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Orchestra Nova At Impasse With Local Musicians Union

Orchestra Nova's Jung-Ho Pak and musicians who have played with the orchestra during past seasons.
Orchestra Nova's Jung-Ho Pak and musicians who have played with the orchestra during past seasons.
Orchestra Nova At Impasse With Local Musicians Union
San Diego’s Orchestra Nova says they are at an impasse in contract negotiations with the local musicians union. KPBS arts reporter Angela Carone says the orchestra is making an unusual demand and it’s become one of the major sticking points.

In a percussion class on the picturesque campus of Point Loma Nazarene University, three students are learning how to properly hold their sticks as they strike drum pads.

Leading the drumming is adjunct professor Pat Pfiffner, who has worked as a freelance musician in San Diego for 40 years.

Teaching at Point Loma is just ONE of his jobs.


“I perform with virtually every group in San Diego, including the San Diego Symphony, Orchestra Nova, The Old Globe, La Jolla Playhouse, and whoever else will hire me.”

Angela Carone, Orchestra Nova Labor Dispute

Pfiffner says freelance classical musicians cobble together a living. When he can count on a job to be there on a regular basis, it helps.

For the last 28 years, Pfiffner has had an annual contract with Orchestra Nova, a local 26-30 member chamber orchestra. “There’s no security in this business. That’s the one secure thing that I have. I know I’ll be playing with Orchestra Nova.”

But Pfiffner’s one sure thing may fall through.

Orchestra Nova hasn’t hired any musicians for its upcoming season, which begins on Oct. 20th. Management is currently renegotiating contracts with the local musicians union. After five months of talks, Orchestra Nova’s leadership says they’ve reached an impasse.


Representatives from the American Federation of Musicians, Local 325, say there is still a deal to be made.

Look beyond San Diego and you’ll find similar dramas unfolding. Salary negotiations between the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the local musicians union have stalled. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra has canceled concerts because an agreement with musicians could not be reached.

Playing With Emotion Or Not At All

Here in San Diego, salary is just one of the sticking points between Orchestra Nova and musicians.

There’s a more unusual contract item stirring debate. It’s one with roots in a broader industry concern about how to revitalize classical concerts and draw new audiences.

Most contracts with musicians are for one year. Orchestra Nova wants to do away with those annual contracts and hire musicians on a concert by concert basis.

Orchestra Nova artistic director and conductor Jung-Ho Pak said he wants to pick and choose musicians for each concert based on their stage persona and how it matches with the music being presented.

“Bottom line is what happens on stage needs to be as electric as Mick Jagger on stage or Lady Gaga because that’s essentially who we’re competing against,” Pak explained.

Musicianship matters, he said, but in today’s environment, so does the ability to play with passion and emotion. Pak cited cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and violinist Joshua Bell as examples. “We have to be more human on stage and we need to work with musicians who can understand this, embrace this, and play in a way that is not being taught in conservatories these days.”

Pak said typically classical musicians are trained to blend in with other players and show little emotion. This style of play won’t cut it, claimed Pak, in the age of YouTube and Netflix, when audiences have so many entertainment options.

He believes the way to get audiences off the couch and into the concert hall is to have musicians “play with emotional abandon.”

In fact, Pak ties the financial sustainability of Orchestra Nova and the livelihood of the classical performance industry to this new performance approach.

For musicians, their own livelihood is at stake.

Andrea Altona is the president of the local musicians union, which has 600 members, most of whom are freelancers (with the exception of all 88 full-time employees of the San Diego Symphony). Altona has played violin in Orchestra Nova for almost 20 years.

Under the orchestra’s new demands, “musicians may not be chosen for their artistry but based on how they look on stage,” she said. “We as a union try to protect people from such arbitrary decisions.”

Altona and her fellow musicians are open to Pak’s ideas and have successfully implemented them in the past. But, she added, the union can’t agree to a contract that allows the orchestra to “fire musicians for something that has never been a part of their formal training.”

Orchestra Nova sold out all of their seasonal concerts last year. For Pak, this affirms his vision. The musicians feel this success shows they've been on board with that vision.

Pak admitted it won’t be easy for every musician to express joy or sorrow on stage, but he thinks classical concerts must change or they’ll disappear.

“I’m not doing this to be experimental. I’m not doing this to prove a point. I’m doing this because it's clear the fine arts can no longer simply survive, or even flourish, on 1 percent of the population, or even 2 percent of the population.”

Salaries Also Hamper Negotiations

The success of last season is part of what confuses union reps as they negotiate salary increases for their musicians. Orchestra Nova has offered a five percent salary increase every year for the next three years.

Union president Altona said that would be fine if Orchestra Nova had been paying a competitive rate, but they significantly lagged behind other organizations in compensation.

During the last round of negotiations, musicians agreed to a three-year wage freeze and reduced season because Orchestra Nova was in financial trouble. “We were promised they would make it up to us, ” explained Altona. She thought last year's successes would ensure increased salaries for musicians.

The union says the five percent annual increases are not enough. Musicians are paid on a per-service basis for each rehearsal and concert. Altona said Orchestra Nova is “taking away rehearsals, cutting Pops concerts, and reducing mileage rates.” When viewed among these other cutbacks, Altona claims that five percent increase actually turns out to be a pay cut.

Orchestra Nova CEO Beverly Lambert said the rehearsal schedule is “basically the same” and that the organization is offering other income options through added concerts and possible TV-broadcast fees.

Those income streams, however, are only theoretical until concerts are actually scheduled and musicians hired.

For a section musician (not a principal), Orchestra Nova has been paying $101.05 for every two-and-a-half hour rehearsal (that would increase to $106 with the five percent annual increase).

With the proposed five percent annual increase, a section musician would make a total of $709.92 per concert series. That's for a series that includes three rehearsals (2.5 hours each) and three concerts (2.25 hours). There are five concert series scheduled for the upcoming season.

The Path Forward

Both sides stress they want to find a resolution and continue working together. But if they can’t find common ground, Pak said they’ll have no choice but to look beyond the union for musicians.

CEO Lambert said she expects resolution, but noted the organization is exploring options in case an agreement cannot be reached. “There are a lot of wonderful musicians in Southern California,” she added.

Altona said the union is very strong among classical musicians and hiring outside of it will mean degrading the quality of the orchestra. “I think it would change the level of the orchestra so significantly that I’m not sure audiences would be pleased with the result.”

The two sides are scheduled to meet again in late September with a federal mediator present.