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Utah Symphony musicians are resuming contract negotiations with Utah Symphony & Opera management after a six-month pause, but time may be running out for the orchestra.

On Feb. 24, the symphony's board of trustees adopted a financial recovery plan that addresses operating deficits that have plagued the group since a 2002 merger. But musicians also want a restructuring of management, and a contract by March 15, as recommended in a consultant's report by Thomas W. Morris. If the contract doesn't happen soon, key players could go elsewhere.

"There is a legitimate risk that good quality musicians will say they don't have a future with this symphony," said Joe Hatch, attorney for the musicians' union. "At that point, they are going to start auditions and move on."

Symphony CEO Anne Ewers said Monday that management is "trying to meet the Morris report's recommendations to settle the musicians' contract by March 15, and we will do everything possible to demonstrate to the musicians that we are serious about Morris' recommendations to improve governance."

But a task force of trustees, musicians and others studying the Morris report doesn't plan to make recommendations to the board until March 24. Without knowing what those recommendations will be, musicians can't enter a contract, Hatch said.

Utah Symphony & Opera's operating deficits became public knowledge when musicians publicly listed their grievances Feb. 23, breaking a confidentiality agreement between the musicians and management, according to Richard Horne, a member of the board of trustees and contract negotiator.

So far, only Utah Symphony violinist Meeka Quan is leaving, and her departure to the San Francisco Symphony cannot be attributed directly to issues with management, Hatch said. But sources close to the orchestra say other key players are looking at career options elsewhere.

Morris was selected by management to study the symphony's finances and management structure after musicians learned in August that the Utah Symphony & Opera was following its $1.7 million operating deficit for 2002-03 with a $1.6 million deficit for 2003-04. When their contract expired Aug. 31, musicians accepted a "talk and play" agreement. Meanwhile, Morris sorted through the aftermath of a merger that promised $400,000 surpluses in its first years, according to a financial pro forma report prepared in 2002 by the accounting firm of Ernst & Young.

The three-year financial recovery plan, designed to bring the budget back into the black by its 2006-07 season, is figured with the assumption that musicians' salaries will remain flat. The Morris report does not specifically stipulate the freeze, but cites a "need to deal with [the] orchestra contract to secure stability and participation."

Musicians' salaries account for about $8 million of the symphony's $17 million budget. Base pay for the players is about $1,000 a week, the lowest of any 52-week orchestra in the United States, according to Hatch. COO David Green said management "has opened negotiations with the musicians to determine the appropriate level of their participation."

Hatch has said the musicians are willing to accept a salary freeze for the next two years.

Ewers, whose duties are under review by the task force studying Morris' recommendations, said she is not involved directly in contract negotiations, and added that it is "fairly rare that a CEO attends" such meetings.

Hatch disagrees, saying that all negotiations during his nine years of representing the Utah Symphony were conducted with the CEO. "It's problematic," Hatch said. "We don't know what kind of authority the negotiating committee has."

Ewers said the restructuring of her duties - she is CEO of the Utah Symphony & Opera, Utah Opera's general director and executive director of the Deer Valley Music Festival - is progressing, her way.

"The decision and direction of that needs to be mine," Ewers said. "It was important for me to think it through and come up with my recommendations. I am the one who needs to make that determination." Ewers said she has discussed her plans with Patricia Richards, who heads the task force, and Horne, who sits on the executive board as head of the human resources and compensation committee. "Pat and Rick agreed with me," Ewers said.

Morris doesn't say in his report why he recommended that contract negotiations conclude by March 15, but Utah Symphony's upcoming tour of Europe - its first in 19 years - might be the reason. Without a contract in place, there is a possibility the tour could be torpedoed by a musicians' strike, or a lockout by management. Ewers said confidentiality issues prevent her from discussing the possibility of a lockout, but said it would be "a tragedy" if the tour were canceled, and would create problems because of commitments to presenters.

Hatch said he has heard no discussion among musicians of a strike, but says it is important that labor peace be restored before a tour that will turn the eyes of the international press on the Utah Symphony.

Jack McAuliffe, vice president at American Symphony Orchestra League, offered hope regarding Utah Symphony & Opera's current financial and contract troubles. McAuliffe emphasized that during contract negotiations, either side might exaggerate their concerns.

"One would expect and hope that these troubles are momentary, and don't influence long-term relationships," McAuliffe said. "Sometimes when the uncertainties gets resolved, things that seemed insoluble and dire moderate after the heat of the moment."