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Knoxville Symphony Musicians’ Union In Tussle With Management Over Furloughs

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The labor union that represents musicians of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra filed a grievance against the orchestra’s management, alleging furloughs announced this week violate their current labor agreement.

KSO announced Monday that it would cancel the first half of its 2020-21 concert season and furlough musicians for five months, beginning August 31. Most of the orchestra’s administrative staff will also be furloughed, beginning September 14. Remaining staff will get pay cuts. The orchestra cited concerns about safety in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, and said it would not be “financially feasible” to bear its current costs in the face of sharply reduced revenue. Some KSO musicians responded with shock and dismay on social media.

“To be a classical musician is to invest in your community,” horn player Sean Donovan wrote on Facebook. “And yet in the rising tide of community support and investment, the organization shuts out the very people that raise the value of the organization, the concert experience, and the very real need for live music in wide-ranging communities across the region. And so, now what?”

The grievance seeks to fight the KSO decision and restore musicians’ pay.

KSO said its management team and board of directors made the decision to cancel based on guidance from public health officials, surveys submitted by KSO concertgoers, and best-practice guidelines employed by other orchestras. Bassist Steve Benne, chair of the musicians’ orchestra committee, said players were not consulted before the decision was announced.

“We’ve been working with the KSO for several months to offer extra flexibility and innovative ideas for putting on safe performances that bring music into our community and schools at a time when everyone needs it most,” Benne said in a statement. “In return, and without any advance warning, the KSO furloughed us a week before our season was about to begin.”

Percussionist Andy Adzima challenged Benne's account. In a letter to the committee obtained by WUOT News, Adzima wrote "This furlough was avoidable," and said the committee was partly to blame for rejecting a KSO offer that included a 25 percent pay cut.

Knoxville Symphony Executive Director Rachel Ford said the musicians’ union was kept abreast of the orchestra’s financial concerns for several weeks before the cancellations and furloughs were announced.

“While we understand how upsetting this has been for the musicians and all of our furloughed employees, the KSO has been transparent with the Orchestra Committee about this projected budget gap brought on by the pandemic,” Ford said Thursday. “These are the same issues being faced by other symphonies around the country who have also been forced to furlough employees, agree on pay-cuts and/or cancel seasons.”

The orchestra is projecting a $900,000 loss this year – about a quarter of its total annual budget. Furloughing the musicians and administrative staff is expected to save $475,000. KSO says it is looking at other ways to help raise money until it is safe again to hold typical in-person events such as concerts and galas.

KSO is not the only Tennessee-based orchestra to make cuts as a result of the tumult of COVID-19. The Nashville Symphony announced in June it would cancel its entire 2020-21 concert season. The Johnson City Orchestra has delayed its concert season to next February. Chattanooga’s orchestra hopes to hold limited concerts with small audiences. Two outdoor performances have been scheduled for September.

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The initial version of this article stated the Chattanooga Symphony had not announced details for scheduled performances. The text has been corrected to reflect the scheduling of two September concerts.