Springfield Symphony musicians stage own concert amid battle over contract and orchestra’s future

  • The Springfield Symphony Orchestra backs up the Jeans ‘n Classics Band for an evening of Beatles songs at Springfield Symphony Hall. Orchestra members and management are at an impasse over a new contract. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • The contract of Kevin Rhodes, the musical director of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra for the past 20 years, expired in May and has not been renewed. But he’s flying in from Europe to lead an independent group of musicians from the orchestra at a free Oct. 15 show. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • The Springfield Symphony Orchestra performs at Springfield Symphony Hall, where the musicians are staging an independent show on Oct. 15. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • The Springfield Symphony Orchestra backs up a pop group playing the music of Journey at Springfield Symphony Hall. Orchestra members and management are at an impasse over a new contract. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Monday, October 04, 2021

Musicians from the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, who haven’t played a full live concert since early March 2020, will finally be back on stage in mid-October, led by their longtime music director and conductor, Kevin Rhodes, at Springfield Symphony Hall for an evening of music by Beethoven, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and other notable names.

After a 19-month hiatus due to the pandemic, it would seem like old times for the orchestra. But it’s not.

For months now, musicians and their union have been locked in a dispute with the orchestra’s management over a new contract, and in fact the SSO has not prepared a schedule for the 2021-2022 season, which is a central part of the contract disagreement.

The Oct. 15 concert, which is free, is actually being staged by the musicians themselves, who have formed an independent group, The Musicians of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra (MOSSO), which they say is dedicated to promoting live symphonic and chamber music in the region and has already staged some smaller outdoor performances around Springfield.

For this “Coming Home” concert, a $30,000 production that musicians have paid for through grants and donations, Rhodes is flying in at his own expense from Slovakia, where he’s currently working. After 20 years with SSO, his contract was not renewed this spring, and the SSO has no music director at present.

And this spring, Rhodes, who works with orchestras and ballet and opera companies in the U.S. and Europe, moved with his wife from Massachusetts to Traverse City, Michigan; he has conducted the Traverse Symphony Orchestra there for years and signed a 10-year contract extension with the group in spring.

The Springfield musicians, members of Local 171 chapter of the American Federation of Musicians, acknowledge that the pandemic created difficult circumstances for everyone at SSO, including the orchestra’s management, over the past year and a half.

But they say the lack of a new contract, the failure to renew a deal with Rhodes, and an unwillingness to commit to a meaningful 2021-2022 season represents a failure of leadership on management’s part, even as other New England orchestras and classical music groups are opening new seasons (the Boston Symphony Orchestra just announced a free live concert Oct. 3 in Boston Symphony Hall).

“It’s saddening, frustrating, and frankly shocking to see such a lack of commitment to the orchestra and its future,” said Thomas Bergeron, who is the principal trumpet for SSO and has played with the group for about seven years.

However, SSO management claims the musicians’ unwillingness to agree to a new contract, and their staging of their own separate concert, now threaten the possibility of the orchestra hosting any 2021-2022 season (see sidebar, B4).

Bergeron, who lives in Amherst and is the music director at Deerfield Academy, grew up in South Hadley and played with the SSO Youth Orchestra as a teenager.

“Being part of that is a big reason I’m a professional musician today,” he said. “And my experience (with SSO) has been great … we have members from New York, Boston, across New England and the Northeast, and they love being part of the orchestra.” (He says about 20% of players are from the greater Springfield area.)

The SSO, according to its website, is the largest Massachusetts symphony outside of Boston and first played in 1944.

Clarinetist Lynn Sussman, another longtime symphony member who teaches at Deerfield Academy and Smith College, likens playing in the group “to being part of a big family. It’s a very happy place, and that’s not the case with all orchestras.”

Now, though, Bergeron and other MOSSO members say SSO’s management, led by its board of directors, has only offered to stage five live concerts, or even just four, in the 2021-2022 season — rather than the 10 typically presented — with up to 60 participating musicians, fewer than the 72 full-time players who are part of the orchestra. There’s also no commitment to staging the shows at Springfield Symphony Hall, a performance space “specifically designed for symphonic music,” Bergeron said.

Such a deal is unacceptable, Bergeron said, as is management’s refusal to commit to a season beyond 2021-2022. “How can we move forward if they show such a lack of faith in the orchestra?”

He notes that MOSSO formed not just because of the contract dispute but also in response to concerns from patrons about a seeming lack of commitment from management in revitalizing the orchestra, such as filling a number of staffing vacancies.

Forming the group, said Bergeron, “was really an act of desperation.”

Planning problems

But John Anz, interim executive director of SSO, says orchestra leaders have been hampered by COVID-19 since uncertainty about the pandemic meant planning for concerts, typically done months in advance, was delayed this spring. The pandemic also has added to concerns about the orchestra’s long-term economic viability, he said.

“For us to be able to put on a show this September, we would have needed to begin planning in March, and that wasn’t possible,” Anz said. “We didn’t know when the state would allow us to put on a (live) concert.”

Anz, who previously was SSO’s development director — he became interim executive director after the orchestra’s former director, Susan Beaudry, resigned in May — also says the union’s refusal to sign a new contract is delaying planning for a new season.

“We can’t move ahead until we have a firm agreement,” he said. “We have a plan for this season, but we can’t put it in play and announce it until we have a commitment from the musicians.”

The SSO has now set Oct. 1 as a deadline for a new labor agreement, which if not met will likely force the cancellation of any 2021-2022 season, officials say.

Bergeron and other players such as Sussman dispute Anz’s argument, saying planning for past seasons proceeded at the same time that contract negotiations were taking place. The most recent contract for musicians expired in August 2020.

Anz says negotiations are continuing and that management wants to reach an agreement “as much as anybody.” Musicians aren’t so sure. Meanwhile, the National Labor Relations Board recently filed a complaint against SSO for unfair labor practices, alleging management has engaged in “bad faith bargaining.” A hearing is scheduled for Dec. 1 in Springfield.

Aside from there being a number of staff positions currently vacant at SSO, including that of development director, Bergeron says much of the uncertainty about the orchestra’s future seems to be coming from the board of directors, at one time made up of 15 members but that now, following a number of resignations, is effectively a panel of six.

He says the board, among other things, has floated the possibility of merging SSO with the Hartford Orchestra, which would effectively end the SSO, the smaller of the two groups.

“We really don’t know what their motives are,” Bergeron said. “But they do seem to be obsessive about growing the endowment (of upwards of close to $8 million) by cutting out anything that costs money.”

On its website, MOSSO also claims that poor management decisions and underwhelming fundraising efforts by the SSO over the last several years have led to the current state of affairs.

An email from the Gazette seeking comment from the six board members went unanswered.

However, an email sent this summer from SSO management to patrons said the orchestra “has sustained very large losses over the last decade despite attempts to improve its fundraising, programming and marketing.” Nevertheless, officials said, the orchestra is pursuing other fundraising strategies.

Administrators say they’re also seeking “flexibility” from musicians to allow the orchestra “to adapt quickly to developments and changing circumstances…. SSO needs to use our next season to determine whether audiences will attend in sufficient numbers and whether community support is sufficient to ensure its sustainability.”

Bergeron and other MOSSO musicians question how SSO can raise new money — or even be serious about doing so — if the orchestra does not stage any concerts or have a full-time development director. For his part, Anz acknowledged that without any live shows, fundraising “becomes more of a challenge.”

Some orchestra patrons, such as Holyoke pediatrician David Gottsegen, raise another sore point. As Gottsegen put it in an email, the SSO’s board members “have used donations made by contributors like me to pay legal fees to litigate against the union that is fighting for the orchestra’s survival, while not using their endowment” to address staffing vacancies, the 2021-2022 season, and the orchestra’s future.

Musicians have a number of city officials in their corner: Mayor Domenic Sarno has agreed to let the Oct. 15 MOSSO concert take place rent-free at Springfield Symphony Hall, which charges varied fees for users.

Bergeron says all the orchestra’s musicians have felt the loss of income from the past 19 months of inactivity, though those with other regular jobs such as himself may have weathered things better. But he says the actual dollar value and length of any new contract is less important than a deal that commits the orchestra to producing more live shows this coming year and in the future.

“We really need leadership that’s forward thinking, that invests its energies in new ideas, that’s willing to make the orchestra more relevant,” he said. “That’s been lacking.”

“We’d like to be working with the symphony,” Sussman added. “But most of all, we just want a chance to play music.”

More information about MOSSO and the Oct. 15 concert can be found at springfieldsymphonymusicians.com; tickets are free but must be reserved through the website. More information about Springfield Symphony Orchestra is available at springfieldsymphony.org.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.