The day the music died

By Nicole Kobie

The music of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra hasn’t died, though it has been silent for two weeks. The classical triumphs that usually echo through the Jack Singer Concert Hall are gone. Things are quieter since the CPO Board of Directors locked out the musicians on midnight Sat., Oct. 7, over contract disputes.

It’s a strange occurrence, though not unprecedented. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra took labour action a few years ago. Some cite this as a sign of the times–art is too expensive and too elite to attract the masses. However, many theatre and opera groups in Calgary are successful. As well, fine arts labour disruptions have a different flavour than others, like the recent Calgary Transit and Calgary Herald strikes.

“This case is interesting because it’s a group of musicians who arguably are not well paid, but yet the service they provide is typically to a middle to upper-class society,” says Susan Cassidy, a sessional instructor in the Faculty of Management. “It’s not like they’re servicing or appealing to all members of society.”

Cassidy believes teacher and nurse strikes get more attention as nearly everyone has come in contact with education and medicine, but few Calgarians are devoted to orchestras.

The other difference, however, is that it’s not a strike, but a lockout–where management prevents their employees from working. According to Cassidy, management rarely locks out their employees.

“Lockouts … are pretty extreme and severe,” she explains. “Anytime such actions are taken is a risk, but obviously, for the parties to take such action, they feel it’s quite an extreme situation.”

Locked Out

When negotiations deadlocked, the Board of Directors chose to force the matter by initiating a lockout. The three week lockout forces both sides to take a massive step back and rethink their positions.

Whether or not anyone’s minds have changed, the lockout was scheduled to end this Saturday. However, if no agreement is reached by then, the lockout is automatically extended by a week.

“Obviously they initiated the lockout, so they’re the only ones who can say when it ends,” says Calgary Musicians’ Association President Mark Johnson, who plays bass trombone for the CPO. “When they’d rather put on concerts than lock us out, it’ll end.”

Contract offer

The fact is a contract must be decided on before the lockout ends. The CPO struggled the past decade with funding, and the current deficit of $650,000 isn’t helping. Previous decisions–such as using nearly five million dollars in funds originally allocated for endowment purposes to pay the operating budget–have put the board in a tight situation. In the last few years, corporate sponsors have stepped in at the last minute to pay off the deficit, but this year no white knight came to save the day. Naturally, the board is now looking to cut costs and shrink the deficit. When the musicians’ contract ran out last June, the board attempted to draft a contract that would help the cash-flow situation.

The contract covers a two year period. For the first year, the season would be cut from 41 weeks to 38.

“By shortening the season, and having less product out there, having them work less weeks per year was less painful than having them work for less dollars per week,” says Board chair Larry Fichtner. “If I had to choose, I’d rather get paid what I get paid and have extra time to do something else. I believe that this would best let them utilize their time so they could generate other income.” Fichtner adds that many of the musicians already have side jobs teaching or freelancing.

Also, the four weeks of paid vacation would be cut to three and they would freeze weekly pay rates.

For the second year of the contract, the season would stay at 38 weeks, the paid vacation would stay at three weeks, but the weekly pay rate would increase by five per cent. A wrench was thrown into the works, however, with the handling of a cello position. The position is currently vacant and the board recommended not filling it for the duration of the two year contract.

“That was one issue that came up at the 11th hour. We didn’t know that was an issue,” explains Fichtner.

“They’ve known since day one that was going to be a deal breaker,” counters Johnson. “They’ve insisted on keeping that on the table.”

He adds that the current size of 65 musicians is the bare minimum, as most similar orchestras have upwards of a hundred artists.

“It’s a matter of artistic integrity. We’re at a pretty minimum complement right now, so even one position has an effect on the section involved,” Johnson says.

The two sides agree on the first year of contract, which offers a quarter of a million in savings. According to Johnson, the short season, less vacation weeks and initial pay freeze was of less concern than a future commitment from the board.

“What the musicians wanted to see was at least some token agreement with them of future growth,” he explains. “We were looking to get one of those lost weeks [of the season] reinstated in the second year of the contract.”

In other words, all it took to cause a lockout was one week and a cello. Of course, they are more important than it appears. To both the board and the musicians, it all comes down to the delicate balance between artistic integrity and money.

“The board has a double-mandate,” explains Fichtner. “The board has a mandate to maintain and attain the highest level of artistic quality and integrity possible. The other side is to do that within a financial model that works.”

This difference of opinion is also seen in previous relations between the board and the musicians. In the past the CPO was known for having superb offstage management, but that reputation has not lasted.

“There’s been a change in leadership in the board and administration and relationships have been strained,” says Johnson.

Fichtner blames the high staff turnover on a lack of money and infrastructure.

“These antiquated systems have been band-aided and held together but unfortunately, this was the year for them to crater,” explains Fichtner. “That brought about a lot of stress, and really frustrated a lot of our staff and customers.”

Combined with a low pay scale, administration and management, employees aren’t sticking around long. And neither will customers if concerts are cancelled.


So far, only one concert was rescheduled for a later date, a Jeans ‘n Classics tribute to the Eagles. As well, the CPO was contracted to provide music for the Opera Calgary production of Marriage of Figaro, but “freelancers” were used instead–a concession both sides accepted. However, with important shows coming up in early November, the question of how much more will be postponed looms heavy on negotiations.

“If we’re getting closer to a negotiation we’d delay that postponement until the very last minute, keeping our patrons and our guest artists in mind and making sure we give musicians enough time to rehearse as well,” says Fichtner.

However, if negotiations aren’t quickly successful, the show will not go on using freelance artists.

“We only have one set of musicians, we wouldn’t think of that,” says Fichtner.

Not using freelancers will likely gain points with the CMA, especially when the dispute is eventually resolved. After disruptions like this, when employees finally return to work, they often carry animosity towards management.

“We can’t ignore that we’ve been locked out without income for three weeks now,” says Johnson. “That has to be factored in.”

Once employees return to work, the healing process can take anywhere from months to years.

“Does management extend the welcoming hand? Do they say ‘welcome back, we’re sorry this happened?’ What the tone is at this point is important,” says Cassidy.

Aside from tone, the 15 per cent voluntary rollback that administrative employees took and the efforts of board members to each find an extra $10,000 in donations, should help when the musicians return.

In the end

Even if a deal is reached by Saturday, and the musicians return, the effects of the lockout will reach far into the future, regardless of whether or not any Calgarians notice, Johnson notes.

“Musicians here now, or ones who would consider coming to Calgary, may not find a reasonable career here for them from an economic and artistic standpoint. They’re simply not gonna stay here or even come here.”

The effects may not be all bad, though, as even the limited publicity the lockout received has the potential to bring more support and donations in the future.

“This is an unfortunate way to do it, but it’s raised the general awareness of Calgarians to the difficulties the CPO is facing,” says Johnson.

Even considering the possible side benefits, both sides want to see the CPO back in action.

“I want to see them back playing together. I hate to see them out in the [Stephen Avenue] mall. They don’t sound their best out in mall,” says Fichtner. “The musicians have come off a wonderful artistic year, with a trip to Europe. They must have felt on top of the world in terms of their artistic achievements last year and to face something like this, to be asked for a cut back, it was devastating for them.”

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