Milwaukee Symphony Musicians Agree To New Contract – Pay Raise And Rethinking Auditions

Extending its recent history of harmonious labor relations, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra has reached a two-year contract agreement with its musicians, represented by Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians.

The new contract also opens up intriguing possibilities for change in the MSO’s audition process for hiring new orchestra members.

First, here’s a summary of financial terms:

  • In the 2023-’24 season musicians will receive a 4.5% pay increase, with a reduction of playing weeks from 41 to 40.

  • In the 2024-’25 season, musicians will receive a 3% pay raise, with playing weeks restored to 41.

  • Over the course of the contract, the base salary for a musician will increase to $74,310.

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will consider changes in its audition process to promote inclusivity, said president and executive director Mark Niehaus.

The one-week reduction in the 2023-’24 season is a judicious financial move to reduce expenses, because audiences are still a little suppressed, said Mark Niehaus, MSO president and executive director.

“We’re not unusual” in that regard, he said. “Most every other orchestra in the country is down about 10% to 20%.”

Audience trends for the MSO are going in the right direction, Niehaus said. “They’re just not going as fast as we would like them.”

“The musicians of the MSO are optimistic following the ratification of a new two-year agreement,” principal percussionist Robert Klieger, chair of the Players’ Council, wrote in an email message. “We continue to be encouraged by the level of support that our management and board demonstrate, despite the challenges of the past few years.”

For more than 30 years, MSO administration has shared its financial information with musicians, a move suggested back then by Michael J. Schmitz, who was serving as board chairman at the time. Two musicians sit on the board’s finance committee and two serve on the board itself.

Will scrutinize audition process to promote inclusivity

The new contract also “includes provisions to promote inclusivity and diversity in our audition process,” the MSO said in an email message.

“We’re particularly proud that our collaborative approach extends to a shared vision for a more equitable hiring process,” Players’ Council leader Klieger wrote.

Orchestral auditions in Milwaukee and elsewhere are defined in collective bargaining agreements with musicians, Niehaus said, and not typically adjusted until a new agreement is negotiated.

“We now have an agreement that we will reevaluate the audition process on an ongoing basis during and after each audition with a committee of musicians and staff members to talk about how could the audition be more equitable,” Niehaus said.

That evaluation will include more than just considering how many candidates showed up on audition day.

“How do we advertise?” Niehaus asked rhetorically. “What are the barriers people may face to come and take the audition? How are people made to feel when they arrive? How are they greeted? What accommodations are they given backstage as they prepare to go out?”

Niehaus is a former principal trumpeter with the MSO. He won that post in 1997 through an audition process that’s standard today, including blind auditions, where committee members listening to him did not see what he looked like.

But the process as now constituted, as fair as blind auditions might seem, may unconsciously eliminate certain people from consideration, he pointed out.

Listeners may not realize that musicians auditioning for the MSO are paying their own expenses to come here. Musicians auditioning for orchestras could be spending thousands of dollars on plane tickets and hotel rooms, he said.

The MSO can have more than 100 musicians auditioning for a single open spot in the orchestra.

“We are learning about doing virtual auditions for preliminary rounds,” Niehaus said. In two recent virtual auditions for violinists, the MSO had 220 and 159 candidates. A recent virtual audition for cellists drew 149 participants.

A virtual audition group can be narrowed to 10 or 15 people, who could then visit in person for a semi-final round, he said.

Everything about the audition process is on the table for discussion, he said. “You want to have a holistic process where you’re hiring a person, not just a technician.”

The MSO is also looking at guidelines for diversity-promoting audition practices.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee Symphony agrees on new contract with musicians

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