have been asked to leave. It makes me even sadder that management doesn't recognize or acknowledge our commitment over the years and the hurt we are now feeling," said Phoebe Ray, a member of the Pops' musicians' committee.

Barry Socher, concertmaster, is very concerned about the fate of the orchestra. "The news of the orchestra being fired came without warning, we are still reeling. Everyone feels so unsettled," Socher said.

Steve Kaminsky, a longtime orchestra member, says that he loves this orchestra and it seems to him that the musicians seem to just get better and better. "Right now there are a lot of bad feelings among the orchestra members. I don't understand why Pops management would want to fire this orchestra that has worked so well together for so many years. I can't help but think if it isn't broke, don't try to fix it," Kaminsky said.

"It seems to me that there must be some hidden agenda somewhere that we (the orchestra) don't know about. It makes no economic sense to me to change out the orchestra since the pay scale for the Pops orchestra players is lower than that of The Pasadena Symphony. Not only doesn't it make any money sense to me but it also doesn't make any artistic sense either because the Pops players are seasoned professionals," said Kaminsky.

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