Musicians in the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra have agreed to a two-year contract extension that — unlike other orchestra agreements inked during the pandemic — does not include a pay cut.

The pact, announced this week, was passed unanimously by the musicians, the SPCO board and the board of the American Federation of Musicians Local 30-73 some 15 months before the current contract was set to expire. It will maintain musicians' pay, benefits and work rules from July 2022 until July 2024.

Reaching an agreement so far ahead of a contract's end is "extraordinary," said Jon Limbacher, the SPCO's managing director and president.

"It's a function of us looking forward and anticipating that there are going to be some really hard recovery years," he said. "We went to the orchestra and said ... an extension would be a helpful and critical piece to the recovery plan.

"The orchestra responded immediately and decisively."

Some orchestras across the country have responded to the pandemic — which has wiped months of in-person concerts from their calendars — with furloughs and other compensation cuts.

In September, the Minnesota Orchestra announced that its musicians agreed to a two-year contract extension and a 25% pay cut. The nonprofit later posted a $11.7 million deficit for fiscal year 2020, the largest in its history.

But the SPCO, a smaller organization, has maintained its 23 musicians' pay. In December, the chamber orchestra announced that it had recorded a surplus of $74,000 on operating expenses of $9.7 million for fiscal year 2020, which ended June 30, months into the pandemic.

"We've been able to hold our pay steady," said Lynn Erickson, trumpet player and chairperson of the Orchestra Committee. "People are thankful for that and are willing to keep the same pay scale going for the next two or three years."

In fiscal 2022, the final year of the current contract, base compensation for musicians will get a 2% bump. The contract extension will then hold those figures steady for two years. Both she and Limbacher declined to share salary specifics.

Erickson has been with the SPCO since 1991 and, in that time has seen a handful of pay cuts, some of them steep. A lockout-ending contract in 2013 cut base pay by double digits, some of which musicians won back in later agreements.

"We've had a lot of cuts," Erickson said, "so we were really glad and happy for this extension."

Since COVID halted its concerts, the SPCO has frozen hiring and shaved other expenses to make up for losses in ticket sales and corporate support. It's also using $1.2 million in funding from the Paycheck Protection Program to pay employees.

The nonprofit has been putting years of surpluses toward "rainy day" fund that, at the end of fiscal year 2020, totaled $762,000.

Limbacher said the COVID pandemic has been terrible for the country and the community, but it's also brought out the best in the SPCO. The staff has managed with four positions left unfilled, and the musicians have found ways to bring music to the community. (The SPCO is resuming livestreamed concerts from the Ordway March 20.)

"By having this kind of solidarity ... we're confident we can get to the other side of this."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 ¶ @ByJenna