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Even with agreement, Minnesota Orchestra and musicians have much damage to undo

Many unknowns remain: Can that special Orchestra chemistry be rediscovered? Will conductor Osmo Vänskä return?

Doug Kelley, MOA board member and negotiator, speaking at Tuesday's press conference at Orchestra Hall.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

There are no winners in the the Minnesota Orchestral Association’s 474-day lockout of musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra.

What remains to be seen is whether losses can be minimized now that the two sides have ratified a three-year contract.

What will the mood of the public be? Will superb musicians who left, or took leaves of absence, return or be replaced by equally talented players?  Can that chemistry that helped propel the orchestra into one of the best in the country somehow be rediscovered?

And will Osmo Vänskä, the conductor/chemist who seemed to bring it all together, be brought back? 

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The lockout may officially be over, and terms of the contract may be agreed on. But it will be at least months, perhaps years, before we’ll know if the damage done can be repaired.

Orchestra’s return not simple

Just bringing the orchestra back together under the Orchestra Hall roof will not be simple.

It took four and a half hours for the musicians to vote on the contract, which was tentatively agreed to in written form by management and musicians last Friday, following an oral agreement reached last Tuesday.  

Part of the reason for the long vote process is that musicians have scattered across the globe since being locked out.  On Tuesday votes were coming from the Canary Islands, Japan and all parts of the U.S.

Even now, with the contract ratified, musicians will have commitments to fulfill elsewhere before returning full time to Minnesota.

For example, Ellen Dinwiddie Smith, French horn player in the orchestra, spoke of how she has engagements ahead with the Kennedy Center Orchestra in Washington, D.C., and the Cleveland Orchestra. Many other members of the orchestra are in a similar situation, she said.

“We had to plan out as far as we could because we had no idea if this was going to end,” she said.

Even when all — or at least most — performers are back in Minnesota, it’s hard to know what sort of frame of mind they’ll be in. Being locked out of the workplace for more than a year doesn’t help most people’s attitudes.

Tensions, too, don’t end the moment the ink dries on a contract.

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Of course, leaders of the musicians’ negotiating team were trying to be as positive as possible at Tuesday’s late-afternoon media event announcing the contract ratification.

“We took care of business,’’ said Tim Zavadil, clarinetist and a negotiating leader. “We need to work as hard as we can with leadership to make sure the orchestra thrives.”

But there was a “minder” at the musicians event Tuesday. It appeared to be her job to remind musicians who were watching the media event that they had agreed to let negotiating team leaders do all of the talking on their behalf.

Presumably, there was concern that, if left to their own devices, some musicians might have some off-key comments to make about the long, long process.

Emotions still running high

There were other indicators that emotions are running high among musicians.

The MOA, whose board members had ratified the contract earlier in the day, opened the doors to the Orchestra Hall lobby around 6 p.m. Tuesday. Musicians were invited to cross the street, from their meeting room at the Hilton, to join the MOA in issuing a joint media conference.

That offer was rejected by musicians. They explained that they chose not to go to Orchestra Hall because they were under tight timelines. (At least a couple of members of the musicians’ negotiating team had flights to catch to other cities for performances.)

More likely, though, it was too soon for an all-is-forgiven moment with the MOA.

‘Good old days’ may be elusive

The final indicator that transition to the “good old days” will not be easy was the simple reality that the vote to ratify the contract was not unanimous, though musician negotiators would not say what the final vote was.

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In the past, all rejections of MOA offers had been unanimous.

But it’s not just the musicians who have some wounds to bind.

Both musicians and MOA board members aren’t quite sure what to make of the huge crowds musicians had drawn during the lockout to their self-produced concerts at a variety of venues.

Were the often-emotional crowds showing up as a sign of support for the musicians?  Or was it because those people simply had to have their classical music fix?

“It’s something we talk about,” cellist and negotiator Marcia Peck said. “We don’t know how those people [the huge crowds] will feel now.’’

But it is the case that for many, these elite musicians became the beloved, blue-collar underdogs.

Board member Doug Kelley, who was the face of the MOA Tuesday, made it a point to speak of “the energy” that came to surround the performances of the musicians.

“We need that energy here,” Kelley said, adding that he hoped that those who were filling other venues would buy tickets for Orchestra Hall performances and donate to the MOA.

What will musicians’ supporters do?

Several organizations of music lovers did spring up during the lockout — and most of their supporters seemed to end up empathizing with musicians.

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Where do they go now?

“My guess is that unless the MOA leadership changes radically, they will have a very difficult time getting the audience and fundraising back,” said Nils Halker, secretary of Save Our Symphony Minnesota, in an e-mail.

Such radical change does not seem forthcoming.

Yes, board Chairman Jon Campbell will step down, but that’s only fulfilling a promise he made in December when he said he’d stay until the dispute was resolved.

It should be noted that Campbell did not appear to be a significant player in the negotiations that finally resolved the dispute.

And Kelley insisted that Michael Henson, the MOA’s controversial CEO, is staying put — at least for the time being. It was Henson who put the lockout strategy in place.

Increased pressure?

His strategy seemed to have the support of the board, but it didn’t play so well elsewhere.

In fact, one source sympathetic to the musicians claimed Tuesday that it was a MOA report filed with the city of Minneapolis that backfired so badly that management was forced to give the musicians a deal far beyond what it had wanted to give.

Under terms of a complex lease arrangement with the city, the MOA was required to file a report with the city in early December. That report, according to the source and according to members of Save Our Symphony, was so filled with misrepresentations that Minneapolis could have terminated its lease with the MOA without any negative repercussions for the city.

The source said that 10 legislators were prepared to ask Attorney General Lori Swanson to push the termination of the MOA-city lease. And city officials warned the MOA to resolve the issue by Thursday or face the consequences of the inaccurate report.

Kelley denied that the MOA was being pressured by the city.

For her part, Mayor Betsy Hodges, who sided with the musicians in the dispute, was quick to issue a statement Tuesday praising the agreement and pleading with all parties — musicians, the board and people in the metro — to “come together and work on rebuilding trust in our community.”

Obviously, rehiring Vänskä would be a positive step in that direction. Although Kelley said any decision to bring back Vänskä, who resigned in October, hasn’t been dealt with yet, it’s clearly a discussion point.

Musicians, by the way, said that Vänskä’s employment was not a part of the settlement. But Zavadil did say Vänskä “only makes us stronger if he returns.”

So how do you figure winners and losers in all of this?

Contract basics

Basics of a contract settlement are seldom clear, and both sides in a final deal try to spin the bottom line.

Start with this: The MOA locked out the musicians when they did not accept a 30 percent cut, which it said was needed to make up the orchestra’s $6 million annual operating deficit.

Musicians are coming back to work facing a 15 percent cut in the first year, which would drop average wages from $135,000 to $118,000. Musicians get a 2 percent increase in the second year of the deal and a 3 percent increase in the third year. The new figures keep musicians among the top 10 highest-paid orchestras in the country.

Additionally, MOA says it will save 7.5 per cent annually on health insurance costs. Another way of looking at this is that musicians could be paying as much as $2,300 more per year for health coverage.

The big savings for the MOA would appear to come in required orchestra size. Although the contract maintains that the orchestra’s full complement should be 95 members, the actual numbers are much smaller: 77 in the first year, 79 in the second and 84 by the end of the third year.

Additionally, when fill-in musicians are brought in for big presentations, they will be paid at a lower base rate than full-time orchestra members — a precedent-setting reduction, according to Kelley.

Still, overall, the MOA’s desire to make up $6 million in operating deficits in cuts to musicians wasn’t achieved. Kelley says savings to the MOA will be about half that amount.

Additionally, if the economy — and thus the endowment — flourishes in the next three years, the musicians will get a taste of the action. According to the MOA, when annual endowment investment returns are greater than 10 percent, musicians can share in those returns in excess of 10 percent, capped at 5 percent of their base pay.

There are other work rule changes that the MOA claims as “wins.”

The MOA board does pledge to do a better job of engaging musicians in governing the orchestra and programming. Yet, there appears to be no gain in real power for musicians.

But much remains unclear.

It’s not even certain when the orchestra will make its return to Orchestra Hall, although it’s assumed there will be a concert by mid-February.  Only then, will we begin to understand if what was lost can be found again.