FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — As negotiations between the Fort Wayne Philharmonic musicians and management continue, a former prominent Philharmonic voice spoke out against the management’s current stance.

Christopher Guerin, the former president of the Philharmonic from 1985-2005, said he believes the Philharmonic does not “seem to believe in, or care about, the future of a professional symphony orchestra in the city.”

“I have followed the orchestra very closely ever since I resigned in 2005, and to my dismay, I’ve watched as year after year, things were cut,” Guerin said. “Not just musician salaries, but as importantly, the number of concerts that the orchestra was performing was drastically reduced.”

The musicians started their strike Dec. 8, and although both sides have engaged in negotiations, a deal has not come to fruition.

Guerin released a statement giving his thoughts on the strike:

The staff and board of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic do not seem to believe in, or care about the future of a professional symphony orchestra in this city.

The current strike by the players is only the latest development in a decade of labor/management strife. In that time, the number of concerts — small ensemble, chamber orchestra and full orchestra — have been cut in half by management. The board made arguably reasonable cuts during the pandemic, but now they have no excuse. The veil has been raised on the board’s true goal: to reduce this once nationally-esteemed orchestra to a shadow of its formal self.

The players are people with expensive degrees in musicianship, working under increasingly restrictive circumstances that make it virtually impossible to make ends meet. The 44 full-time players are earning between only $22,000 and $26,000 a year — less than what they were making in 2008. 

Let’s be clear, the Philharmonic is rich. Its ratio of endowment funds to operating budget is one of the most enviable in the country, with more than $25 million sitting in the bank, against a budget of, at most, $6 million in operating expenses. Even if the orchestra had a $500,000 annual budget deficit (and it doesn’t), it would take 50 years for the orchestra to go broke.

Management has been quoted as saying the players are asking for a 45% increase in wages over a three year period, while management is offering an 11% increase. How much additional income would come from either of those percentage increases against a $22,000 per year salary? The Massachusetts Institute of Technology says that a person in Allen County with no children needs to earn $31,600 to make a “living wage.” A 45% pay increase on $22,000 would amount to $31,900. An 11% increase would amount to $24,420, which is $7,180 less than a “living age.” The Philharmonic musicians are in the category of the “working poor.”

But it gets worse. Gone are the Unplugged Series, Community Concerts, the Chamber Orchestra Series, many of the concerts throughout the northeastern counties, half of the in-school ensemble concerts, and the Masterworks Series has been reduced from 10 to seven performances. That’s fewer Masterworks concerts than the orchestra performed in 1985.

For a town the size of Fort Wayne, a full-time orchestra usually means 44 players, which comprise a “chamber orchestra.” For works requiring a larger number (from 50 to 90), musicians are hired from throughout the region. This has been the case for many decades.

Yet management hasn’t only reduced Masterworks concerts, which require these additional musicians, but it has eliminated most chamber orchestra concerts, which do not require much additional expense. 

The 44 full-time players are required, for their salaries, to perform a certain number of services (rehearsals or concerts). The services are paid for, according to the contract, whether they are scheduled or not. Chamber orchestra concerts, therefore, requiring only the 44 or fewer players can be presented without added burden on the operating budget. In fact, between ticket sales and sponsorships, chamber orchestra concerts usually earn a profit and add to the bottom line of the overall budget.

By eliminating chamber concerts management has chosen to leave musician services unused, a waste of many tens of thousands of dollars and more. Players want to play. When they see these concerts eliminated, they feel not only under-utilized, but unappreciated and their services wasted.

Why does management and board chose to victimize the musicians? Why don’t they care about making the most of the musician assets that are part of the budget? Either board members don’t understand the symphony business, nor really care about music, or art. Or maybe they are just lazy; it takes work to schedule, select music, and sell tickets and sponsorships. But that’s what the staff is for.

We’ve already heard the excuse that the board and management are only trying to build a future for the orchestra, and the players refuse to listen. Here’s the board’s vision for the future: 1. No full-time position vacated by resignation or retirement will be filled; 2. Musicians will no longer have any control over their schedule; everything will be decided by management (contrary to a the industry standard); being on-call morning, noon and night, players will have little opportunity to make additional income teaching or playing church and other performances; 3. After decades of having an important role in the hiring and firing of musicians, these decisions will be left exclusively to the Music Director (a procedure unprecedented in the symphony business nationally).

Finally, it’s very clear that management is ineffective at best. Marketing and public relations are virtually non-existent. The recent reduction of the Nutcracker orchestra from 48 to 40 players using a bastardized score reduction that had nothing to do with Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece, showed disdain for the art form and for the audience and dancers of the Fort Wayne Ballet.

The board’s clutch-to-its-breast treatment of the huge endowment reveals a group that wants to sit back and rest on its laurels. I applaud their having raised so much in the last few years, but they act as though the endowment, as it is now, must fund the orchestra till the end of time. Rather, each generation that aspires to have a full-time professional orchestra must step forward and do its part. That’s what happened with endowment campaigns in 1988, 1996, and 2004.

When did running an orchestra become a matter of funding only? A balanced budget is NOT an “artistic vision.” Only a powerful artistic vision will result in a balanced budget. If what the board really envisions is an amateur orchestra, then they should say so; but a survey conducted by the organization a few years ago showed that a majority of respondents want a full-time symphony orchestra.

I urge everyone who loves music and takes pride in its orchestra to contact the members of the board and urge them to right what has become a deplorable wrong.