Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra needs support

Budget cuts leave musicians salaries on chopping block, need for public to step up

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra practiced for the first time Wednesday for its season-opening concert, even though the musicians' contract expired at the beginning of the month and no solution is in sight.

The symphony is dealing with intense labor trouble. After the organization declared an impasse, it proceeded to impose its last offer that includes pay cuts of nearly 20 percent. The musicians union then filed a complaint of unfair labor practices with federal authorities. But both sides agree the show must go on.

The organization says it is facing more than $3 million in debt and can't sustain the current payroll levels. If it doesn't make cuts by the end of the season, the debt is projected to grow to $4.5 million.

The musicians say they lost about $10,000 during a lockout before signing their last contract five years ago, then worked without an increase for four years.

The original proposal by the Symphony board was for the musicians to take a 10-percent pay cut and shorten the work week, which would amount to a 19-percent pay cut. The newest proposal by the musicians is to take a voluntary 3 percent pay cut for this year and next year, then return to current pay in the third year.

"It's tough because we've trained our whole lives to play music," principal clarinetist Peter Wright said. "To have to worry about feeding our families is a big concern to us."

Wright has played with the Jacksonville Symphony for 38 years and says it has already lost a violinist because of the pay cuts.

"We hope to come to an agreement at some point, but we didn't want to disappoint our audience because they are the most important part and they're expecting us to play, and we're going to play and just do the best job we possibly can," Wright said.

Among the reasons for the shortfall: Subscriptions are down and health care costs are up.

The symphony says the public can help.

"What the public can do is support the symphony," Jacksonville Symphony Chairman Martin Connor said. "Buy tickets. Support the tickets. We depend on contributions on half the revenue, heavily dependent on contributions."

Conner said the Symphony this week implemented the 10-percent pay cut. He said it has already put a cost reduction plan in place and all staff employees have already taken pay cuts.

He said worst case scenario is the Symphony could go away.

Connor pointed out that Jacksonville isn't alone in finding enough revenue to keep the music playing.

Symphonies are on strike or their musicians are locked out in Chicago, Atlanta, Minneapolis, San Antonio and Minnesota.

Twenty symphonies have closed their doors or gone bankrupt in the last few years.

"The problem in a nutshell is that we've been losing money every year," Connor said. "We've been saying we'll sell more tickets, next year will be better next year will be better, and it hasn't been."

Connor said this year, the public will play a bigger role than even keeping Jacksonville's symphony alive.

"Like every symphony in the world, we depend on contributions and ticket sales -- over 40 to 45 percent of the sales," Connor said.

The other 60 percent comes from contributions.

This weekend marks the season opening, and the season ends in May.

Ticket prices range from $25-$70 per show, and student tickets are available. For more information, go to JaxSymphony.org.

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