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Springfield Symphony musicians stage their own concert amid battle over contract and orchestra’s future

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SPRINGFIELD – The musicians of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, who have not given a full live concert since early March 2020, will finally be back on stage in mid-October, led by their musical director and conductor from longtime Kevin Rhodes at Springfield Symphony Hall for an evening of music by Beethoven, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and other big names.

After a 19-month hiatus due to the pandemic, this would sound like the good old days for the orchestra. But it’s not.

For months, the musicians and their union have been in conflict with the orchestra management over a new contract, and in fact the SSO has not prepared a schedule for the 2021-2022 season, which is an element central to contractual disagreement.

The October 15 concert, which is free, is actually hosted by the musicians themselves, who have formed an independent group, The Musicians of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra (MOSSO), which they claim is dedicated to promoting live symphonic and chamber music in the area and has already organized a few small outdoor shows around Springfield.

For this “Coming Home” concert, a $ 30,000 production that the musicians paid for with grants and donations, Rhodes flies at his own expense from Slovakia, where he currently works. After 20 years with SSO, his contract was not renewed this spring, and SSO does not currently have a music director.

And this spring, Rhodes, who works with orchestras and ballet and opera companies in the United States and Europe, moved with his wife from Massachusetts to Traverse City, Michigan; there he conducted the Traverse Symphony Orchestra for years and signed a 10-year contract extension with the band in the spring.

The Springfield Musicians, members of Local 171 of the American Federation of Musicians, acknowledge that the pandemic has created difficult circumstances for everyone at SSO, including the conductor, over the past year and half.

But they say the lack of a new contract, the non-renewal of a deal with Rhodes, and the refusal to commit to a meaningful 2021-2022 season represent a leadership failure on the part of management, even though other New England orchestras and classical bands are opening new seasons (the Boston Symphony Orchestra just announced a free live concert on October 3 at Boston Symphony Hall).

“It’s sad, frustrating and downright shocking to see such a lack of commitment to the orchestra and its future,” said Thomas Bergeron, who is SSO’s principal trumpeter and has played with the group for about seven years.

However, SSO management say musicians’ reluctance to accept a new contract and staging their own separate concert now threatens the possibility of the orchestra hosting a 2021-2022 season (see box, B4).

Bergeron, who lives in Amherst and is the Music Director of Deerfield Academy, grew up in South Hadley and performed with the SSO Youth Orchestra as a teenager.

“Being a part of that is a big reason I’m a professional musician today,” he said. “And my experience (with SSO) has been great… we have members from New York, Boston, all over New England and the North East, and they love to be a part of the orchestra.” (He says about 20% of the players are from the greater Springfield area.)

The SSO, according to its website, is Massachusetts’ largest symphony outside of Boston and was first performed in 1944.

Clarinetist Lynn Sussman, another longtime member of the symphony orchestra who teaches at Deerfield Academy and Smith College, likens playing in the band “to being part of a big family.” It’s a very happy place, and not all orchestras do.

Now, however, Bergeron and other members of MOSSO claim that the SSO leadership, led by its board of directors, has only offered to host five, if not four, live concerts in the 2021 season. 2022 – rather than the 10 typically featured – with up to 60 musicians participating, fewer than the 72 full-time musicians who are part of the orchestra. There is also no commitment to present the shows at Springfield Symphony Hall, a performance space “specially designed for symphonic music,” Bergeron said.

Such a deal is unacceptable, Bergeron said, as is management’s refusal to commit to a season beyond 2021-2022. “How can we move forward if they show such a lack of confidence in the orchestra?

He notes that MOSSO formed not only because of the contractual dispute, but also in response to customer concerns about an apparent lack of management commitment to revitalizing the orchestra, such as providing a certain number of vacancies.

Forming the group, said Bergeron, “was truly an act of desperation.”

Planning issues

But John Anz, acting executive director of SSO, says the conductors were hampered by COVID-19 as uncertainty about the pandemic meant that the planning for concerts, usually done months in advance, was delayed this spring. The pandemic has also added to concerns about the orchestra’s long-term economic viability, he said.

“In order for us to put on a show in September, we would have had to start planning in March, and that wasn’t possible,” Anz said. “We didn’t know when the state would allow us to organize a (live) concert. ”

Anz, who was previously SSO’s director of development – he became interim executive director following the resignation of former orchestra director Susan Beaudry, also said the union’s refusal to sign a new contract is delaying planning of a new season.

“We cannot move forward until we have a firm deal,” he said. “We have a plan for this season, but we cannot implement it and announce it until we have a commitment from the musicians.”

The SSO has now set October 1 as the deadline for a new labor agreement, which, if not honored, will likely force the cancellation of any 2021-2022 season, officials say.

Bergeron and other players such as Sussman dispute Anz’s argument, saying that planning for past seasons has been happening at the same time as contract negotiations are going on. The most recent contract for musicians expired in August 2020.

Anz says negotiations are continuing and management wants to reach a deal “as much as anyone.” The musicians are not so sure. Meanwhile, the National Labor Relations Board recently filed a complaint against SSO for unfair labor practices, alleging that management engaged in “bad faith negotiations.” A hearing is scheduled for December 1 in Springfield.

Besides that there are several positions currently vacant at SSO, including that of Director of Development, Bergeron says that much of the uncertainty about the orchestra’s future appears to be coming from the board, which was once made up of of 15 members, but that now, following several resignations, it is effectively a panel of six.

He says the board, among others, has discussed the possibility of merging the SSO with the Hartford Orchestra, which would effectively end the SSO, the smaller of the two groups.

“We really don’t know what their motivations are,” Bergeron said. “But they seem to be obsessed with increasing the endowment (up to nearly $ 8 million) by removing anything that costs money.”

On its website, MOSSO also claims that poor management decisions and disappointing fundraising efforts by SSO over the past few years have led to the current state of affairs.

An email from The Gazette soliciting comments from the six board members went unanswered.

However, an email sent this summer from the SSO leadership to patrons stated that the orchestra “has suffered very significant losses over the past decade despite attempts to improve its fundraising, programming. and its marketing “. Nonetheless, officials said, the orchestra is pursuing other fundraising strategies.

Trustees say they are also looking for the ‘flexibility’ of musicians to allow the orchestra ‘to adapt quickly to developments and changing circumstances…. SSO should use our next season to determine if the audience will be in sufficient numbers and if there is enough community support to ensure its sustainability. ”

Bergeron and other musicians at MOSSO wonder how the SSO can raise new funds – or even be serious about doing it – if the orchestra doesn’t put on any concerts or doesn’t have a development director in place. full-time. For her part, Anz acknowledged that without any live performances, fundraising “becomes more of a challenge.”

Some patrons of the orchestra, such as Holyoke pediatrician David Gottsegen, raise another sore point. As Gottsegen put it in an email, SSO board members “have used donations made by contributors like me to pay legal fees to argue against the union fighting for the survival of the orchestra, without using their endowment ”to fill vacancies, the 2021-2022 season, and the future of the orchestra.

The musicians have a number of city officials in their area: Mayor Domenic Sarno has agreed to let the October 15 MOSSO concert run rent-free at Springfield Symphony Hall, which charges users various fees.

Bergeron says all musicians in the orchestra have felt the loss of income from the past 19 months of inactivity, although those with other regular jobs like him may have resisted better. But he says the actual dollar value and length of any new contract is less important than a deal that commits the orchestra to producing more shows this year and into the future.

“We really need forward-thinking leadership, which invests its energies in new ideas, which is ready to make the orchestra more relevant,” he said. “It failed.”

“We would love to work with the symphony,” Sussman added. “Most importantly, we just want a chance to play music.”

More information on MOSSO and the October 15 concert can be found at springfieldsymphonymusicians.com; tickets are free but must be reserved on the website. More information about Springfield Symphony Orchestra is available at springfieldsymphony.org.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at [email protected]