by Rochelle Skolnick, AFM Symphonic Services Division Director
The past month has brought a flurry of activity for US and Canadian symphony, opera, and ballet orchestras.
Unfortunately, none of it has to do with the musicians of those orchestras reaching new heights of music-making on stages or in orchestra pits—and all of it has to do with each institution’s response to the sudden and complete cessation of live performance work for the near and foreseeable future. Together, the musicians, managers, and boards of our institutions are writing a chapter of symphonic history none of us could have anticipated nor ever hoped to write.
As in any saga, there are those who emerge heroic, those who stumble before finding their footing, and those who act destructively, showing themselves ill-suited to the leadership roles they occupy. In many cases, the managers of our symphonic institutions have risen to the current challenge by continuing compensation for musicians and assuring they will have access to health care, a right that has never been more essential than it is now. Some have done so with the assistance of institutional loans through the Paycheck Protection Program, created by the CARES Act (which went into effect on March 27) or the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (which went into effect on March 15). Others have provided only token compensation or left musicians to fend for themselves. These are among the darkest spots in a dark time.
Musicians are inherently creative. “Driving-for-dollars” orchestra musicians, in particular, are accustomed to cobbling together a living from many different income sources. But the current circumstances—in which many musicians are left to weave their own safety nets from rounds of Zoom lessons while waiting for unemployment claims to process and federal subsidies to arrive—try even the most resourceful souls. Those of you who are struggling—we see you.
International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) Chair Meredith Snow’s account in this section outlines where things stand for the musicians of many ICSOM orchestras as of press time. Like their ICSOM peers, the leaders of many Organization of Canadian Symphony Musicians (OCSM) and Regional Orchestra Players Association (ROPA) orchestras have chosen to do the right thing by continuing compensation for at least the remainder of the 2019-2020 season.
Among ROPA orchestras, the musicians of the Austin Symphony, Fort Wayne Philharmonic, Harrisburg Symphony, Houston Ballet, Los Angeles Opera, Lincoln Symphony, Madison Symphony, Memphis Symphony, Minnesota Opera, Omaha Symphony, Pacific Symphony, Reading Symphony, Rhode Island Philharmonic, and Richmond Symphony will receive full or nearly full compensation through the end of the 2019-2020 season. Many other ROPA orchestras have paid musicians for at least the first few weeks of canceled concerts or will provide partial pay through the end of the season, including orchestras in Akron, Arizona Opera, Chattanooga, Delaware, Duluth, Hartford, Kalamazoo, and Sarasota.
All six Canadian full-time orchestras that treat musicians as employees—Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Kitchener-Waterloo, Québec, and Nova Scotia—are eligible for assistance through the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS). CEWS pays 75% of weekly salaries up to $847; these orchestras will pay musicians an amount at least equal to the wage subsidy to the end of their regularly scheduled seasons. For Canadian orchestra musicians who have self-employed status, the picture is more complex. As of press time, it was not clear whether these orchestras would qualify for CEWS, but for now, every OCSM orchestra whose musicians have a guarantee of weeks or services is paying its musicians at least a partial amount. This includes a number of orchestras, such as the Windsor Symphony Orchestra and the National Arts Centre Orchestra, that have committed to paying their musicians their minimum annual commitment, despite the fact that they may not be eligible for the wage subsidy. Fortunately, self-employed Canadian musicians who lose work due to COVID-19 are eligible to receive the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) of $2,000 per month.
In a few cases, it has been a challenge to persuade managers to commit to paying musicians—even in orchestras that don’t have force majeure language in their agreements and do qualify for wage subsidies through Canadian or US governmental programs. The hard work, creativity, and commitment of our orchestra committees is always one of our greatest assets, and this has been especially true as we work to persuade orchestras to do the right thing.
AFM Symphonic Services Division (SSD) staff in the US and Canada work long hours every week with dozens of orchestra institutions, local unions, and orchestra committees to help finalize compensation packages and to craft media solutions that will allow those institutions to stay visible and remain connected with their patrons, donors, and community during this time when live performance in the concert hall is impossible. We check in each Monday at noon with the leadership of ICSOM, OCSM, and ROPA, sharing challenges and accomplishments. In these interactions, we have been moved, impressed, and encouraged by the dedication our musician representatives at every level have shown to their fellow musicians, their audiences, and their art. It goes without saying that we confront today challenges unlike any we’ve known before, but we do so unified in purpose and energized by the tasks at hand.
If you are a symphonic musician and you are struggling, please reach out to your orchestra committee, your local union, or directly to SSD. We will do our best to help in any way we can. Together, we will get through this.