New York Philharmonic agrees to restore pay for musicians
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New York Philharmonic agrees to restore pay for musicians
The New York Philharmonic performs at Alice Tully Hall in New York, March 9, 2022. After a stronger-than-expected season, the orchestra said it would reverse pay cuts imposed at the height of the pandemic. Caitlin Ochs/The New York Times.

by Javier C. Hernández

NEW YORK, NY.- When the coronavirus pandemic erupted in 2020, battering the cultural sector and forcing the New York Philharmonic to cancel a season, the orchestra worked to cut costs, slashing its musicians’ pay by 25%.

The Philharmonic promised at the time to reverse those cuts, which provided more than $20 million in savings, once its financial outlook brightened. And Monday, the orchestra announced it would do so in September, much earlier than expected.

The decision to restore pay is a milestone in the Philharmonic’s recovery, and it offered some hope that the worst of the pandemic, which cost the orchestra more than $27 million in anticipated ticket revenue, had passed.

“There’s nothing more important than our musicians,” president and CEO Deborah Borda said. “It was just a very important act to make.”

Borda said government grants and loans, an increase in donations and better-than-expected ticket sales during the 2021-22 season made the decision possible. The orchestra is on track to finish its season without missing a performance, and it just concluded a series of concerts in Europe, at a time when many ensembles have been unable to tour.

“We’re in a different phase of life now,” she said.

The Philharmonic is at a pivotal moment. The $550 million renovation of its home, David Geffen Hall, is to be completed in the fall. And the orchestra is searching for a music director to replace its departing leader, Jaap van Zweden, who steps down in 2024.

The pay cuts had been a source of distress among players as the Philharmonic prepared for its new chapter.

In December 2020, the Philharmonic and its musicians agreed to a four-year contract that included 25% cuts to base pay, which was then about $2,900 per week, through August 2023. Under the deal, pay was set to gradually increase until the expiration of the contract in September 2024, although musicians would have been paid less at the end than they were before the pandemic.

But as coronavirus cases fell last year and audiences returned, the Philharmonic’s fiscal outlook brightened. Ticket sales in the 2021-22 season have been better than expected: Attendance at subscription concerts was 90%, although the orchestra was playing in smaller halls with Geffen Hall being renovated. Donations have been strong, rising by 11% to $31.5 million in 2020, the last year for which data is available. The Philharmonic also received grants and loans of more than $16 million from the federal government.

In October, the Philharmonic began making payments to musicians to offset the pay cuts. But it was not until Monday that the orchestra vowed to fully restore musicians’ pay for the remainder of the contract.

Trombonist Colin Williams, head of the players negotiating committee, said the decision would help reassure musicians who have grappled with the uncertainties of the pandemic.

“We’re feeling much more confident about our institution again — our place in it and our place in the city,” he said. “We somehow weathered this incredibly traumatic time and have come out of it stronger and more cohesive than we were before.”

Borda said the Philharmonic still faced financial risks, including the possible emergence of new variants of the coronavirus. Although the orchestra remains in what she called “a state of suspended fluidity,” she said it was important to stay focused on the future, including the opening of Geffen Hall, which she described as “light at the end of the tunnel.”

“We improvise, we move forward,” she said. “We are placing our money on the fact that we are moving ahead.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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