In Concert: What's Next for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra?
Melia Tourangeau, CEO and president of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, looks to lead the ensemble forward after a discordant strike.
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photos by Janelle Bendycki
Melia Peters stepped onto the stage of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in a tea-length black dress. As she sat down on the piano bench, she played the first notes of her senior recital at the prestigious music school. She had every reason to feel confident, having nailed the program during the dress rehearsal.
What she hadn’t predicted, however, was a wardrobe malfunction. As she played her program of Bach, Chopin and Beethoven, the chiffon sleeves of the Laura Ashley dress she wore — a loaner from a friend — slipped off her shoulders, disrupting her rhythm.
She froze. Gripped by the stage fright that had dogged her for years, she lost her concentration. The performance in 1994 was bad — and she knew it.
She kept her composure until she walked backstage. But the minute she saw her parents, she burst into sobs. She felt terrible guilt about the tens of thousands of dollars they had spent on her classical music education. She felt as though she had let them down; her parents were sympathetic.
“You don’t have to do this for a living,” her father consoled her. “Please understand that.” She knew she didn’t want to become a concert pianist, but what else could she do after all of that education?
As it turned out, that cringe-worthy recital was the start of a career in classical music for the future Melia Peters Tourangeau — but not as a concert pianist. After graduating from the Ohio music school she started down a new path — in the competitive world of symphony orchestra management. She worked her way up to the presidency of the Grand Rapids Orchestra in 2005 before becoming CEO of the Utah Symphony | Utah Opera. Then in May 2015, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra appointed Tourangeau, then 44, as its new CEO and president.
While she no longer has to battle stage fright, Tourangeau has had to deal with some major problems as an administrator — most recently, a bitter and bruising labor battle with 96 PSO musicians and two librarians. For the first time in 41 years, the symphony’s musicians walked out during a 55-day strike that forced the cancellation of most of the orchestra’s fall concerts.
Battle lines were drawn. Fans of the musicians joined the picket lines, wrote letters to newspapers and planted lawn signs showing their support. An unfamiliar face to many Pittsburghers, Tourangeau was pitted against the striking musicians, though she had the backing of the symphony board of trustees and civic leaders, as well as leaders of city foundations, which provide funding to the orchestra.
She ultimately negotiated a five-year contract with local members of the American Federation of Musicians that cut their salaries in the first year by 10.5 percent — much less than the initial 25 percent and subsequent 15 percent cuts initially proposed by management. And then, after Tourangeau secured a generous donation from an anonymous benefactor, the pay cut was further reduced to 7.5 percent for the first year.
The musicians also agreed to switch from a defined pension plan paid for by the PSO to a 401(k) plan in the fourth year of the contract. As part of the cost-cutting, Tourangeau agreed to cut her own salary. When she arrived at the PSO, she was paid $400,000 — a salary she says was “the median salary for the top 25 orchestras in the country.”
During the strike talks, she offered to take a 15 percent pay cut in solidarity with the musicians. “After the settlement, the board felt that my reduction should match the musicians’ 10.5 percent reduction,” making it $358,000. “That puts my salary second to the lowest of the top 25 orchestras,” she wrote in an email. “Even with this reduction, we are realizing an administration expense savings of over 15 perfect with our other staff changes.”
Tourangeau’s handling of the strike earned praise from the chairman of the PSO board. “She showed good leadership in a very stressful situation,” says Devin McGranahan. “Emotions ran high. We have her to thank that it only lasted  days and not a lot longer.”
But Meredith Snow, chairperson of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, sees it differently. Snow, whose organization advocates for members of the American Federation of Musicians, says she is concerned about the long-term impact of salary cuts on the stature of the PSO and its ability to attract top musicians from around the world.
The 7.5 percent pay cut knocked the PSO out of the country’s top 10 orchestras in terms of salary, an elite group made up of what musicians consider to be “destination orchestras.” Before their pay cut, according to Snow’s organization, Pittsburgh’s symphony musicians had a minimum salary of $107,238, which put it 10th among U.S. orchestras, between Cleveland and Cincinnati. But a post-strike minimum salary of $99,196 drops them to 12th place, behind Cincinnati and Dallas.
Being knocked out of the top 10 symphonies “was a blow,” says Snow.
“What’s most frustrating is that it takes decades for orchestras to build themselves up to that stature. Then within the short span of a month or two, the management says, ‘We are going to cut.’ Why would you undercut the very product you’re trying to market? Management views it as replacing one cog for another. It ignores the artistry and subtlety. It takes years to create one voice out of 100 instruments.”
Tourangeau counters that high musician salaries alone do not make or maintain a top-tier orchestra. “It involves recruiting and retaining the best talent. It’s touring internationally and being invited to the best venues in Europe,” she says. “We’re winning Grammy nominations — that’s how you qualify as a top-tier orchestra.”