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Ballet Not Making Right Moves, Orchestra Charges

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In recent years, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre has struggled to keep the show going on. But some musicians in the PBT orchestra are dismayed by the new role they're being asked to perform.

 

 

Under terms of a new contract proposed by the PBT in May, the ballet's 40-some musicians would take an 18 percent cut in performance pay, to $115 per show. The new pay scale isn't the worst of it, says oboist Cynthia Anderson, who chairs the Pittsburgh Opera and Ballet Orchestra Committee. What really troubles her is a provision that would allow the PBT to "determine whether and if it will utilize the services of any musicians, and, if so, what musicians it will utilize for any of its performances ...," according to a copy of an initial proposed contract Anderson forwarded to City Paper. That, says Anderson, would let the Ballet use student musicians, say, or even a computerized "virtual" orchestra. Another provision would allow the Ballet to contract for musical services with third parties.

 

"What we are presented with would destroy the orchestra as it is known," says Nathan Kahn, a negotiator with the American Federation of Musicians representing Pittsburgh's Local 60-471. Kahn and Anderson are also troubled that among PBT's negotiators, who include Interim Managing Director Robert Petrilli, is a lawyer with Littler Mendelson, the nation's largest firm specializing in employment and labor law. Labor advocates regard Littler Mendelson as one of the country's top union-busters; its Web site, for instance, promotes an upcoming "union avoidance" workshop for employers.

 

The PBT's contract with Local 60-471 expires June 30. Mark T. Phillis, the Littler Mendelson attorney representing the PBT, referred all queries to the PBT. "We're not going to talk about any kind of negotiations in the media," said Gail Murphy, the PBT's marketing director.

 

For now, negotiations are on hold. Anderson says the union requested current financial information from the PBT, but at press time she said the musicians were still waiting.

 

In January, the PBT told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette it had a deficit of at least $1 million against a total budget of about $7.5 million. In May, the PBT's longtime lead fund-raiser, Mary Ellen Miller, and its public-relations director, Molly Mercurio, left, and it was announced that Murphy and Roberto Munoz, the ballet school director, would leave the group at summer's end. In June, the PBT announced that due to a decline in ticket sales, in 2005 it would reduce performances of its perennial top draw, The Nutcracker Suite, from 23 to 17.

 

On the bright side, this year the PBT raised its national profile with performances in New York City. It retrenched by lowering ticket prices, and discontinuing a preferred-seating program whose prices had upset some subscribers. And it recently announced it had a balanced budget for the upcoming season, though it has yet to make those figures public.

 

Anderson cites previous pay cuts - 10 percent and 5 percent, respectively, in 2001 and 2003 -- as evidence the musicians are willing to do their part to help the PBT survive. Musicians even agreed to be replaced by recorded music in one show annually (out of six total productions), when the ballet stages a pop-music-themed show. But with most of the musicians making less than $7,000 a year, and musician pay last season accounting for only about 6 percent of expenses, Anderson says she's "stunned" by the new contract proposals. "This should not be difficult. Everybody's willing to work with them," says Anderson. "It's upsetting that they seem to be trying to amputate us."

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