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'They Are Blaming Us': Contract Fight Threatens Springfield Symphony Orchestra Season

In this file photo, Kevin Rhodes conducts the Springfield Symphony Orchestra.
File photo
The Republican / masslive.com
In this file photo, Kevin Rhodes conducts the Springfield Symphony Orchestra.

The Springfield Symphony Orchestra board and its musicians are waging a public debate over union contracts, including the length of the upcoming season.

The SSO, touted as Massachusetts' largest symphony outside Boston, faces many financial challenges, according to its board. And they say the problems existed well before the pandemic.

The SSO hasn't played together since before March 2020. This year in April, its executive director resigned. And at the end of May, the contract of longtime Maestro Kevin Rhodes wrapped up.

Rhodes is in Milan right now, rehearsing with a ballet orchestra at La Scala.

As to whether he’ll conduct in Springfield again, he said, reservedly, “That decision lies in the hands of people other than me.”

Rhodes said he would love to return — though seemed surprised his name was still on the SSO's website.

The musicians are also without a contract. They've been in negotiations with the SSO board since last year.

The most recent offer from the board came last week. It's a one-year contract for a season that begins in December, with about half the usual number of concerts.

The symphony’s interim executive director, John Anz, said the SSO must think beyond this season. He said they've been losing tens of thousands of dollars a year, for years.

“We're asking the musicians to understand the predicament and to consider a partial one-year [contract] while we figure out how we get past one year,” he said.

Anz said it's not like the SSO is going to run out of money in one year; their endowment is north of $7 million. Still, just coming out of the pandemic, even half a season is a risk.

“We also need to figure out, you know, how much more risk?” Anz said. “How many more concerts? What does year two look like, once we know: Does everyone come back to Symphony Hall this winter and next spring or not?”

Anz said it's a mischaracterization by the musicians to think that the board has any agenda except to keep the SSO alive. But the musicians say the orchestra is in peril.

“They are blaming us, and saying because we won't settle on a contract, they can't hire Kevin, they can't plan a season. And that is just patently false,” said Beth Welty, who has played violin with the SSO for 38 years.

“The term of what I would call our current contract actually did expire August 31 of 2020,” she said. “But this has happened many times before, where the contract expires, and then we just extend the current conditions.”

In the past, seasons would be advertised, tickets would be sold — without new contracts.

Under federal law, the most current collective bargaining agreement usually stays in place until a successor agreement is reached, said labor attorney Harvey Mars. He represents the SSO musicians, and noted that past agreements have been three-year terms.

“We, of course, would prefer a multi-term contract,” Mars said. “One issue is that if we agree to this one-year agreement, the five performances would now become our status quo rather than the 10.”

The offer from the SSO does include a 4% pay raise. Mars said that's not unimportant, but it’s based on far fewer concerts.

SSO musicians are taking their fight to the steps on Symphony Hall. On Saturday, about 20 string, wind, brass and percussion musicians will perform there — for free. A little Mozart, a little Bach, maybe some Sousa marches. It's billed as a rally for live classical music in Springfield.

And next week, contract negotiations continue.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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