As classical concerts return to the stage, here’s what musicians need to know

Financial vice president's report

Volume 121, No. 8September, 2021

Karen Fisher

While opening concerts for freelance orchestras don’t begin until September and October, the summer months are a busy time in the Concert Department. Sixteen of our agreements expire between the end of August and Sept. 30, though not all in the same year. Preparations and negotiations typically begin throughout July and August. We are currently in the midst of several negotiations, as noted below:

The one-year extension agreement we had in place with American Ballet Theater expired on March 31. Because the terms of employment for ABT are promulgated as the terms for all Local 802 ballet and opera single engagements, this contract is of particular concern. As of this writing, ABT is making plans for a fall season and we are in tense negotiations with management over wages, health benefits, and the work guarantee.

The collective bargaining agreement between St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble and Local 802 expires this month as well. There are many unique characteristics to this orchestra — including its structure, how it functions and its CBA — that have developed over the past 47 years that are being thoughtfully reexamined and considered by the orchestra committee. St. Luke’s, along with Stamford Symphony, which signed a one-year contract extension agreement in June, is one of the few orchestras that continued to perform, albeit on a smaller scale, throughout the pandemic.

The American Symphony Orchestra performed a full-scale opera in addition to holding  performances at  the Bard Festival this summer. All musicians, chorus, staff, and audience were fully vaccinated, and the orchestra was tested regularly while in residence per Bard College regulations. Negotiations for a successor agreement will be underway soon.


Some management changes of note:

  • The American Composers Orchestra named Melissa Ngan new president and CEO this summer. Preparations are underway for negotiations for a new contract with ACO.
  • We are finalizing an agreement with the Bronx Arts Ensemble and welcome Judith Insell, their new Executive Director, who is also a member of Local 802.
  • Jane Moss, the artistic director of Lincoln Center and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra retired from her position at Lincoln Center last year just as the shutdown was happening. Shanta Thake has recently been named her successor and will assume the role going forward.

On a sad note, we mourn the passing on August 8 of Joanne Bernstein-Cohen, who served as the executive director of Little Orchestra Society for nearly 15 years. Joanne remained committed to her responsibilities at LOS even as she battled serious illness. She truly loved the orchestra and its mission and will be missed.


The health and safety of our members remains a primary concern. We are in the process of negotiating side letters with all our orchestras so that we can return to work as safely as possible. Most managements are requiring all musicians and staff to be vaccinated and are masking where possible. Testing mandates may be coming back with the rise of the Delta variant. We will continue to work within state and local guidelines as well as on the advice of our experts and are watching the situation closely. More details on this below.


In August, I was pleased to represent Local 802 at the 59th meeting of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) in Pittsburgh. Delegates from New York orchestras who participated remotely were Leelanee Sterrett from the New York Philharmonic, Ethan Silverman from NYC Ballet, and Mark Shuman from the New York City Opera Orchestra. Due to the pandemic, in person attendance was only around 60% of normal as many delegates were taking advantage of the warmer weather and the ability to perform outside concerts and festivals.

It was a joy to see people in person (vaccinated and masked, of course), and the presentations were  thoughtful and of interest to all symphony musicians. As in past years, there were  discussions around diversity, equity and inclusion. Specific ideas on expanding programming to include women composers and composers of color and recruitment of  management and board members from these communities were presented. We heard reports from other player conferences (RMA, ROPA, OCSM, and TMA) as well as insights on the specific challenges presented by the past 18 months from Rochelle Skolnick and Debbie Newmark of the AFM Symphonic Services Division.

Of particular interest and very timely was the presentation on vaccinations, Covid variants, and bargaining health and safety protocols. As discussed in previous columns, Local 802 has formulated health and safety recommendations, which are intended to be used as guidelines. It is important to note that protocols and vaccine mandates, should they be proposed, must be formulated by management, presented to the appropriate orchestra committee and the union, and an agreement reached well before the first in-person service.

Regarding vaccination protocols specifically, the following topics must be addressed in writing:

  1. Vaccine mandates: Will musicians be required to submit proof of vaccination?  If so, who will be collecting the information and maintaining confidentiality? Management may supply numbers and percentages of unvaccinated people to the orchestra, but they may not disclose names. All rules must be consistent and apply to subs and extras as well as guest artists and conductors. The Union cannot bargain over mandates for staff but that should be part of the conversation.
  2. Exemptions for bona fide medical reasons and religious beliefs: If a reasonable accommodation is requested, a discussion must be held between the employer and the musician. The committee may bargain over minimum protections such as masking and testing, however management must engage directly with the person making the request. Reasonable accommodation must be made unless doing so causes undue hardship or pose a significant risk of substantial harm to other musicians.
  3. Consequences of noncompliance: The document should also address what happens if musicians don’t comply with vaccine mandates or follow agreed upon accommodations.
  4. Term: As with any agreement,  the protocols should have a start date and an end date. Before the expiration of the agreement, the document will be reviewed, renewed or modified.

Also of great interest were two very informative lectures on reading, understanding, and interpreting financial documents. What we hear at the bargaining table is not necessarily a true representation of an organization’s finances. As rank-and-file musicians, and especially as committee members, it is essential to collect and understand as much information as possible as we formulate proposals in preparation for contract negotiations. Ideally, at least one person on each committee can become financially literate and be responsible for requesting, maintaining, and reviewing the orchestra’s financial documents on a yearly basis.

This important subject requires a separate column (or three), however below are a few basic  points to keep in mind.

  • Accounting is usually done on an accrual basis, rather than cash, and in accordance with general accounting principles accepted in the U.S. (Cash is acceptable in some instances but most of the statements we will see are done on an accrual basis). The method used will be stated at the top of any audited financial statements.
  • The audited financial statements are a snapshot of a moment in time and should be monitored by each appropriate orchestra committee.
  • Check the dates of each year’s audit. Audits should be performed around the same time every year. If you notice an anomaly, it may be valuable to ask why.
  • Beware of looking at just the institution’s 990’s. The numbers in the 990’s provide information but there is no penalty for getting it wrong. The audited financial statements present a more precise picture.
  • How much coverage does the orchestra have over a year’s worth of expenses? Examine the total expenses for the previous year vs. what has been allocated for the current year.
  • Know your orchestra’s endowment and rules for distribution. What percentage is used for operations? How much is restricted vs. unrestricted? How has the value changed since the previous year? This information can tell us what will be available for the coming year.
  • Concentration of credit risk may tell us where contributions come from and tell us something about an orchestra board’s risk assessment. Boards pay attention to risk, and knowing how risk averse a board is will influence how hard to push in negotiations. Having musician representation on the board is an ideal way to gain insight beyond the numbers.
  • What is the musicians’ share of total compensation? Is the board paying out more in staff salaries than to musicians? What is normal differs for each organization.
  • Asset growth. Are we seeing asset growth every year? If not, why not? How much is there in assets just waiting to be used?
  • On the income side, nonprofits often lose money in operations, but do the negatives outweigh the positives? Is earned revenue going up every year? What are they getting for what they are spending?

Building knowledge is building power and we want to maximize both during this demanding, transitional time.

I look forward to the challenges of the coming months and to hearing your thoughts and ideas. As always, if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, please do not hesitate to contact me at