- Associated Press - Sunday, June 28, 2015

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - Behind the two-year dispute between the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and the musicians union over a new labor agreement is the symphony’s effort to remake itself to appeal to changing audiences and tastes.

The orchestra says it’s “severely undercapitalized” and struggling with annual deficits of more than $1.3 million, a fully-drawn $2 million line of credit, falling subscriptions and ticket sales that are flat.

An approach that capitalizes on video, different types of performances and intense competition from other forms of entertainment is imperative, said David Fay, president and chief executive officer of the orchestra.

“We need to become more market-driven, more market-oriented,” he said.

Michael Pollard, a violinist and member of the American Federation of Musicians negotiating committee working to hammer out a contract, said the orchestra is emphasizing almost anything except those who perform.

“There’s no commitment to musicians,” he said. “They’re trying to balance the budget on our backs.”

In 2014-15, core musicians were paid a little more than $23,000, the union said. In 2015-16, the musicians, who are part-time, are asked to accept less than $15,000 a year, which would be a 40 percent cut. This is in addition to concessions in past years, he said.

The orchestra will not comment on negotiations. “It’s completely private, even sacred,” said Steve Collins, director of artistic operations and administration.

Ideas to expand the orchestra’s appeal to different and broader audiences include “musical dialogues” for audience members to talk to musicians, the Beach Boys performing with the orchestra in August and a performance in May opening the College Street Music Hall in New Haven backing The Machine playing Pink Floyd music.

“We have to stop being so precious about the music and that people will come to us,” Fay said. “We must bring the music to the people.”

Ray Hair, president of the American Federation of Musicians, said the dispute in Hartford is unusual with wage settlements favorable to the union more common as the economy improves.

The national union says two U.S. orchestras with budgets similar to Hartford’s, about $5 million a year, pay musicians more. The Toledo Symphony’s musicians currently average about $23,000 a year, and the Richmond Symphony’s average between $31,400 and $35,800 annually.

Hair blamed the trouble in Hartford on the orchestra’s management agreement with the Bushnell Performing Arts Center. The orchestra and the Bushnell agreed to a two-year agreement in 2014 for the Bushnell to provide financial reporting and management, human resources management, office space and clerical and information technology services.

“You have a performing arts facility looking to see what its needs are economically and financially,” Hair said.

Collins and Fay, who heads both the orchestra and Bushnell, dismissed the criticism, saying the agreement saves money and helps the orchestra’s programming and financing.

Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras, said many orchestras in the U.S. are trying to appeal to younger audiences who have “different expectations of what an evening out is.”

“We see a lot of experimentation,” he said.

Orchestras are providing behind-the-scenes views, organizing recitals with musicians who speak to the audience and even provide performance space that becomes a club with a DJ, Rosen said.

The intent is a “better alignment between the repertoire being performed and the tastes of the public,” he said.

Pollard of the musicians union said talk about a new art form is “all well and good.”

“But the Hartford symphony is about orchestral music,” he said. “We have to evolve, but we can’t forget what our core mission is.”

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Follow Stephen Singer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SteveSinger10

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