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Tension is palpable as Minnesota Orchestra decision points loom

There are glimmers of hope, but the prospects appear bleak, and frustration and anger abound.

Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vänskä leading the musicians in a February concert at the Convention Center concert hall.
Photo by John Whiting

“They can’t even agree on what day it is.”

The speaker, a prominent St. Paul arts administrator, was reflecting on the debate last Friday on Minnesota Public Radio’s “The Daily Circuit” concerning the contract battle between the management of the Minnesota Orchestra and the musicians, who have been locked out since last October, the longest lockout ever of a major American orchestra. Indeed, the two combatants on the show, orchestra President and CEO Michael Henson and, speaking for the musicians, percussionist Kevin Watkins, couldn’t agree on much of anything over the course of an increasingly tense 40 minutes of talk – not on finances, not on the reasons for the lockout, and certainly not on strategies to solve the crisis, not even on the role of the orchestra in the community.

The degree of their mutual frustration suggested that this was enmity with legs. Its roots went back further than the start of the lockout last October — and they would surely continue to poison the organism long after a new contract is signed, should that ever happen.

And there was extra pressure on all participants Friday that likely raised the emotional temperature. Music Director Osmo Vänskä, under whose artistic leadership the orchestra has enjoyed unprecedented popularity and critical acclaim, had said the musicians must be in rehearsal the week of Sept. 30 to be ready for two dates at Carnegie Hall in early November; he’d earlier said that, should the Carnegie Hall concerts be canceled he would have to resign. All this means the “deadline” is approaching fast since the musicians, some of them working elsewhere, would have to be given a reasonable amount of notice to return to work (in fact management had set Sept. 15 as a deadline because of this).

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Vänskä’s situation here, needless to say, is becoming untenable. And yet his departure, especially under these dark circumstances, would be an irreparable loss to the orchestra, to the city and perhaps to the entire world of music-lovers, given the special chemistry that has evolved between this orchestra and conductor. One result of that chemistry is an award-winning series of recordings, the most recent of them a Sibelius set that will remain unfinished if Vänskä leaves. 

Vänskä is much in demand as a guest conductor in this country and in Europe – he enjoys special favor in England. Should he seek another permanent post, he will easily find one. However, given the negative publicity this lockout has received around the world, it’s hard to imagine that a conductor of any renown or significance would be willing to take on the orchestra here, at least for a while. That suggests several seasons of guest conductors and an inevitable artistic incoherence; it takes time for even an outstanding conductor and orchestra to develop a relationship, a consistent level of excellence, and a distinctive sound.

Different orchestra, different vision

Besides which, it won’t be the same orchestra. Many musicians have already left, have retired or are taking a year off to play in another orchestra. (Artscape writer Pamela Espeland provides a detailed count here.)

Moreover, looking at the board’s strategic plan and its revised mission statement, which eliminated (but then, after a brouhaha by musicians, reinstated) any reference to the orchestra itself, it’s clear that the board envisions the standard orchestral format and programming playing a lesser role in the future than they have in the past. The orchestra would share time with an increased number of pops concerts and “presentations,” meaning the booking of various kinds of outside musical acts. This is either a bad idea or an idea that’s ahead of its time, and it needs to be explained more fully. Either way, it has infuriated the musicians who, seeing all this plus plans for an orchestra reduced in size, were also asked to accept a salary reduction of 34 per cent on average — along with more than 200 changes in work rules. This is not a recipe for sustaining artistic excellence.

Henson’s public response to the exodus of so many musicians was characteristically cavalier. The New York Times quoted him: “When we get up and running again … I’m sure we will get an astonishing bunch of individuals who will want to perform and live in this great city.” This suggestion that orchestra musicians are easily exchanged one for the other and that experience doesn’t count for much was yet another insult to those musicians here who haven’t bailed out — especially since a number of those now departed, like Burt Hara and Stephanie Arado, were more than key players; they were stars of the orchestra.

‘All three may fall’

Even more callous was the comment early this month by Richard Davis, chairman of the management’s negotiating team, to the Star Tribune. “Osmo may have to leave,” he said. “The board is resolved to know that this is a risk. Carnegie, the opening of the hall. All three may fall.”

One should grant the sincerity of Henson’s and Davis’ and current board chairman Jon Campbell’s efforts to manage the orchestra’s finances and solve its problems, among them the mounting deficits — reported as $2.9 million in fiscal 2011 and $6 million in 2012, to be followed, they say, by potentially larger ones, if there is no substantial drop in expenses or increase in revenues. And, of course, they aren’t to blame for the recession of 2008 and ’09, which caused a tumble in the value of many orchestra endowment funds around the country. However, many if not most of the biggest of those funds have gradually returned to their former value. This is not the case here.

To acknowledge their efforts isn’t to excuse the manner in which they have presented themselves and their dealings with the musicians in public. To an observable degree, they have become the villains of this 12-month scenario. The musicians, of course, have contributed to this, wasting no opportunity to denounce the management and the board at their self-managed concerts and creating in short order what is probably the liveliest and most informative musicians’ website in cyber history.

It’s clear that a lockout, no matter who’s cast in the lead roles, creates an especially intense kind of drama. A lockout, one might argue, is a legitimate albeit drastic tactic in labor relations. It gets people’s attention, and it certainly did that here. The downside is that it severely disrupts lives — and in this case deprives audiences of music as it puts an outstanding ensemble in jeopardy. It also makes the employer look heartless, especially if the lockout continues for an extended period. It’s not unlike World War 1: a few skirmishes at the start, followed by agonizing and deadly years of stalemate in the trenches accompanied by ever-growing hatred for the enemy. One guesses that Henson and his people thought the lockout would be brief and effective, that, after a few offers and counteroffers, the musicians would be back onstage by December at the latest – back home for Christmas, 1914, as all the belligerents thought at the start of the war.

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A drop to regional status

Which leads to the question: What if the musicians had accepted the management’s first salary offer: a cut in base pay down to $78,000 from $115,000? According to figures from the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ISCOM), this would drop the orchestra’s ranking by salary from No. 8 to 17, putting it right behind the Detroit Symphony, which is still in the recovery stage from a corrosive six-month strike that ended in 2011. The orchestra here, in other words, would drop from the top 10 to what is usually thought of as the category of regional orchestras.

From the musicians’ point of view, concern about salary rankings is more than the desire for a bigger paycheck. They speak of “feeder” orchestras and of “destination” orchestras — orchestras of artistic excellence where they’re playing with the best musicians, under the best conductors, and are able to recruit the best new members. A musician in a feeder orchestra, so the argument goes, is often biding his time until he can audition for – and get – a position in a destination orchestra, that is, a top-10 ensemble. In a feeder orchestra the best players may be out the door shortly after they arrive, which gives the orchestra a feeling of impermanence and no cohesive style. (Of course some musicians in, let’s say, the Atlanta Symphony will say, “I love this city, this orchestra, the weather and the cute house I bought. Even though I just got an offer from the Boston Symphony, I’m staying here.”)

Nonetheless, both artistic rewards and salary rankings affect the way orchestra musicians view their work and their professional standing. Which is why it irks the musicians here no end that the management and the board never address this issue: Do we lose anything by becoming a regional orchestra?

Said flutist Wendy Williams in an e-mail, “We want to remain a destination orchestra so that we can serve our community as an arts leader and continue to offer the artistic excellence that our community has come to expect and deserves.”

According to Williams, the two orchestras she and her colleagues think of as peers of the one here are the Cleveland Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Symphony. In the 2011-12 season, the salary ranking put the Minnesota Orchestra in eighth place, at $111,566, between the Cleveland Orchestra ($120,120) and the Philadelphia Orchestra ($108,750). Pittsburgh at that time was ranked in tenth place at $100,110. Closer to the present, Pittsburgh comes in at $102,104 and Cleveland at $123,864.

The question of excellence

Artistic ranking, of course, is a different – and more subjective – matter. But orchestras with artistic excellence tend to also have larger budgets. In terms of artistry, Cleveland and Philadelphia traditionally have been listed in the Top 5 (along with Boston, Chicago and New York). Four or five decades ago, no one in the music business would have ranked the San Francisco Symphony or the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the top 5 or even the top 10. Now both are in everybody’s top 10, as are their budgets and salaries. San Francisco emerged from a brief strike last year with a base salary of $148,000. Question: With all due respect to Michael Tilson Thomas, a brilliant conductor, does any musically literate person think the San Francisco Symphony is the artistic equal of the orchestra here under Vänskä? Ten years from now, if the Minnesota Orchestra has dropped into the regional orchestra category, the answer to that question might be quite different from what it is today.

It’s been a tough year for American orchestras, a year of strikes and lockouts and teeth-gnashing. Even so, just about all the contracts have been settled, some with modest increases in salary for the musicians. (Musicians of the Atlanta Symphony signed a contract after a three-week lockout.) One, of course, a big one, is still unresolved. There are glimmers of hope (and things have been quiet this week) — but the prospects appear bleak, and frustration and anger abound. In just a few days, a cherished music director might pack up and leave. 

The clock is ticking …

Michael Anthony, a former longtime music critic for the Star Tribune and the author of “Osmo Vänskä, Orchestra Builder,” writes about classical music and other arts topics for MinnPost.