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.
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.”
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.