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As contract dispute continues, a competition for Springfield's classical music audience

 The Springfield Symphony Orchestra, performing at Symphony Hall in 2019.
Springfield Symphony Orchestra
The Springfield Symphony Orchestra, performing at Symphony Hall in 2019.

Live music from the Springfield Symphony Orchestra has been missing for a couple of years, not only because of the pandemic but because of an ongoing contract dispute between the SSO and its musicians.

Over the last few months, the players have formed their own arts organization, called the Musicians of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, or MOSSO.

NEPM's Carrie Healey and Jill Kaufman spoke about the dispute and new developments.

Carrie Healy: So the musicians, known as the Musicians of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, or MOSSO, are performing this weekend at Symphony Hall, and they've recently actually hired people to run the box office and a general manager?

Jill Kaufman: Yes. As you said, the musicians still don't have a contract with the Springfield Symphony. But there was a settlement with the National Labor Relations Board a few months ago and each musician received a few thousand dollars. They've pooled that money and hired staff to run MOSSO as a licensed nonprofit.

Douglas Evans was hired as the equivalent of a general manager, though he's called a management consultant. Evans was the CEO of the Bushnell in Hartford, which — as you know — is a major performance space, including for the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.

So is this off-shoot group trying to replace the Springfield Symphony Orchestra?

I asked Douglas Evans. He told me they can't compete with something that doesn't exist.

"There is no orchestra at the SSO. without content, of which are these wonderful professional musicians. The SSO is just a board with a staff who are putting on two concerts that was forced upon them by the NLRB through a settlement. So there's no competition, there's no shadow orchestra. MOSSO is the organization that is presenting and providing live professional classical music to Western Massachusetts and Springfield in Symphony Hall."
Douglas Evans, MOSSO

Evans said people are donating money to the musicians' group. One anonymous donor gave them $9,000. That's not going to go too far in supporting a full symphony, but Enans said others want to donate.

So is he encouraging or discouraging musicians from making a contract agreement with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra?

Evans says he's hoped from the beginning that the musicians and the Springfield Symphony Orchestra could settle their dispute. The musicians have said that too. And he said the musicians would like to take Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno up on an offer he made to mediate.

In an email, Mayor Sarno told us he's asked the SSO Board numerous times to come to City Hall and hammer out a deal with the musicians. But they have declined.

"I am totally disappointed and frustrated that the SSO Board has continued to reject and refuse my requests."
Mayor Domenic Sarno

What did the SSO say to you about the mayor's offer?

Well, this request fell to the SSO's recently hired interim executive director, Paul Lambert, who said he appreciates the mayor's good wishes and he respects him wanting to get involved in this, but Lambert said it's not the way an agreement will come about.

"We have to return to the bargaining table. That's certainly part of the NLRB settlement. But it's also just it's the way it has to work legally."
Paul Lambert, SSO

Lambert is new to the SSO, but many people around Springfield know him for his work at the Basketball Hall of Fame, and also his past work on the board of our radio station.

Since he started a few months ago, the SSO has revamped its website, they're starting to hire staff. The Youth Orchestra is up and running. They're also getting ready for those two spring concerts that are the result of the NLRB settlement.

And what is the SSO's take on the musicians and their new organization?

Paul Lambert won't say much, but he told me this:

"I'm not going to comment specifically on actions that MOSSO has has taken. I don't think it would be appropriate for me to speak directly, beyond saying that anything we do that adds to the confusion in the marketplace and a sense of disquiet and anxiety among our great patrons, donors, sponsors, fans — is too bad."
Paul Lambert, SSO

He is referring to the reality that there is only so much audience for classical music in Springfield.

I should note here, Carrie, before all this got going, ticket sales to see the Springfield Symphony Orchestra had been on the decline for a few years. And they're not the only orchestra. That's happening for orchestras around the country.

I know the SSO has announced it is producing six concerts next season — that's 2022-2023. Will musicians perform without a contract?

During negotiations last year, that was another sticking point for the musicians. They want to perform more than six.

Legally, Lambert said and the union attorney said, the SSO can hire musicians to play based on the last agreed to contract.

And without being specific, Lambert also said the SSO has to learn from its past — what's gone right and what's gone wrong — in an effort to survive and move on. But he also said there is definitely a lot of scar tissue on both sides of this disagreement.

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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