March 8, 2003, 11:31PM

Musicians orchestrate full strike

Last offer can't stop symphony walkout


Musicians of the Houston Symphony went on strike after Saturday's performance rather than accept a new contract imposed by the Houston Symphony Society, which manages the orchestra.

The players decided to walk out after the society's afternoon announcement that it would impose its "best and final" offer at 12:01 a.m. Sunday. Terms include an 8.8 percent reduction in minimum salary, from $1,425 per week to $1,300.

"Our decision to strike is a stand for the principles that we continue to espouse: that Houston deserves a world-class orchestra," said players representative Dave Kirk.

"It has one now. It stands to lose that now."

Society President Jeffrey B. Early cited the continuing deterioration of the orchestra's finances.

"We have slashed all other expenses and we must reduce the cost of the orchestra," he said. "We're out of time. We cannot wait."

Player salaries make up about 45 percent of the society's $22.5 million budget.

Outside Jones Hall, a large number of musicians distributed leaflets attacking Douglas E. Hamel, the lawyer representing the society.

Inside, as they have frequently done in recent weeks, the musicians waited until just before concert time to enter the stage en masse.

A strong majority of the audience stood and applauded. A noticeable number did neither.

Audience reaction ran the gamut, with some people chattering about the problem right up until principal pops conductor Michael Krajewski gave the downbeat.

"What the musicians make is fair," said frequent patron Gayle McMorrow. "We pay our athletes an enormous sum to do something that doesn't take this much talent."

Cindy McClain was not sympathetic.

"I'm a registered nurse in an intensive care unit. What I do is just as important and I make half of what they do."

However, her husband, Jerry McClain, summed up many opinions.

"It's sad for the city. I think they should be able to work it out."

This is the first full-fledged strike in the 90-year history of the orchestra, players said. They staged a one-day strike on Feb. 1.

It's also Houston's first major work stoppage since 1976, when the musicians were locked out for 4 1/2 months in a similar contract dispute.

No major American orchestra has staged a full-fledged strike since 1996, when those in Atlanta, Philadelphia and San Francisco walked out in actions lasting between seven and 10 weeks.

Kirk said the musicians played Saturday's pops concert with the Irish band Cherish the Ladies because they had pledged to continue performing as long as the terms of the old contract, which expired Oct. 5, remained in force.

The strike capped a week of intense jockeying.

After Monday's ultimatum from management, musicians responded Friday with a counterproposal for a four-year agreement. They said that in the first year it would provide most of the $1.15 million in cuts the society needed.

The society rejected the offer almost immediately. Hamel said Saturday that it was similar to a proposal discussed previously. The reductions offered would be offset by increased costs in pensions, the society said.

Also, by the end of the four-year agreement the minimum scale would rise from $74,100 annually to $97,000, the society said.

Kirk disputed the figures, blaming the latest developments on Hamel, whom he called a "hired gun."

"He's been brought in to break up the Houston Symphony. There can be no other explanation for the summary rejection of our proposal."

However, Hamel said that he represents the society for free.

"I'm not a hired gun, not for the symphony nor for anyone else. I've been practicing law for 25 years. The charge is ridiculous."

The symphony's next scheduled performance was tonight's 7:30 p.m. pops concert, a repeat of Saturday's program.

Classical subscription series concerts were scheduled for March 22-24 with conductor Ilan Volkov and pianist Jose Feghali.

No decisions have been made about those events, the society said.

Patrons may call the symphony's customer service center at 713-224-7575.

Arts and Entertainment Editor Lindsay Heinsen contributed to this story.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  March 9, 2003, 10:32PM

Symphony's musicians go on strike


There was nothing but silence Sunday evening inside Jones Hall as Houston Symphony musicians went on strike to protest a new contract imposed upon them by orchestra managers.

The Irish pops concert scheduled for 7:30 p.m. was canceled, leaving some concertgoers who showed up anyway upset.

"I hope they get things resolved; it's a shame," said Don McAfoose of Houston, who had come with his wife, Lois. "I'm sure they both have legitimate issues they want resolved; hopefully they can get together."

The McAfooses said they were aware of the strike but had planned a weekend around the concert weeks ago, even reserving a room at the nearby Lancaster Hotel. The couple, who have had season tickets for the symphony for three years, showed up Sunday evening to see whether the show really was off.

Others hadn't heard the news and were surprised to find more than 100 musicians and their supporters picketing outside Jones Hall.

"I just wish I had known," said Marlene Keith of Katy, who brought her son, Nick, 17, for the performance. "I don't know what to think. I'm disappointed. We were looking forward to it."

Mike O'Hara of Houston and five family members were also stunned to see the musicians outside protesting instead of inside playing. O'Hara said he heard on television news Sunday that the evening's concert would go on but then a strike would start.

"No kidding?" he asked when told Sunday's concert was canceled. "My assumption is they are going to get this settled and they're going to be back playing music and everybody's going to be enjoying it. Everybody has to go through some stage of negotiations, and sometimes a strike is necessary to get everybody's attention."

Family, friends and supporters joined musicians -- some dressed in their performance tuxedos, others in jeans and a T-shirt -- in holding signs and chanting slogans along Louisiana. About 50 walked in a circle in front of Jones Hall, while another 65 or so marched across the street at Jones Plaza.

"We're going to be out here as long as it takes," said David Kirk, a tuba player. "Every Houstonian should be concerned about whether we are going to maintain a world-class symphony."

Representatives of Houston Symphony Society, the orchestra's management, declined to comment Sunday evening.

Earlier Sunday, musicians and their allies picketed the home of society lawyer Douglas Hamel. They accused Hamel of trying to destroy the symphony by refusing to consider their proposals and urged society officials to find a new attorney who will bargain in good faith.

Hamel said it was inappropriate to bring the dispute to his home and dismissed the musicians' complaints.

"The proposal we made is intended to preserve this entity, not to destroy it," he said. "There is a dire financial situation at the symphony, and in order to improve that situation, there's going to have to be cost-cutting and increased revenue. We've asked the musicians to join us in that process."

The next concerts are scheduled for March 22-24. Ticket holders should call 713-224-7575 to inquire about refunds if the performances are canceled.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

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