Oregon Symphony sacks orchestra, conductors and staff amid coronavirus crisis


The Oregon Symphony, a gem of the state’s arts community, laid off its orchestra and several staff on Wednesday, taking emergency measures to survive a sprawling coronavirus pandemic with no end in sight.

Layoffs, a week after Governor Kate Brown banned gatherings of 250 or more people, are a stark reminder that even cultural pillars like the Oregon Symphony cannot withstand business disruptions caused by the coronavirus. The 76 musicians, 19 staff and two conductors affected will be paid until March 20, said Scott Showalter, president and CEO of the Oregon Symphony. Musicians will continue to receive health benefits, in accordance with the agreement with the symphony, but staff will only keep these benefits until the end of June.

“Yesterday was perhaps the most worrying day of my career,” a shaken Showalter said Thursday. “It’s not a good time lately.”

Bruce Fife, president of the American Federation of Musicians Local 99, the union representing musicians in the Oregon Symphony, said he fears what lies ahead. “The financial consequences of what is happening are going to upset them in a very dramatic way,” he said. “People don’t understand how close to the tip the onboard musicians live – even the Oregon Symphony. “

“In times like this,” Fife added, “I would like to hope that people understand the value and importance of music and the arts in general. “

While the formal disposition of the 97 employees was decided on Wednesday, their fate came true during a previous meeting between the musicians and the conduct of the symphony orchestra. After a frank dialogue, the body – whose season was already suspended until mid-May – then resigned itself to what many considered inevitable: the symphony could no longer play or function fully. The layoffs, they say, were simply inevitable.

On the morning of March 12, just hours after Brown announced his order the night before, the orchestra gathered in a sterile Arlene Schnitzer concert hall to meet with leaders of the symphony orchestra, including Showalter, the vice president Steve Wenig and orchestra director Steve Stratman. The ensemble had planned to rehearse Berio’s “Sinfonia” at that time, but instead they listened, with each member separated by two to three seats.

After a long discussion, during which the broadcast of the performances was considered, both sides agreed that there is simply no way forward without an internal audience. And the Oregon Symphony, in its final season under the direction of music director Carlos Kalmar, who doesn’t get paid for canceled performances, would step down. The decision marked a potentially fatal period of inactivity for a set that had survived even a nine-year suspension during and after World War II.

When asked to distill the consequences of a prolonged shutdown, Showalter responded with one word: “Say”.

“We need emergency funds now,” he said. “What we expect by the end of June is a loss of $ 5 million. It is not something that we can recover from. “

Showalter declared it in a March 16 letter to Brown, seeking funds to address the devastating shortfall by directly approaching the Director General of the State. “We continue to raise funds and reduce costs,” Showalter wrote. “Yet all of the Symphony’s good work and goodwill is on the verge of collapse.” Oregon’s economy, he added, would also suffer job losses.

The 76 musicians of the symphony, meanwhile, remained anxious and stressed. As “W2” employees, however, they are entitled to unemployment benefits. And contractual agreements allow them to perform and teach in private, which could ease the difficult stoppage of the symphony’s work schedule.

Hardly any organization, renowned percussionist Niel DePonte, is able to navigate the economic straits imposed by the coronavirus pandemic cleanly. “The orchestra management has been very good in communicating with us,” he said. “These are all people doing their best under very difficult circumstances. “

While understanding, DePonte still regretted the lost income and unrealized opportunities for public engagement, a major source of pride within the symphony. “We have a heritage of community service as an organization which is very important to us,” he said. “Nothing disappoints us as performing artists more than not being able to fulfill our role as servants of the community. “

Violinist Peter Frajola said the musicians “are just praying that we can come back and play for our audience very soon.”

“It’s devastating for us not to play,” he said. “This is what we do for a living. This is what we do for funds and what we have been raised to do since we were kids.

“We want to be there for the community right now,” he added. “But we also need the community to help us”

Showalter made many of the same points in his appeal to Governor Brown – whose office had yet to respond on Friday – making the Oregon Symphony’s involvement in hospitals, libraries, prisons and shelters a good one. social improvement. Music, he says, brings benefits that are as crucial as they are difficult to quantify: healing, inspiration, joy and unity.

“These are a ‘need to have’,” Showalter said, “not a” nice to have, “especially at these times.

“But we can’t do this if we can’t survive.”

– Nathan Rizzo, for The Oregonian / OregonLive

CLARIFICATION: This post has been updated to clarify compensation and benefits for musicians and staff. The 76 musicians, 19 staff and two conductors affected will be paid until March 20. Musicians will continue to receive health benefits, in accordance with the agreement with the symphony, but staff will only keep these benefits until the end of June.

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