Going Mobile 

Under a new agreement, Richmond Symphony musicians lock in some security and soon may be popping up across the state.

click to enlarge A look at a Warner Shelter Systems Limited SA-80 Arabesque tent, which the Richmond Symphony Orchestra plans to purchase for $500,000, in use by another orchestra.

A look at a Warner Shelter Systems Limited SA-80 Arabesque tent, which the Richmond Symphony Orchestra plans to purchase for $500,000, in use by another orchestra.

If the Richmond Symphony can raise half a million dollars by November, you’ll be seeing a lot more of it. And that’s not to mention hearing more kinds of music.

The symphony recently received a matching challenge of $500,000 from the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation that would allow it to buy a large performance canopy and mobile stage some 80 feet wide, which could hold the 72-piece symphony and 150-member chorus. In addition to the mobile tent, the money would buy a truck, stage lighting and sound equipment.

“It’s a portable concert venue, basically,” music director Steven Smith says. “We’re going to be able to play in many, many places where it had been impossible to do so: in the city, parks, Brown’s Island, maybe Chimborazo.”

Smith envisions a potential summer season and events such as a Fourth of July performance. “In the city or outlying counties,” he says, “we could bring this music to many underserved areas.”

Executive Director David Fisk is optimistic about reaching the fundraising goal because of the unanimously positive response to the idea from corporations, sponsors and individual donors.

“Our experience is money follows vision,” Fisk says. “This will take the symphony to tens of thousands of people. We see a real opportunity to connect with communities, build community and be a resource. If we put this up in a city park, others could use it as well, or we could rent to nonprofits.”

The symphony season at CenterStage currently runs mid-September to the beginning of May, with 50 to 75 shows. With the new mobile ability, the symphony would begin planning summer dates, although it’s unclear whether they’d be part of the season or if the musicians would be paid separately as freelance employees. Fisk says that the new CenterStage contract has flexibility, with the capacity to add concerts without adding to the length of the season.

The symphony has shown a willingness to expand its musical horizons. Recently it performed with Southern rock guitarist Warren Haynes in Charlottesville and it has a program of Bugs Bunny music scheduled for May. The tent would allow the symphony to produce all kinds of programming more inexpensively. “All we ask is that it’s well written for symphony charts,” Fisk says.

While venturing into rock, country and cartoon music may be great for developing new audiences, the key to the future success of the symphony still lies in keeping its players secure. Last week, after a three-year ordeal, the musicians agreed to a four-year contract that will return their salaries to 2011 levels by 2016.

Management cut back during the recession through an imposed contract that included 12 percent reduction in compensation. But the musicians continued to perform without interruption, even though their wages were reduced to $28,886 a year, the season was shortened by two weeks, and there were reductions in benefits.

Fisk says that he’s unaware of any other city symphony members in the country who kept playing without a contract without creating a lockout or strike. “I do appreciate the musicians who kept playing in this unusual state of flux,” he notes.

The Musician’s Negotiating Committee announced last week that the musicians, represented by Local 123 of the American Federation of Musicians, had reached the agreement that includes an immediate 1.5-percent increase. The second and third years of the contract each come with 2.5-percent increases. The final year includes a 1-percent increase, and the season will be extended one week to 39 weeks.

During the past two years, Fisk says, the symphony has been able to balance the budget and move back to a stronger financial position. He attributes this to additional money from donors, rebounding sponsorship and support from local government, and strong ticket sales that have been on an increasing since CenterStage opened.

But musicians still didn’t get what they wanted, and some felt deserved, out of the deal.

“The first year after the [imposed] contract, the budget shrank to around $4.6 million, but now the budget has increased to $5 million but the musicians’ percentage is smaller,” says principal bassoonist and negotiating committee member Thomas Schneider, who joined the orchestra two years ago. “The musicians are really passionate. We want to be out in the community performing concerts. We’re really hoping now that we have an agreement, even if they weren’t the terms everyone dreamt of, that we’ll be able to work forward, keep the orchestra growing and make it more relevant. That’s the goal of all parties right now.”

The symphony’s 2012 tax returns report $4.56 million in expenses and $4.6 million in revenue. Fisk says the budget fluctuates yearly because of special performances and projects, such as an unusually expensive concert planned for January with a projected budget of $130,000. The collaboration with the Weinstein Jewish Community Center and the Virginia Holocaust Museum will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

“We recognize that [the salary contract] we’re agreeing to is not ideal,” Fisk says. “But I am grateful the musicians were able to vote for it and I think everyone is happy to have security. Barring any completely unforeseen catastrophe, I think we can live up to it.” S



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