For the first time in the organization's history, the Colorado Springs Philharmonic's board of directors voted to cancel its contract with the musicians' union amid tumbling revenues due to coronavirus.
The decision comes after weeks of negotiations with the American Federation of Musicians’ Union.
Coronavirus forced the cancellation of shows beginning in March, but the board agreed to pay musicians their full salary through July. In April, the two sides forged a new five-year agreement that could have increased musicians' pay almost 30 percent. But trouble ensued after the philharmonic's upcoming season, scheduled to open Sept. 19, was canceled through Dec. 31.
"They wiped the whole thing and said we’re not going to pay you either," said bass trombonist Jeremy Van Hoy, chairman of the philharmonic’s players committee. "We have a contract. They threw it out the window. We've been meeting to come up with something and talked about doing small group audience concerts, but it's been a difficult negotiation."
Part of the challenge has been working with safety regulations in relation to the virus. Philharmonic president and CEO Nathan Newbrough has said full-scale performances aren't safe right now.
The board made a final offer to musicians last week, which included more than $700,000 in wages, continued pension contributions, monthly health subsidy payments and other benefits. It would have meant moving forward with small-scale performances in environments deemed safe according to regulations, but the offer was rejected Sept. 14.
According to Van Hoy, musicians agreed to an almost 60 percent pay cut this season, but contend the financial proposal undermined their April agreement and could have created a precedent for negating their contract.
"It wasn’t something we could accept," he said.
The board voted Friday to cancel the contract beginning at noon Monday.
"They made a very generous offer that stretched them beyond the point of comfort," said Newbrough. "They feel a deep sense of obligation to the fiduciary responsibilities they have. They remember the bankruptcy of the organization. It wasn’t that long ago and they're determined to not have it happen again. In a pandemic there is no ticket revenue. If we keep spending without ticket revenue it puts the organization at real jeopardy."
The current orchestra was created and renamed after the Colorado Springs Symphony filed for bankruptcy in 2003.
The future of philharmonic performances is uncertain, but Newbrough hopes to hold small-scale concerts at smaller venues, which could include the Ent Center at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Musicians, who are still Philharmonic employees, will be offered gigs to play at their current rate per performance.
"We have every intention of employing musicians in any way we can," said Newbrough.
It's been an arduous road for the philharmonic this year, with administrative cutbacks in May that included staff reductions by more than half. In July the board set aside more than $150,000 to fund musician fees, health subsidy payments and to set up a new Philharmonic Musicians Assistance Fund to help any of the organization's musicians in need. That fund is set to open for applications this week.
The musicians are still exploring their options with the union and deciding whether they'll accept the philharmonic's offer to perform small shows, said Van Hoy.
"We are open to talks with the union about what happens next," said Newbrough, "and framing up a new contract appropriate for this moment and the future of the philharmonic."