EDITOR'S NOTE: On Wednesday, the symphony announced it is on strike. Read more here.
That sour note you hear is labor negotiations at the San Francisco Symphony. As the prestigious symphony prepares to take its noted version of Mahler's Ninth Symphony on an East Coast tour, a contract dispute is threatening to derail the train before it hits the tracks.
"It's incredibly stressful and it kind of puts a cloud over everything," said symphony viola player Katie Kadarauch. The contract negotiations have stretched on since September, playing out along the traditional battlefield of dollars and cents.
The musicians are seeking roughly around a five percent raise to keep them on par with Los Angeles' and Chicago's orchestras, the only two earning more than San Francisco.
"Our musicians are among the highest paid orchestra members in the country," said symphony spokesman Oliver Theil. "Their average salary is over $160 thousand dollars a year with over ten weeks paid vacation."
The musicians insist most of their members earn closer to the starting salary of $140 thousand. "The management has come to us with a set of proposals that would freeze our salaries the first year," said David Gaudry, who plays viola and handles the musician's labor bargaining.
"We don't feel we're getting the support we need and have come to expect traditionally in the past."
On Tuesday, a string quartet of symphony musicians played Beethoven in San Francisco City Hall to rally support for their cause.
The musicians wore Dodger baseball caps to signify the Los Angeles Symphony earns more than San Francisco musicians.
The publicity event preceded new negotiations between musicians and management scheduled for the afternoon with a federal mediator.
"Our latest proposal offers the same benefit levels as our current contract," said Theil, "in addition to raises that keep the orchestra paid among the three highest paid American orchestras."
But Gaudry said the 5% salary increase the musicians are seeking is justified because the symphony's endowment had grown from $175 million in 2005, to its current level of $268 million.
He noted the symphony also spent $11 million dollars last year on celebrations for its centennial anniversary. Musicians recently voted to authorize a strike if a deal isn't soon hammered out. With an East Coast tour, including a concert in Carnegie Hall set for later this month, the saber rattling had reached a discordant climax.
"I think there's at least a very good probability there'll be a strike this week," Gaudry said.
The symphony threatened to cancel concerts and tours during a similar labor dispute in 2006. Like that occasion, both sides are hoping to strike a note of harmony just before the fat lady tunes up her vocal chords and steps out on stage.