Pandemic pay cuts for BSO, Boston Pops players

The Boston Symphony Orchestra has canceled the rest of its 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 restrictions. No information about next summer’s Tanglewood season, typically unveiled in late November, is expected until well into the new year.

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In the latest blow to the region’s and nation’s performing arts organizations, COVID-19 restrictions have forced the Boston Symphony Orchestra to cancel the rest of its 2020-21 season of live performances with audiences at Boston’s Symphony Hall, including its traditional Holiday Pops series in December.

Since February, the orchestra has been silenced by the coronavirus pandemic, losing an Asian tour, the final two months of the 2019-20 season in Boston, the Boston Pops spring series in May and June, and the entire Tanglewood slate of classical and Popular Artists performances, as well as the Tanglewood Music Center summer academy for rising young artists.

The hit to the orchestra’s bottom line has been severe, totaling about $71 million in lost earned income, including ticket sales, according to a BSO spokeswoman.

Some of that has been defrayed by contributions and by many audience members who declined refunds, instead donating the value of their tickets back to the BSO.

The annual BSO budget for its fiscal year ending Aug. 31 totaled $107 million. For the current fiscal year, it is less than $50 million.

The orchestra will continue the expansion of its digital activities, which began with a robust Tanglewood online festival last summer. New online video content recorded in Boston will be announced this month, to be available starting Nov. 19 at bso.org and continuing through April.

In its Friday announcement, the BSO stated that it is “determined to return to live performances as soon as it’s deemed advisable” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state and the city of Boston, as well as its own team of experts. But, the timing will not be known for several months.

“The health and well-being of everyone involved will always be the first priority when considering options and defining future plans for bringing audiences back to the hall,” the announcement emphasized.

No information about next summer’s Tanglewood season, typically unveiled in late November, is expected until well into the new year.

The BSO musicians took pay cuts averaging 25 percent from last spring through Aug. 31. In a new labor agreement reached Aug. 24, the 92 full-time players agreed to salary reductions averaging nearly 40 percent in the first year of the new three-year contract.

They will earn a minimum of $120,000 in the first year, down from the previous base salary of $162,000. Principal players, who can earn considerably more, also took undisclosed cuts.

As of Sept. 1, the orchestra cut the size of its administrative staff, laying off 50 out of 180 employees. BSO President and CEO Mark Volpe has taken a 50 percent salary cut, and Music Director Andris Nelsons, who recently extended his contract through 2025, also took unspecified pay reductions, as did Boston Pops Conductor Keith Lockhart.

The BSO’s endowment, about $450 million, is the largest of any U.S. orchestra.

In a joint statement, Volpe, Nelsons and Lockhart expressed deep regret over the season cancellation.

“Though this news likely doesn’t come as a surprise — since the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact all our personal and professional lives — it is still a major loss for the organization and everyone who appreciates and cherishes the BSO and Boston Pops,” they said.

Citing two “silver linings” that have emerged during the challenging period, they pointed to “a new library of audio and video material that we’ve created to help our music community get through this difficult time and the forced hiatus from the live concert experience.”

The upcoming digital “season” will include “larger groups of musicians from the BSO and Boston Pops, featured in recorded performances from the stage of Symphony Hall for the first time since March, and including appearances by Keith Lockhart and by Andris Nelsons, when he returns to Boston in the new year,” the statement explained.

The second silver lining, Volpe, Nelsons and Lockhart said, is “the tremendous support we have received from the BSO’s devoted subscribers, donors, and sponsors, as well as the BSO’s board leadership, whose generosity has helped us to continue our compelling online content and keep the staff and musicians active during these unprecedented times.”

Volpe plans to retire as the organization’s leader after an extensive search identifies a new president/CEO. His plans were announced well before the pandemic, and he extended his retirement date target to give the board of trustees more time for completion of the search-and-hiring process.

“All of us at the BSO and Boston Pops will continue to persevere and look forward to the time when we can welcome our dear music community, as well as newcomers, back to the hall to revel in the live concert experience like never before,” the joint statement concluded.

The new online series will feature a reduced orchestra, in line with safety precautions, with music to be recorded at Symphony Hall at weekly sessions, starting Oct. 28. It will be the first time the musicians will be onstage since performance cancellations began March 13.

This past week, the New York Philharmonic also canceled all performances through June. Broadway theaters remain shuttered until next fall, at the earliest, and the Metropolitan Opera is closed at least until next September.

“It is really fair to say that in the 178-year history of the Philharmonic, this is the single biggest crisis,” Deborah Borda, the Philharmonic’s president and chief executive, told The New York Times.

The orchestra reported a deficit of about $10 million for the fiscal year that ended in August and expects to lose about $20 million in ticket revenue for the 2020-21 season. Half of the administrative staff has been laid off, and New York Philharmonic musicians are earning about 75 percent of the orchestra’s base pay.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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