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A negotiating impasse between Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra musicians and management is threatening to sink the Sept. 18 opening gala and possibly the entire 1999-2000 season, officials said Thursday.

"Things are going very slowly -- so slowly we've asked the musicians union to please consider using a New York State mediator" to resolve the dispute, said Robert M. Greene, orchestra chairman.

Greene said management wants to meet Monday with Buffalo Musicians Association Local 92, which represents orchestra players.

Mark Jones, local president, did not reject the idea of mediation, but said no meeting will be held unless the union's lead negotiator, New York City lawyer Leonard Liebowitz, is available.

With no new offers or counter-offers on the bargaining table, and musicians threatening to strike, odds that the concert season will go forward without some kind of disruption are rapidly narrowing, Greene said.

The first casualty may be the plan to telecast the opening-night concert, which is to feature the debut of new Music Director JoAnn Falletta. "We're nearing the point where expenses (of the telecast) will be incurred," Greene said. "We'll have to make a decision pretty soon."

If the musicians, who are scheduled to begin rehearsals Wednesday, follow through on their strike threat, "there will be no concert, possibly no season -- and no orchestra," Greene warned.

Jones dismissed Greene's comments as brinkmanship.

"They always claim the sky is falling, and then put a gun to your head," he said of Philharmonic management. "Unlike other cities, here it always comes down to 'Do it our way or we're going to pull the plug.' "

No talks have been held since musicians voted a week ago to strike if they are not given a better offer before the opening concert.

Both orchestra President Joseph E. Goodell, who is management's lead negotiator, and Executive Director Lawrence A. Ribits have been away for more than a week on vacations.

The musicians, who earned a base salary of $28,700 -- near the bottom of the heap among U.S. orchestras -- under the three-year contract that expired Aug. 31, want to move closer to the industry average of about $40,000.

The most recent management offer would move the base salary to $35,450 in the final year of a three-year deal, Jones said. Musicians' pay would increase more than 20 percent over the life of the contract. "If you thought the last contract had been normal, that would be a very good increase. But if you're starting near the bottom, it would not be," Jones said.

Greene insisted the cupboard is bare, that the BPO remains tightly budgeted despite a proposed $1.3 million increase in spending for the 1999-2000 fiscal year.

"Part of the $1.3 million goes to the musicians," he said. "It's making up a projected deficit, so we can finish each year in black. Another part would be used to upgrade marketing to get more people to buy tickets, and to upgrade our fund raising."

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