After eight months of uncertainty, the musicians of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra have accepted the terms of a proposed new contract that reduces the size of the full-time core from 36 to 24 and shrinks the size of the operating budget from $2.3 million to $1.3 million for the first year.
The announcement came Tuesday after weeks of stressful negotiations and infighting that divided board members and musicians, according to people involved in the process. One or two of the positions eliminated were held by players who have already left the symphony.
About a dozen local musicians are losing their full-time status and will receive $5,000 severance packages, according to Marty Klaper, board member and chairman of the bargaining committee.
The deal, seen by many musicians as the most recent of a long series of concessions, came a little more than a month after the death of CSO Music Director David Stahl and almost two months after a 75th anniversary concert that drew a near-capacity audience to the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium and generated more than $20,000 in net profit.
The symphony shut down operations in March because of cash-flow problems. In the intervening months, community forums were organized to assess the state of symphonic music in the tri-county region, and a steering committee has produced a study and set of recommendations based on those forums, due to be released this week.
The new contract establishes a base salary for section musicians of $14,000 a year for the first new season and includes health benefits. Principal and assistant principal players will earn slightly more. The concertmaster will gross $28,000.
Salaries will go up by more than $2,000 for most players in the second year, and rise again by more than $4,000 for most players in year three.
The annual operating budget also will go up, from $1.3 million to $1.7 million in year two, and to $2.1 million in year three.
But the ramp-up depends on, first, a resolution to the National Labor Review Board complaint filed by musicians against the symphony board, according to board President Ted Legasey. The complaint alleges that the March shutdown was illegal.
A settlement of $250,000 was proposed by the NLRB and musicians in October but rejected by the board because of a lack of available funds and some skepticism about the validity of the complaint.
If the complaint can be resolved by the two sides, the orchestra can proceed to organize holiday concerts in the first step toward the reconstitution of a 2010-11 season, Legasey said.
Klaper said the arrangement was meant to set the stage for a sustainable symphony business model.
"This is the vehicle for going forward," he said. "Now we've got to find the money to fund it." At the moment, it's a vehicle without gas, he said.
The fundraising effort will begin quickly, he said, and the current season will start Monday and run through April. The number of performances will increase in the 2011-12 season, which is scheduled to run from Oct. 31 through April, and increase again in the following season, Klaper said.
Ryan Leveille, symphony percussionist and spokesman for musicians, said the vote was "far from being decisive." He said it was the wish of musicians to retain 30 positions even if it meant agreeing to a lower salary, but the board was adamant about reducing the core to 24.
"We put a premium on preserving jobs of people who wanted them," Leveille said. "Unfortunately we weren't able to do that."
He said that, despite Tuesday's agreement, musicians and board members still did not see eye to eye on certain matters.
"We hope the board is successful in pursuing the fundraising goals," he said.
Donors, including the related but independently organized Charleston Symphony Orchestra League, have expressed concern over the status of the symphony and the manner in which recent discussions have been managed.
For years, the league's fundraising efforts have provided more money to the symphony than any other single source. About $350,000 was contributed in 2008-2009; a little more than $300,000 was delivered in 2009-2010.
League volunteers Michael Smith and Sandra Gordon said they were concerned about the "myth ... of recalcitrant musicians" rejecting "reasonable" offers from the board.
"This is not the reality," Smith and Gordon wrote in an e-mail, adding that they were concerned by what they called a lack of transparency about "what is truly going on."
Some musicians, including Leveille, have long complained that the board has strong-armed them into making concessions over the years by threatening shutdowns or, worse, bankruptcy.
Leveille and other observers also have said the organization has failed to secure a development director and experienced chief executive in recent years, exacerbating a precarious financial condition and forcing musicians to shoulder the burden.
Legasey has acknowledged the possibility of bankruptcy and insisted repeatedly that the symphony has been living beyond its means and must adjust its budget and operations according to what the community is capable of supporting.
Smith and Gordon have joined a few others, including members of the steering committee responsible for preparing the forthcoming "Future of Orchestral Music" report, in calling for a restructuring of the board.
Board members, they said, should be fewer in numbers, contribute more dollars, and recruit a new leadership team to "restore trust." The report, which contains a host of recommendations for the CSO and the arts community in general in Charleston, is scheduled for release Thursday.
The restructuring will leave, typically, two salaried musicians per section.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902.