Orchestra composes deal with musicians

Labour peace reigns over the Prince George Symphony Orchestra and there wasn't even a labour war.

The musicians and management of the PGSO had been negotiating a collective agreement for the past several months, and on Wednesday announced together that they had a struck a deal. Details were not disclosed, but both sides applauded the business-orientated attitude of the other.

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"Everyone at the table wanted a reasonable agreement that was in the best interests of all parties," said principal clarinestist Simon Cole. "Negotiations were amicable and productive. The musicians unanimously voted in favour of the contract and are entering this next season with renewed optimism."

Relations between the two sides were sometimes angry, in past contract dealings. There was even consideration, in bygone years, of dissolving the decades-old orchestra over financial and labour pressures.

The global economic crisis that affected almost all not-for-profit societies and arts/culture groups also hit the PGSO, in the past few years, causing additional financial stress.

New general manager Marnie Hamagami and new artistic director Kevin Zakresky (less than 24 combined months on the job) chose to sing a new song with the hired musicians, who lead the community and import players who comprise the orchestra. Audience and sponsor support has been growing in the past couple of years, said Hamagami, and there is a sense of sustainability for the organization. The part that was still an open concern, though, until this week, was the need for a contract.

"We are looking at innovating and growing the organization in ways that excite the musicians," said Hamagami. "They have trained for years, for decades in many cases, in the profession of music performance and we want to maximize those unique skills. I really like that I have first right of refusal on the best musicians in the city, and I think they are excited that we are going to put them in positions that showcase their skills and give them a chance to do interesting things for work."

She gave Zakresky, a Prince George professional musician himself who returned to be the PGSO's conductor, credit for creating much of the goodwill among both the musicians and the financial staff. She explained that he demonstrated an ability to choose popular concert features while keeping costs low.

As a result of his "prudent fiscal management," said Hamagami, enough money was left over to allow for a three-year collective agreement offering no raises, but "we did not need to implement the cuts that were anticipated last year."

While three-year pacts are often frowned upon by both sides of the labour table, this one was deliberately set with musician benefits in mind. Hamagami said three years was indeed short, but it would give management the time needed to chase some important dreams. If they come true the way she, Zakresky, the volunteer board, and the musicians all hope, they would get to 2016 with the resources to happily give the pro core their first salary boost in many years.

In return for management's commitment to successful concerts, the players have reciprocated, said Hamagami, "with a willingness to try new things and even on really short notice they often agree to some strange ideas, but because both sides really want the PGSO to succeed, it is working. The players are not adverse to playing symphonic music at 11 p.m. in a bar, or doing a flashmob in a shopping mall, or doing a musical petting zoo."

The next mainstage appearance by the PGSO is Sept. 8 with the annual free Pops In The Park concert. Other season highlights will include a special focus on Beethoven, notably his magnificent Ode to Joy symphony; three performances in December of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker with Judy Russell's dance ensemble, and an encore performance together with popular Celtic band Out of Alba.

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