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U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and first lady Michelle Obama, right, meet with Britain's Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, second right, at Buckingham Palace in London, Tuesday, May 24, 2011.

Charleston Symphony Orchestra musicians have rejected the terms of an interim agreement meant to keep the symphony in business for the 2010-11 season, saying it would have decimated salaries and severely cut the number of scheduled performances.

The symphony, which has been struggling financially, announced in late March that it was shutting down operations temporarily and canceling the last few performances of the 2009-10 season in order to restructure the organization.

Presented to musicians on May 14, the proposed agreement, which would have superseded the master agreement in effect until June 30, 2012, was soundly rejected during balloting Wednesday and Thursday, raising the possibility that the symphony might have to forgo its 75th anniversary season.

"We anticipated an unpalatable offer, but were completely taken aback by the austerity of this proposal," musicians' spokesman Ryan Leveille said in a statement Friday. "We decided to put the terms to the full body of musicians and were not surprised by their overwhelming rejection. I don't know if (management) sincerely believed that it would be able to staff an orchestra for such low wages."

The interim agreement would have reduced the base annual salary for players to $3,600 ($300 a month for most players), a reduction of nearly 84 percent from the salaries agreed upon in the current contract between the symphony and the Coastal Carolina Association of Professional Musicians, Leveille said in the release. Principal players would have received an additional $1,000 a month.

The announcement took board members by surprise.

"The Board of Directors of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra has not been notified by the musician's union that the proposed Interim Operating Agreement has been rejected. But if the musician's union in fact has chosen to reject the proposal, we are very disappointed and saddened for the entire Charleston community," Marty Klaper, chairman of the symphony's bargaining committee, said in a statement.

In a telephone interview, Klaper said the interim agreement was "designed to keep the music playing while we were finding an answer to the restructuring. It was never intended to be a long-term agreement."

He said the deal would have provided musicians with 12 months of paid health care benefits plus a salary for services. Though the agreement called on players to perform one week a month for eight months, it would have paid them for 12 months.

Klaper said the musicians' concerns were "understandable" since livelihoods are at stake. But symphony management must consider not only the musicians but also the community that supports the organization; it must develop a plan that can be sustained long-term, he said. "They're focused on one aspect, and we're focused on two."

Leveille said that musicians have made several concessions in recent years in an effort to help the orchestra survive.

"Almost without exception, every time we've made a concession that concession has become permanent," he said in an interview.

In April, the musicians filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board, asserting that the decision by symphony management to suspend operations "violated the collective bargaining agreement and federal law and was undertaken in retaliation for the musicians' exercise of legally protected rights." The case is pending. The players have criticized management for failing to hire a development director.

In recent weeks, symphony management reduced its staff to three, letting go interim executive director Kathleen Wilson and others.

Symphony board President Ted Legasey said any solution depends on a thorough process "involving more than musicians and management. It's got to involve the community."

Two independent studies of symphony operations have been conducted, in 2008 and 2009 respectively, but their recommendations have not been implemented, Leveille said. Any additional studies, like the one now under consideration involving community stakeholders, must be viewed in that light, he said.

"Whatever plan eventually comes out in the long run ... if the CSO doesn't get its internal house in order, I don't think we can implement it," he said.

Klaper said his committee is "willing to listen to anything, obviously." But "any proposal would have to be vetted against the numbers" which, in turn would have to be developed according to what the Charleston community is willing to support.

Leveille said the musicians would not offer a counter proposal because "management already understands that our position is that, until we come to some sort of an agreement, the current collective bargaining agreement remains in place."

Reach Adam Parker at aparker@postandcourier.com or 937-5902.