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Freelancers take hit in new BSO musicians' contract

A new musicians' contract approved Saturday by the Boston Symphony Orchestra could lead to the first commercial music releases in the James Levine era, while containing costs by slashing musician pay nearly 17 percent for more than 50 Pops concerts.

The three-year deal has serious implications for the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, the group of 130 freelance musicians who fill out the ranks in Symphony Hall performances, mostly with the Pops; tour two to four times a year; and play the July 4 Pops concert on the Esplanade .

Those freelancers, who earned $434 per concert in 2005-06, will earn $378 for dozens of Pops concerts in the upcoming season: 50 performances labeled ``Supplementary Optional Employment," plus Pops tours and the July 4 show. They will be paid the same amount as a symphony player if they fill in on a regular BSO date or one of roughly 60 Pops concerts or rehearsals held each season.

Meanwhile BSO players' salaries will rise from a weekly minimum of $2,170 last season to $2,270 this year, a 4.61 percent increase, and more in later years.

``I'm not surprised by any of this," said John Grimes, a freelance timpanist who has played with the Esplanade Orchestra and now serves as the vice president of the Boston Musicians' Association.

Grimes, who was not involved in the negotiations, said that he wished the freelancers had hired their own representative to negotiate . Instead, as in the past, they let the BSO's Players' Committee negotiate on their behalf. ``They placed too much trust in a system which is not structured to protect them," said Grimes.

Barbara Owens, president of the BMA, could not be reached for comment on the new contract. In a recent letter to freelancers, she described a negotiation that was ``extremely difficult and complex, due in part to the dramatically altered landscape of the symphony orchestra world."

BSO managing director Mark Volpe and Players' Committee head Fenwick Smith declined to comment on the agreement, other than to release a joint statement that read in part, ``The negotiations required accommodations on both sides."

The statement also said that the BSO would start a two-year ``experimental period" in which it will work with players to pursue media projects, including recordings. Management and players will share any profits that come from this activity.

``One area you might look forward to," said Ron Barron, a Players' Committee member, is that the BSO ``would like to do something with the `Neruda Songs. ' " Composed by Peter Lieberson and sung by his late wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the piece was recorded live by the BSO.

Barron said that BSO management had wanted to make a more dramatic cut to the freelance budget. He added that BSO players who choose to perform in any of 50 Pops concerts termed ``Supplementary" will also get paid 17 percent less than before.

``The committee, in an attempt to show some solidarity, agreed to take the same hit when we did the same work," he said .

A freelance gig with the BSO is the most lucrative in the region, if not the country. Freelancers who play with, for example, the New York Pops and Brooklyn Philharmonic, are paid $225 per concert. Freelancers with the Handel and Haydn Society receive $171 a performance. But even BSO members are concerned about the message they are sending their colleagues in the Esplanade Orchestra.

``The dangerous thing is that now the door's open to further whittling away," said James Orleans, a bassist in the BSO. ``It used to be, no, we stood firm, the extra players got 100 percent of what we get."

Barron said the BSO players did make ``a huge concession" when they agreed to pay a portion of their health insurance for the first time. Starting in the fall of 2007, BSO players will pay $10 per week for single coverage, $15 for family plans.

The deal, approved by the players in a 75-8 vote, also details a series of changes made in response to Levine's intense rehearsal and performing schedule. In the past, concerts could be 2 1/2 hours long without forcing the BSO to pay overtime. This year, Levine can plan only four concert programs that long before OT kicks in, and three programs in the following years. The remainder can be no longer than two hours and 15 minutes. Concerts in Tanglewood and on tour can remain 2 1/2 hours long. Each year, one program can be 3 hours long.

The contract makes special concessions to string players, allowing them seven additional days off per season.

``All of us want to find the balance, and I think it's an effort to have an artistic depth . . . and not cut off your artistic foot just to save hours," said Barron.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

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