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Orchestra, musicians agree to 5-year deal; Pact extends season, returns some benefits

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's musicians and management on Wednesday signed a five-year contract, the longest in anyone's memory, a pact that puts the BPO on a sure footing to meet challenges ahead.

It's a healthy sign, especially considering that BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta signed a five-year contract earlier this year.

"I think everyone is on the same wavelength," said Dan Hart, BPO executive director.

"We know that it's not just us, but all nonprofits and arts organizations are battling the economy. We have to ask ourselves, 'How can we take the situation by the reins? How can we continue to advance our organization, increase our artistry and make sure we're financially secure going into the future?' "

The contract frees the BPO to tackle these questions.

The new contract gives the musicians a raise, from $42,253 to $48,124 by the 2015-16 season. Musicians and management have also worked out a compromise for dealing with increases in health care costs.

There's good news for both the orchestra and its audience. The 2013-14 season will return to 39 weeks, up from 37 current weeks. In the fifth year, it will increase to 40 weeks. Musicians regain two weeks of paid vacation that they gave up two years ago, as well.

The agreement helps pave the way for more broadcast and recording opportunities. The orchestra is heard in 225 cities nationwide through American Public Radio, and recordings are sold worldwide through Naxos. The BPO has been invited to return to Carnegie Hall in 2013.

Violist Janz Castelo, chairman of the orchestra's negotiating committee, said the musicians are satisfied.

"It's good that over the past 10 years, the management and the board recognized that the musicians have made a lot of concessions for the sake of stability," Castelo said. "Our increases are modest, but the management and the board are recognizing the concessions we've made in the past."

The BPO employs 73 full-time musicians and at least 30 part-time musicians, as well as a staff of 25 full-time employees and 18 part-time employees. Its payroll is $7.7 million, or 70 percent of its operating budget, which totals almost $10.1 million.

Negotiations had been going on since March, and both musicians and management were happy they are over.

"There was a lot of trust," Castelo said. "Now we can focus on music making. The management can focus on growing our audience and fundraising. We don't have to worry about labor relations."

Falletta echoed the relief.

"Every day I read about another orchestra going out of business," she said. The Colorado Symphony, she pointed out, is the latest on the rocks. "Half the board resigned saying, 'It's a total mess. We can't take it anymore.' "

She expressed gratitude to Hart and the musicians.

"It's so heartening," she said. "They're working very hard. It's certainly not easy. They've made a commitment to excellence and financial stability.

"They're putting the orchestra first. They're caring about the health and vitality of the BPO, and that is so inspiring to me."

Both sides admit that challenges remain. The BPO has felt the government pinch. Hart points to a loss of $50,000 last year when the New York State Council on the Arts tightened its belt.

"It'll be cut more this year," he said.

On the other hand, with only 9 percent of its revenues coming from government, the BPO has the power to influence its own destiny. Seen in that light, the future looks bright.

"Season sales are up. Season ticket sales are higher," Hart said.

The BPO began the 2011-12 season with two sold-out, all-ages shows. Idina Menzel, who opened the Pops season, packed the house -- and so did Saturday's "Carmina Burana," the popular Carl Orff cantata, which kicked off the Classics season.

"I was so excited these past two weeks," Hart said. "To see two full houses, it speaks to the relevance of the orchestra, that the orchestra can reach people. We're doing concerts people enjoy and look forward to and come back for."

The upcoming season mixes crowd-pleasers with lesser-heard music.

Full houses are expected for the romantic Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto, performed by Italian pianist Fabio Bidini, scheduled for October. This fall brings appearances by saxophonist Chris Botti and Celtic Woman. Violinist Joshua Bell is playing Beethoven with the BPO next spring, and a Duke Ellington Festival should also have wide appeal.

"We never turn a profit," Hart laughed, "but we're close. We're just closing our books on 2010-11. We're back to a break-even budget."