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No Checks. No Music.

Symphony's future remains unclear



The Colorado Springs Symphony Orchestra's recent budget shortfalls and Chapter 11 bankruptcy have driven a stake between management and musicians in a classic labor dispute that will likely have long-term effects for the arts community in Colorado Springs.

On Wednesday morning, musicians gathered at the symphony offices to collect their paychecks and pick up music for their next concert scheduled for Jan. 24 and 25. Instead they were greeted at the door by Executive Director Larry Barrett with the message: "No Checks. No music." As of press time, the fate of the upcoming performance is unclear.

The action is the latest in an ongoing standoff between musicians and symphony management, and raises additional questions over the short- and long-term viability of the symphony. Central to the standoff is an alleged $900,000 cash shortfall, which prompted symphony management to issue on Jan. 6 a detailed plan to cut costs, including a significant reduction in pay for the musicians.

Four days later, on Jan. 10, the symphony filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11.

Alan Isaacson, a former musician with the CSSO who has been negotiating contracts for Local # 154 of the American Federation of Musicians for the past 17 years, called the management's Jan. 6 proposal an insult.

The cuts would have entailed a 25 to 30 percent salary loss for musicians who currently earn a meager $13,000 per year. The most insulting part of the proposal, said Isaacson, was the management's attempt to create a long-term restructuring of the CSSO through the year 2006 without first approaching the musicians to help solve the current fiscal crisis.

"If [management] has bona fide problems, they should be talking to us about short-term relief. The musicians have a long history of providing relief," said Isaacson.

CSSO Board President Shawn Raintree characterized the restructuring as a need to squarely face economic realities, many of which, he said, the symphony has been dealing with for years.

"The fundraising climate is not a positive one," Raintree said. "So what we encounter with the symphony is a problem that's larger than the organization itself. Clearly the appetite of all donors for nonprofits is much much more conservative than it has been. Our judgment is that we're unlikely to attain that fundraising target."

But for Isaacson and many others in the symphony community, proposing such a drastic and long-term restructuring before the musicians' 20002003 contract had expired, and without first approaching the musicians for help, was like "using a sledgehammer to swat a fly."

In a release issued to local media on Jan. 6, Isaacson announced that last fall the CSSO Musicians union had issued a vote of "no confidence" in the current board of directors under the leadership of Raintree.

The press release also outlined a number of pointed questions about management decisions, including:

1) Why former Executive Director Susan Greene's abrupt departure in December 2001 was characterized as a "resignation" when most believed she'd been fired without cause;

2) Why an estimated $250,000 (over $50,000 for travel alone) was spent on the Resource Group, an interim management and consulting company headed by Rick Lester that was unable to provide a single viable candidate for executive director during their 10-month candidate search;

3) And why the board of directors had been allowed to continually borrow money from, and against, the endowment, which now stands at $1.5 million compared to its high of $2.7 million in 2000.

In response, Raintree said that both Susan Greene and the board are under a contractual obligation not to speak publicly about her resignation. In addition, he said that interim management is always more expensive than permanent management and it's difficult to find a director for a "bleeding" organization. Finally, Raintree said the board had borrowed money in order to "keep faith with the musicians and their contract."

Isaacson and the musicians weren't satisfied with Raintree's responses.

Meanwhile, symphony conductor Laurence Leighton Smith has threatened to resign if the CSSO filed for bankruptcy. As of press time, he had not issued an official statement of his intentions.

And last Sunday, Executive Director Larry Barrett issued another proposal to the symphony musicians that would effectively eliminate all guarantees for services and would compensate the players "on a pay-for-performance basis."

Isaacson characterized the offer as "more disrespectful and disgraceful than the January 6 proposal" and also said that the union plans to file federal unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board this week. He and the musicians want a third-party investigation of the symphony's finances to explain, among other things, an apparent three-fold increase -- approximately $750,000 -- in the amount of money spent on management in 2002.

--Noel Black

For up-to-date information about concerts, tickets, and ticket refunds, go to or call 633-4611.

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