In a show of operational harmony, the Kansas City Symphony and its musicians
have reached agreement on a three-year contract a full year ahead of
The new contract, effective July 1, 2014, and ratified by the Symphony board
recently, includes a boost in musicians’ base salary and other enhancements.
By all accounts, negotiations were amicable and compromise came easily
against a backdrop of orchestral pain and labor disputes across the country.
Symphony musicians have been locked out in Minneapolis for months. Contract
squabbles have erupted in recent years in New York, Chicago, Denver,
Indianapolis, San Francisco, Jacksonville, Fla., and elsewhere. The new
concert hall in Nashville, Tenn., has been on the verge of foreclosure, and
the financial future of its orchestra remains wobbly.
But here, the Symphony is coming off its second straight successful year in
its new performing home, Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the
Performing Arts. Ticket sales rose again, and the Symphony eked out an
unplanned $200,000 surplus on its $13.5 million budget.
“We wanted to settle early as a signal that not only are things going well,
but we all want to be part of a proactive plan,” said Frank Byrne, the
Symphony’s executive director and principal negotiator.
“We are very proud of the positive relationships and mutual trust between
our musicians, staff and board,” Byrne added in a statement. “Combined with
the transparency of our organization and our commitment to artistic
excellence and the Symphony’s future, these are key elements to our ongoing
Added William M. Lyons, the newly appointed board chairman: “I don’t mean to
sound boastful, but we do stand out right now as an orchestra performing
well on many fronts versus other orchestras across the country.”
The new contract covers 80 musicians and spans a 42-week season in which
Symphony musicians typically appear in more than 150 performances for the
Symphony, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and the Kansas City Ballet. In the
season that ended last month, Symphony musicians also made 60 appearances in
the orchestra’s Community Connections outreach programs at schools and
Musicians will see their base pay rise a bit more than 8 percent over the
three years of the contract. In the forthcoming 2013-14 season, the base
salary is $50,065; by the 2016-17 season, that will increase to $54,284.
Musicians also will get small increases in family health insurance coverage,
their retirement plans and seniority pay.
Although their compensation remains on the low end of the scale for
orchestras of similar size, the tradeoff for many of the musicians is the
Symphony’s relative stability and the long-running commitment by the board
and staff to aim high artistically and to improve musician well-being, said
Susan Martin, a Phoenix attorney who has represented Symphony musicians here
since a foundational labor agreement in 1998.
“No one would disagree that the musicians are underpaid,” said Martin, who
also serves as general counsel for the International Conference of Symphony
and Opera Musicians. “They deserve a lot more than they receive. But that’s
not the controlling factor here.
“What we see in the Kansas City Symphony is a culture of mutual respect,”
she said. “A lot of orchestras talk about respect, but the Kansas City
Symphony really practices it.”
Symphony officials and musicians are well aware that as the orchestra has
grown artistically in recent years, more of its players can compete
nationally and could move on to bigger outfits elsewhere and easily double
their pay. The Symphony just recently announced the departure of two
players, who took positions in Chicago and New York.
Their colleagues tend to view that as a badge of honor as well as an
opportunity to hire some of the best young musicians in the country, who are
increasingly attracted to a place with a reputation for labor peace and high
“I think that what perhaps makes the difference,” Martin said, “aside from
mutual respect, is a sense of optimism. Things are looking brighter and
brighter. That really goes a long way to helping the musicians accept
less-than-ideal terms and conditions.”
Brian Rood, a veteran trumpeter and chair of the musicians’ negotiating
committee, attributes the Symphony’s success to the rare continuity of
board, staff and artistic leadership. He and everyone else noted that
Shirley Helzberg’s longtime guidance – she recently stepped down from the
board’s chairmanship – has been crucial to the orchestra’s fiscal and
Rood also applauded artistic director Michael Stern’s leadership, not only
on the podium but in the community as a champion of music in general and the
Symphony in particular.
“I believe that people do have a sense of relief here,” Rood said Tuesday,
“but I think we’ve come to expect that of ourselves here in Kansas City. The
difference here is that we have all the ingredients for a successful
“You have to have musicians who are dedicated and committed, and we have
that in Kansas City. People come to the stage with excellence on their
minds. But it’s not just musicians. We have a terrific staff that is very
Lyons, the board chair, was proud of the fact that ticket sales cover nearly
40 percent of expenses, making the Symphony one of the top producing
American orchestras of any size. But the bottom line, he said, remains a
challenge each year with considerable fixed costs coming from musician
compensation and Kauffman Center rent.
“I think we’ve done a very good job in our negotiations with musicians,”
Lyons said, “of getting that balance of providing advancement in their
compensation with not outspending our revenue stream.
“I think we’re in an exceptionally good place. We can now look four years
ahead of having a stable musician relationship. That allows us to
concentrate on making music for the city.”
And making music, of course, is the heart of the matter.
“Anyone who talks about classical music dying need only take a look at
Kansas City,” said Martin. “It’s alive there. It’s so exhilarating. It’s