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Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra musicians Friday approved a three-year contract that will boost their pay by nearly one-third, clearing the way for tonight's gala opening concert under new Music Director JoAnn Falletta.

Key details of the agreement, disclosed by Philharmonic management and Buffalo Musicians Association Local 92 after the ratification vote in Kleinhans Music Hall:

The base salary rises from $28,700 last year to $31,650 in the 1999-2000 season, $33,045 in 2000-2001 and $38,008 in 2001-2002.

Payments to the musicians' pension fund increase 50 percent, effective in the first year, from 4 percent of salary at present to 6 percent.

The concert season lengthens from 35 weeks last season to 36 in each of the next two seasons and 37 in the third.

Paid vacation weeks return -- one in each of the first two seasons and two in the third.

The orchestra, which once had 87 musicians, will continue to perform with the present complement of 72.

Key negotiators for musicians and management agreed that because of cutbacks implemented in recent years, the organization and the players still have much ground to make up if the Philharmonic is to reclaim the lofty status it once enjoyed among American orchestras.

"It will take a succession of contracts to recoup the losses," said Melanie Haas, a 21-year Philharmonic veteran who headed the musicians' negotiating team.

The gains must "continue at an accelerated rate" in order for the musicians to reach parity with their peers, she said.

In tough bargaining that went down to the wire early Thursday, the musicians, who due to a series of contract concessions earned less last season than they did 10 years ago, had set a $40,000 base salary as their chief goal. The average base pay among 38 major orchestras is $51,810.

"Is everybody happy? No. People wanted more," noted Mark Jones, Local 92 president. "They wanted to hit that magical $40,000. But that most likely would not have been attainable within three years."

On the other hand, the 50 percent increase in pension benefits "is huge, in my mind," Jones added.

BPO Executive Director Lawrence A. Ribits acknowledged that the musicians' pay and benefits still lag in the industry.

"This was a good step forward -- a step that had to be made," Ribits said.

He sees better times ahead for both the organization and the players under the charismatic Falletta.

"We're now legitimately at the start of what we need to do," Ribits said. "All the work of the last couple of years has been to set the stage for Saturday night."

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