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Star conductor Muti lends support to striking Chicago musicians

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Chicago (AFP)

Italian conductor Riccardo Muti, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, lent his formidable star power in support of striking musicians on Tuesday.

Muti had previously written a letter indicating his support for the musicians, who balked at management's pay and pension offers and went on strike after 11 months of labor negotiations failed to result in an agreement.

The labor dispute has raised questions about the future of one of the world's most venerated orchestras amid general concern in the classical music world over the sustainability of many institutions.

"This is a moment of crisis," Muti told reporters in front of Chicago's Symphony Center, which was shuttered as dozens of musicians picketed outside.

"The entire world -- the musical world -- is listening to what happens in Chicago," Muti said.

The key sticking point is pensions: the orchestra association wants musicians to transition from traditional pension plans to retirement savings accounts similar to those widely used in the private sector.

The association says traditional pension costs have skyrocketed in recent years and are projected to continue to rise.

"We have an overarching concern with long-term sustainability. It's as simple as that," Helen Zell, head of the orchestra's board of directors, told reporters Monday.

The orchestra's association also said it pays some of the highest salaries in the industry -- $187,000 on average.

But musicians insist losing traditional pensions, in addition to salaries not staying competitive with that of other major orchestras, will make it difficult to attract and retain top talent.

They say that would eventually degrade the quality of the orchestra.

Muti, who said he was not opposing management but rather hoping to find common ground, emphasized that management had a "responsibility" to preserve the orchestra's stature.

"A collapse in quality of the Chicago Symphony will be such a tragic thing that can affect not only the musicians, but it will affect generations from now," Muti said.

The two sides were not scheduled to meet again until Friday.

The orchestra's governing association on Tuesday canceled all concerts for the rest of the week.

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