Two lockouts, two outcomes. Joy at Minnesota Orchestra; continued ‘rift’ at St. Paul Chamber

There were two orchestras and two lockouts, even while two new music halls were being created. Finally, there were two settlements. But for all the similarities between the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, there are, for the time being, very different outcomes.

Catherine Schubilske, a violinist with the Minnesota Orchestra, told a gathering Tuesday evening at St. Paul’s Merriam Park Library that “sometimes I have to pinch myself to believe where we are now.” She spoke of the joy she feels about all the positive things that have happened following a 16-month lockout that ended 16 months ago. The greatest joy, she said, is the trust musicians have in the Orchestra’s new management. 

The audience heard a starkly different story from Leslie Shank, who was a violinist with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra for 30 years. Shank doesn’t believe that the results of the SPCO’s six-month lockout that ended two years ago have been nearly so positive. A third of the Orchestra’s musicians, all of whom who were 55 and older, accepted a buyout. Shank opted to “retire” last August.

Shank says there is  “a rift” among the 18 carryover members of the SPCO.  A handful, she said, are happy with the orchestra’s direction. But, she said, other members  “are afraid to speak out. There’s a sense that there are ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ ”

The musicians were participating in a labor history series — a series that began 16 years ago —  at St. Paul libraries. They were joined by Julie Ayers, a former Minnesota Orchestra violinist who 10 years ago authored a book on the history of labor relations among U.S. symphony orchestras, and Todd Harper, a former St. Paul school teacher and jazz musician.

But it was the contrasts offered by Schubilske, who was on the Orchestra’s negotiating committee, and Shank, a longtime union activist and a member of the SPCO’s negotiating committee, that most engaged the audience of about 70 people.

Schubilske spoke of the Orchestra’s trip to Cuba in May, the opportunity to record, the makeup of a trip to New York’s Carnegie Hall, and the unity around conductor Osmo Vänskä. Shank showed far less excitement about the direction of the SPCO.  

Catherine Schaefer Schubilske
Courtesy of the Minnesota Orchestra
Catherine Schaefer Schubilske

Though talented musicians left the Minnesota Orchestra up to and during the lockout, the vibes today are positive because Kevin Smith replaced Michael Henson as the president and CEO. Schubilske described Smith as “a breath of fresh air.”

“Sometimes I have to pinch myself because it’s so great to be where we are now,” Schubilske said of the relationship the orchestra has with Smith and the new board leadership.

Bruce Coppock, the president and managing director of the SPCO, appears to have a more complex relationship with players than Henson or Smith. He gets credit for his fund-raising ability. But he doesn’t generate universal trust, as Smith does. Older musicians especially have an impression that their history with the SPCO is not particularly valued.

In an interview with MinnPost a few months ago, Coppock talked of how the buyouts allowed older members to leave the SPCO “with dignity.”  Shank  said many of those who accepted the buyouts did so because they felt that they were no longer wanted, and would not be happy if they stayed.

Small contract provisions illustrate the differences in the musician-management relationship at the two orchestras. For example, both included more partnerships in resolving the labor woes. But Minnesota Orchestra musicians elect their members to the main management-musician committee. In St. Paul, the musicians are chosen by management. That has been a factor, Shank said, in creating rifts among musicians.

Two members of the audience challenged Shank on her comments.

One man wondered about the impact of tenure on the quality of an orchestra’s music.  With so many talented young musicians coming out of conservatories, he asked Shank, isn’t it possible that they’d be better than old musicians whose “skills diminish?”  Shouldn’t some of the older musicians be “fired?”

Schubilske jumped on that comment, noting that years ago she would occasionally fill in with the Chicago Symphony, which was considered one of the greatest orchestras in a world even though its ranks included a number of players in their 80s. Those players had a total understanding of the music that made up for any loss of skills, she said.

A woman also defended the new look SPCO, saying “they may not be happy with each other, but they play beautifully.”

Leslie Shank
Courtesy of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
Leslie Shank

Shank agreed that SPCO plays well, adding: “But it could play better.”

One labor-management issue that has been resolved within the St. Paul Chamber involved principal second violinist Kyu-Young Kim. As part of the settlement, he moved into management of the SPCO, but he also continues as principal second violinist. The American Federation of Musicians argued that was an unfair labor practice: How could anyone sit in a union meeting, then move into a management chair when the union meeting was over?

 The resolution will work like this: If Kim wants to participate in a union meeting, he will have to seek permission from union leaders. He will be allowed to participate in union meetings only when delicate union-management issues are not being discussed.

Musicians from the two orchestras also had contrasting experiences during their lockouts that might result in different attitudes.

Minnesota Orchestra musicians were “overwhelmed and humbled” by the response they received from people in the community, Schubilske said. Large, warm audiences attended concerts the orchestra performed during the lockout. Support came from a broad spectrum of people, ranging from music lovers to leaders of the AFL-CIO.

“Our lives have been enriched with everything that happened,” Schubilske said.  

St. Paul Chamber musicians also did a handful of concerts during their lockout. But they didn’t appear to receive so much community support — perhaps because they settled more quickly, they have a smaller base, or because they received less media attention.

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Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Sandi Sherman on 04/29/2015 - 10:38 am.

    Re SPCO/MN Orchestra lockout outcomes

    As a partisan of both the SPCO and the Minnesota Orchestra and as a labor union member, I was very active in the support activities for the musicians when they were locked out by their managements. I have season tickets to both orchestras, and the difference between the SPCO and the Minnesota Orchestra post-lockout is night and day.

    The energy in the room at Orchestra Hall is palpable. I believe this stems from the enthusiastic support they received during the lockout. BUT, this support was earned by the musicians’ outreach and actions. They spoke at other labor gatherings (Wendy Williams spoke at an AFSCME union rally to defend health care at the U of M that I was involved in), they organized pickets and rallies, they sought to involve the community in support activities. In short, despite the fact that they are professional musicians, they acted like union members and built support for their cause.

    Post lock-out musicians greeted audience members before and after concerts in the lobby. To this day I still feel the barrier between stage and audience that was broken during the lockout remains so, and that is glorious.

    I never saw the same level of energy and outreach from the SPCO. The lock-out concerts I went to didn’t have the same electricity in the room, despite the large crowds. The SPCO musicians did not organize the kind of enthusiastic outreach and fan participation that the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra did.

    I think the SPCO has suffered from the loss of so many seasoned performers. I think it is evident in their sound, despite the lovely new room they perform in. Hopefully, as they fill the unfilled positions with permanent musicians, they will attain the level of precision and tightness they once had. I will continue to be a season ticket holder of both orchestras and wish them well, because their success enriches us all.

    • Submitted by Sarah Nagle on 04/29/2015 - 06:25 pm.

      Fundamental difference

      I was active in both “Save Our Symphony” groups. As I moved from one to the other (after one lockout ended) I found out that, while both orchestras had lockouts, the differences between them were night and day. The MN Orchestra musicians were for the most part working as one – they were ALL treated disrespectfully by management. In contrast, there was an “in crowd” and an “out crowd” at the SPCO and unfortunately there were deep divisions to cross before they could do anything together (e.g. concerts) so things were a lot more tentative.

      I seriously doubt that the “unfilled” positions will be permanently filled. At one point the SPCO had 34 musicians. It has now has – what? – 18? As I was told, the goal for years has been to bring in cheaper younger players to produce the exact sound and cohesiveness, and that can’t be done when you treat musicians like cogs. What about the quote in a previous Grow article about how the SPCO “isn’t really an orchestra – it’s a group of chamber musicians who play orchestra music” (or something to that effect). Rather revealing, don’t you think?

      I haven’t been to an “SPCO” concert since May 2013 and I doubt if I ever will again. I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like to have a target on your back for years while having to play at that level. I miss the SPCO; it is no more, and all of the attempts to turn it into the Chamber Music Society of Ordway Center won’t make up for the awfulness of what happened.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/29/2015 - 09:02 pm.

      As a bit of a musican myself

      and an SPCO supporter from its start, I think that its current level of “precision and tightness” is up to that of its glory days. One problem is rehearsals — when an orchestra only has a few days of rehearsals, and one item on the program is a new commission, the ‘warhorses’ sometimes show a slight limp. This has nothing to do with the competence or experience of the musicians; they often perform the most difficult pieces most precisely!
      I’m also not convinced that the rotating cast of conductors is conducive to an orchestra developing a unique personality. On the other hand, it does lead to an interesting variety of musical genres and styles.
      You win some and you lose some.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 04/29/2015 - 11:12 am.

    The aftermath

    Have we seen follow up coverage of what’s happened since the orchestra lockouts were resolved? Have the alleged financial problems that allegedly led to the lockouts been resolved? Have the issue of financial impropriety raised by labor been addressed? Are orchestra financing practices been remodeled along the lines of other orchestras which were held up as a model for orchestra management during the lockout? Are orchestra finances now fully transparent?

    Or are all the problems, if they indeed existed, now being swept under a rug now that a deal has been made?

    • Submitted by Sarah Nagle on 04/29/2015 - 06:27 pm.

      Again a difference

      The MOA is much more transparent and proactive and readily acknowledges both the accomplishments and challenges. The SPCO is still defending its unsustainable ticket prices.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/30/2015 - 09:27 am.

        I seem to remember

        the SPCO’s experiment with $10 tickets and relying on donations to make up the balance.
        THAT was not sustainable.

  3. Submitted by William Stahl on 04/29/2015 - 03:49 pm.

    Two Lockouts

    It would have been better to have balanced representation on this little panel, i.e., a current long-standing member from each orchestra and also a former member from each. Both orchestras lost many highly experienced players and some of the top-rank. It is not possible to have such losses–with much younger permanent replacements and many substitutes–without harm to the quality of the playing; otherwise you have to argue that experience doesn’t matter (Michael Henson argued as much). They will eventually get back to previous standards but it will take time.

    Sandi Sherman’s comments are on the mark. The SPCO clearly suffered from a lack of organizational scale during the lockout compared to what the MO players could muster. On the other hand, the SPCO is doing interesting things with the new Artistic Partner group. I hope the MO can learn from them.

    Of course, we should, again and always, be grateful that we are talking about maintaining and growing two first rate symphony orchestras of our very own. Other cities should have our problems!

    • Submitted by Sarah Nagle on 04/29/2015 - 06:33 pm.

      It’s not just “skills”

      Even the most skilled and talented musicians must play TOGETHER, and that only comes with years of playing together. The MN Orchestra is playing better than it ever has, and many were surprised at how quickly they were back in top shape after the lockout. They would not have been invited back to Carnegie Hall if they weren’t. They lost fewer musicians, and fortunately not as many as they could have. As for “interesting things”; the musicians are now able to try a lot of things which they were previously forbidden to do, and I am delighted in the expanded offerings.

  4. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 04/29/2015 - 05:29 pm.

    The SPCO is great!

    I bought season tickets this year and enjoy their performances and I am grateful for their presence in our community.

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/29/2015 - 08:56 pm.

    Where the SPCO is heading

    Before a recent SPCO concert, Bruce Coppock made some remarks indicating that the SPCO would be moving from being a chamber orchestra to being a floating set of chamber musicians playing in various combinations.
    Part of this may be economics: they’ve moved to a new hall 2/3 the size of their old one (and the seats feel like they’re also 2/3 the size — I think they had an airline consultant). This is going to eventually cut into their income.
    There’s also the old issue of whether one metropolitan area can support two major orchestras. At least in the present culture and economy, the answer may be no.
    On the other hand, their programming has been adventurous (maybe more so than the MSO) and this may have something to do with younger musicians.

  6. Submitted by Bill Peterson on 04/30/2015 - 12:08 am.

    sour grapes

    It seems Ms. Shank clearly has a desire for revenge and airing dirty laundry, and that doesn’t help anyone in the music business. There must have been some important artistic or other reason they wanted to get rid of her- she can’t be that old? Maybe she can confirm?? Did she receive a buyout? How much? These are questions the reporter should ask, especially for someone who’s publicly airing their grievances. The other retirees apparently got quite a bit each to leave, an underreported fact. What did she get?

    I’m a long time subscriber- the orchestra sounds better than ever and is putting on the most exciting concerts I’ve been to. This is just sour grapes, plain and simple. I agree that the whole debacle with the lockout was handled poorly by the SPCO management, but the orchestra is renewed and energetic. I wish the other retirees well – they helped to build the SPCO into the great orchestra it is.

    • Submitted by Leslie Shank on 04/30/2015 - 12:30 pm.

      Sour grapes

      Bill, it was not reported that I have been visiting assistant professor at UW-Madison this year, and have enjoyed teaching some amazing students. I have simply moved on. I was asked to be on this panel because of my Union activism over the past decade, and experience on negotiating committees. I now have a distance from the SPCO, and have tried to comment on my observations about what I have seen and heard from my colleagues both before and after the lockout. I see how easy it is to describe my observations as sour grapes when the ugly side of the results of the lockout are revealed, especially contrasted with the Minnesota Orchestra.
      I wish my former colleagues well, and hope for a better resolution to their upcoming negotiations for the next contract. I hope the loyal audience members will stand behind the musicians when they try to recover from the devastation of the current agreement.

    • Submitted by Sarah Nagle on 05/08/2015 - 12:08 pm.

      “Handled Poorly”??

      The SPCO had a donated “slush fund” for the purpose of retirement buyouts, and they knew exactly who they wanted to leave. It was even in one of their first contract proposals that specific positions be eliminated – those of several who were active in negotiations. That one didn’t make it, but the retirement money was definitely spent. There were several musicians with targets on their backs, and most of them were “older”. They all got the same buyout so don’t single out Ms. Shank as the problem. The “important artistic or other reason” you are floating didn’t exist except as an “other” which was secret and deeply personal to a few people holding the strings. Had these people not left (and several were on the fence until Bruce Coppock’s return announcement was made), they would have been subjected to a very painful and subjective artistic “review process”.

      As for SPCO management during the lockout – “handled poorly” doesn’t even begin to portray it. And it’s nice of you to “with the other retirees well”; from what I understand they no longer have to work in a nasty environment and that alone makes them a lot happier. I understand Coppock said the same thing – and “God bless them”. Wow. It’s also interesting to note which “older musicians” DIDN’T take the buyout.

      My hat is off to Leslie Shank, a great musician who endured many years of crap with grace and professionalism.

  7. Submitted by Leslie Shank on 04/30/2015 - 12:11 pm.

    REJECT DUP Sour grapes

    Hi Bill,
    What wasn’t mentioned is that I have been visiting professor at UW-Madison, teaching some wonderful students. I have simply moved on to a new chapter in my life. I was asked to be on this panel due to my union activism over the past 10 years, and my experience on many committees.
    I understand the reflex to call revealing the more ugly side of things to be sour grapes. I have simply tried to speak honestly and openly about what I observed, and heard expressed by many colleagues over the years. I wish my former colleagues well, and hope that they can achieve some improvement in their next agreement, the negotiations of which will start next season.

  8. Submitted by Garrison Keillor on 05/04/2015 - 09:07 am.


    Your article is seriously unbalanced since you quote a MNOrch player who is still in the band and a disgruntled SPCO player who was let go. It is a painful fact in the lives of orchestras that some players outlast their ability and the players around them know it and somebody has to do what needs to be done. When Ms Shanks said that many older players “felt that they were no longer wanted, and would not be happy if they stayed,” she put her finger on it. SPCO sounds vastly better today than it did two years ago. Bruce Coppock is a terrific executive. MNOrch suffered under a bully and replaced him with Kevin Smith, a very competent man. Wonderful. But the intimations about SPCO are off the mark.

  9. Submitted by Bill Peterson on 05/04/2015 - 03:45 pm.

    thanks Garrison

    for using plain words brilliantly to say what I was trying to say. The SPCO does indeed sound vastly better than 2 years ago, and hasn’t lost any of its sound or anything like it. It’s polished, dynamic–the partisans out there that continue to sling arrows because of what happened just can’t see or HEAR clearly!

    • Submitted by Amy Adams on 05/08/2015 - 12:07 pm.

      ….uh, speaking of slinging arrows…

      that was an incredibly partisan thing to say.
      See Sarah Nagle’s comment above: “Even the most skilled and talented musicians must play TOGETHER, and that only comes with years of playing together.”

      We are not talking about one or two elderly players in denial about their declining years.
      What happened was the forced retirement of a significant number of SPCO players at the apex of ability and experience.

      It is good to hear that you and others continue to enjoy concerts. Unkind remarks don’t change what happened, though.

      • Submitted by Leslie Shank on 05/08/2015 - 03:58 pm.


        As a member of the negotiating committee during the lockout, I can tell you that all those who left are happy being out of there. As for being forced, the contract stated that at least 4 musicians from a specific instrumentation needed to take the retirement package, or the Society would have the right to eliminate any position with 6 months notice and $100,000 severance. Yes, the acceptance of the special retirement package was voluntary, but to stay could have had dire consequences if the number wasn’t met. The reason given for this provision was that they wanted to reduce the required complement from 34-28. It has not yet reached even 28 full time players, which will take time.
        I will not dignify Mr. Keillors” comments with a response. I will say that I am definitely not done with my career as a violinist yet. I just finished a one year position as Visiting Assisstant Professoe of Violin at UW- Madison. I have three festivals to play in this summer, one of which I will be in my 10th year as concertmaster. I recently heard from another “retiree” of the SPCO, who is playing as a substitute in 4 different orchestras in 4 weeks, Detroit, Cleveland, Seattle, and Minnesota.
        I think the comments made about me and others who have left the orchestra are to deflect from talking about the residual tensions left after the lockout, and finding some way to address them constructively. The SPCO will start negotiations next season for a new agreement. Let’s hope for some progress.

    • Submitted by Joseph Hagedorn on 05/08/2015 - 06:17 pm.

      Mr. Keillor’s comments

      I really think if Mr. Keillors is so concerned about bias, he should have mentioned that he has two immediate family members on the SPCO board which is responsible for hiring Mr. Coppocks.

  10. Submitted by Rolf Erdahl on 05/07/2015 - 11:48 pm.

    Great leaders unify. Great players deserve respect.

    Doug Grow’s story comparing the state of the Minnesota Orchestra and SPCO reported public discussion at a labor history meeting. As such, it was not “unbalanced,” but perfectly appropriate to hear from Leslie Shank and Catherine Schubilske, as representatives of the negotiating committees of their respective orchestras. There was however no need to respond to the story by denigrating the playing of 10 world-class musicians forced into retirement in their mid-50s without knowing the “rationale” for their dismissal, and no need to single out a respected player like Leslie Shank with near-libelous inferences about her abilities as a player. Ms. Shank is a remarkable violinist with many years of distinguished performances ahead of her. Far from being “a disgruntled player who was let go,” she showed the courage and grace to present widely-held and under-reported perspectives about the current health, management, and workspace environment of the SPCO, generously without pointing fingers. When orchestras need to dismiss players, they have systematic due-process procedures, and even then, it’s done on a case-by-case basis, not as a purge of more than a third of the orchestra at a $1 million buyout cost (exceeding the SPCO deficit by $100,000). The leadership team at the Minnesota Orchestra shows one trait of great leadership that is sadly lacking at the SPCO – President Kevin Smith and Board Chair Gordon Sprenger have shown a remarkable ability to unify. They have transcended past antipathies to reconcile and work together with people for a common noble cause. Coppock and the SPCO Board and management, whatever their strengths, have adopted a management style and made decisions that have proven divisive, that continue to generate rifts between players, management, and public. These divisions and depletions of priceless human resources are audible to me and may take years for the SPCO to overcome. I hope the orchestra recovers rapidly. But then, in Coppock’s view, “The SPCO is not really an orchestra.” It used to be one of the best.

  11. Submitted by Chris Brown on 06/06/2015 - 10:10 pm.

    whose sour grapes?

    I would like to comment to Mr Petersen that not all things are simple or simply put. Sure there may be some sour grapes in some of this discord in the SPCO, which by the way continues. Your jargon of the ‘partisans’ being the only ones affected by this long term, planned endeavor is simply not true. The changes initiated by the powerful few within the SPCO to deliberately downsize and get rid of players was done to promote what I have called ‘quartet mentality’ and do away with the orchestra mentality. This was being initiated many, many years ago and is what is responsible for the many fundamental disagreements within the musician group.This had many repercussions including the desire to do away with collective bargaining. But it is what it is and of course the new Saint Paul CHAMBER Orchestra is fabulous. The old Orchestra was too.

    Certainly Mr. Petersen you have your sour grapes too. It is obvious.
    Long live the Saint Paul Chamber ORCHESTRA.

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