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The Philadelphia Orchestra and its musicians reach an agreement

The Philadelphia Orchestra

A cloud hanging over The Philadelphia Orchestra’s new season cleared over the weekend, as its musicians approved a three-year collective bargaining agreement — ending a tense six-week negotiation since the end of their previous contract. Under the terms of the new agreement, minimum salaries for musicians will increase 15.8% over the duration of the contract, starting with a 6% raise effective retroactive to Sept. 11.

Compensation has long been a point of contention for the musicians, who have pressed for parity with other top-tier orchestras in the country. This situation was exacerbated by the economic pressures of the pandemic, which led to the creation of a new parent company, The Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center, Inc. “Following the unprecedented disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the co-chairs of its Board of Trustees, Ralph W. Muller and Michael D. Zisman, said in a statement, “our joint challenge was to find a new and financially responsible path forward that recognizes and furthers the placement of The Philadelphia Orchestra as one of the world’s greatest musical ensembles.”

The musicians, who negotiated with support from American Federation of Musicians, Local 77, voted to authorize a strike prior to the expiration of their contract on Sept. 10. That strike never materialized, though it hovered as a possibility during the early stretch of the 2023-24 season, which saw the rejection of multiple proposals from management. “We are an ensemble, and we stuck together and refused to accept substandard deal after substandard deal,” double bassist David Fay, chair of the Orchestra’s Members Committee, said in a statement. “This contract is a victory for the present and future for the Philadelphia Orchestra and its world-class musicians.”

Cellist John Koen, who has been a member of The Philadelphia Orchestra for more than 30 years, characterizes the new contract in more measured terms. “Our committee was able to keep the pressure up,” he tells WRTI. “And in that respect, it ended up very well.”

Jessica Griffin
Cellist John Koen, a member of The Philadelphia Orchestra since 1990.

Koen, who is also on the faculty at the Boyer College of Music and Dance, has served on player committees in past negotiations. “It may sound like a pretty good deal,” he says of the new contract. “But it’s coming after the disastrous inflation following the COVID era. So it’s really starting from scratch at break-even, because we gave back some salary during the pandemic, and management took money from the federal government that far exceeded what we gave up.”

The new agreement also includes some provisions — like work protections for librarians, travel logistics, even temperature standards for performances — that Koen characterizes as a formalization of protocol. “In the past 10-plus years,” he says, “management has gone for some of the gray areas in the contract — going against some of the past practices we had, because they aren’t spelled out. Some of those are rather difficult to take to a grievance procedure.”

In a statement, Matías Tarnopolsky, president and CEO of The Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center, Inc., described the agreement as a peaceable compromise. “Through this first post-pandemic era contract, negotiated in a complex context, we continue to demonstrate that a focus on common goals and the greatness of the ensemble is always the path forward,” he said. “My deep thanks and appreciation to the musicians of the Orchestra and the Board of Trustees, and to the administrative team, for bringing this agreement to fruition. Yannick Nézet-Séguin and The Philadelphia Orchestra will continue to envision, create, and perform at the very highest level, leading the rapidly evolving landscape of music worldwide.”

The musicians of The Philadelphia Orchestra certainly performed at the highest level on opening night, which featured Yo-Yo Ma performing Shostakovich’s first cello concerto as well as Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances and Jennifer Higdon’s Fanfare Ritmico. “That is very clear in my head — the first big concert we played for the regular audience in Philadelphia to open the season, amidst a lot of uncertainty,” Koen recalls. “Our job is to make music, and that’s what we love. All of us have been training all our lives to do this. To give that gift of music to the audience is so important for us. To have that coming under threat really made it more cogent and important for us to do so. And so I think in that performance we really dug into our souls.”


Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the music director and public face of The Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted that evening with evident commitment, underscoring a solidarity he had taken pains to demonstrate during negotiations. “We appreciate the leadership of our musical director Yannick Nézet-Séguin whose deep respect for us as musicians was evident in his support for a fair contract,” said Fay, the committee chair, in his statement. “This has been a tough process, but one that I know has made the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra incredibly proud.”

Koen, though less sanguine in his assessment, emphasized the unity of purpose among the Orchestra’s musicians. “I think the feeling is that this is the best financial deal we could have gotten now, without a drastically different set of circumstances, and probably a very serious strike,” he says. “We are very slightly increasing our ranking in the bottom of the top nine orchestras. And that will leave a lot of work to do for three years from now.”

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.