Laura Ross  

Growing Pains: Nashville's Transition From ROPA To ICSOM

Laura Ross
May 23, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

Orchestras are always talking about "moving to the next level," but how exactly do they go about accomplishing that task? Is there a prescribed formula dictating which steps to take and in what order? Do the musicians simply wait for events to transpire, or can they serve a compelling force capable of inspiring the organization to reach its full artistic and economic potential?

Among the professional orchestras throughout North America, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra has encountered every possible high and low an organization can experience in a span of only 20 years. Within that period, they've endured everything from a dark period of bankruptcy to the exhilarating high of raising $120 million for a Symphony Center they own and operate that opens in September, 2006.

Nashville Symphony Orchestra violinist Laura Ross has been with the organization throughout that entire period and she chronicles those events for Polyphonic.org in this article and describes how the Nashville Symphony musicians played an integral role throughout every step in the process.

- Drew McManus

I should begin by stating that the Nashville Symphony, according to ICSOM - 40 Years of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians by Tom Hall, was a member of ICSOM for two or three years prior to the formation of the Regional Orchestra Players’ Association (ROPA). When ROPA was formed, the Nashville Symphony became a charter member. Membership requirements for ICSOM at the time we “re-joined” in 2000 called for an orchestra complement of no less than 60 musicians, each earning a base salary of at least $15,000. According to our 1987-88 contract, we would have qualified at that time, and again in 1997 (In 2003, the salary requirement for membership in ICSOM was increased to $25,000).

In 1984, having hired Music Director Kenneth Schermerhorn and Associate Conductor Amerigo Marino, musicians were joining the Nashville Symphony (myself among them) with the belief that the orchestra was moving in a positive direction toward full-time, major orchestra status. Salaries were staggeringly low (between $4,325 to $9,200 for most – I was making $5,842 my first season) in comparison to conductors’ salaries.

Promises and expectations led the musicians to strike for 7 weeks during my first season in February of 1985. The strike resulted in a contract that increased the core orchestra from 32 musicians to 70 in just four years (and a full complement of 82 musicians), with the bulk of the upgrades (23 musicians) in the final year. Services increased from 200 to 312 over a 43-week period with two weeks of paid vacation. The final year would also move from a three-tiered to a two-tiered orchestra. The base core salary was $17,500 in the final year of the contract.

While the board approached the musicians to change the terms of the final year of the agreement (one proposal included paying the core salary only to those 47 musicians who held core contracts in the 1986-87 season), the musicians eventually rejected the proposals and the board withdrew the offer. Afterward, the new board chairman agreed to honor the final year of that current contract.

Not long after the 1987-88 season began, the stock market’s significant drop in October of 1987 resulted in the suspension of all current and planned fundraising efforts. There was one week of brief take-it-or-leave-it “negotiations” (take the immediate 26% pay cut or we shutdown) in January of 1988. One week later the board did, in fact, shut the whole thing down and laid off the entire orchestra and staff, with the exception of the acting Executive Director/former Development Director.

Undoubtedly, one of many crucial mistakes made by management and the board, aside from the lack of investigating alternate solutions rather than shutting down, was a failure to pay into unemployment prior to the shutdown. This caused an additional debt of more than $500,000 since they had to reimburse the State of Tennessee following bankruptcy for unpaid unemployment contributions.

In hindsight, the musicians also made a crucial mistake by accepting a contract that was heavily back-loaded (a contract which contains the bulk of improvements toward the end), especially in light of charges that the Executive Director at that time had informed others he had no intention of honoring the final year of the agreement. It was the ultimate “bad-faith” bargaining scenario. Another crucial mistake was a lack of understanding about how much the orchestra was (or was not) supported by the community at the time.

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Comments (Click to Hide)

This is an article every ROPA orchestra should post on their bulletin boards. Especially around negotiating season! I realize that not every ROPA would like to end up a success story just like Nashville; some just want to stay the course. But isn't it about time to hear about how an orchestra pushed its way through the dirt, grew up and blossoms so beautifully like Nashville.

elizabethmiller on June 8, 2019 at 10:05 AM

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