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Orchestra lockout prompts the question: What are experts worth?

Football fans recently saw the result of bringing in second-rate referees. Is that what we want for our orchestra?

Minnesota Orchestra musicians have been locked out since Oct. 1.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

Whatever side you lean toward, the Oct. 1st lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra musicians is terribly disappointing on many levels. One of the most disheartening byproducts of such situations are the public comments that follow the media reports. (When did our society decide everyone was worthy of an open mic? Our descent into that mud pit must parallel our rising dependence on blood pressure medications and sleep aids.)

My recent inane activity of reading Star comments on the lockout (128 and rising) can be filed away with other such irresistible, car-crash-gaper-like, post-postmodernist pastimes such as Facebooking, obsessively checking SteepandCheap, and trolling Craiglist for a brown leather left-facing sectional (anyone?). It’s obvious why I’m not one of the full-time members of this incredible orchestra. Clearly, I should be practicing. Which is what the musicians will be getting back to, once they finish up their applications for unemployment.

Meanwhile, I’ll be reporting from the sidelines as a freelance musician who has had the occasional thrill of glancing down at her phone to see the Minnesota Orchestra personnel manager phone number lighting up. Oh, you need someone at Orchestra Hall in 20 minutes to sight read an all-Bernstein program and I’m still in pajamas? Sure, I’ll just grab a baby-sitter! What’s that, someone has strep throat and can’t play the “Hansel and Gretel” program? I’m your woman, let me cancel all other gigs! Wait, you need an extra player for Mahler 7 next week and I just had my second child three days ago? Not a problem! (It shames me only slightly to admit that these are 100% factual situations. THAT is how good this orchestra is.)

So, about those comments. (Yep, still not practicing). The most popular one is some variation on the theme of “I can’t believe they pay people that much to play an instrument.” I’m totally guilty of the same sort of comment last week when I learned how much NFL referees get paid: $149,000 under the old contract, $173,000 under the new, whether they work one game or all. This is for part-time, seasonal work. But you know what? After my nausea passed, I accepted that these are experts in their field. Fine.

They are, indeed, world-class musicians

What are experts worth in music, then? There have been a lot of media references to the M.O. musicians as “world class,” to which many readers respond with a verbal rolling of the eyes. The Minnesota Orchestra musicians won’t toot their own horns, so to speak, on this one, so allow me.

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To get to those plastic black thrones onstage, most musicians have survived multiple rounds of auditions with ridiculously long odds. They have climbed the ladder of regional orchestras to get to the big one. They’ve moved their families or delayed having a family at all. They’re damn good at what they do, and the rest of the country knows it. To dismantle this orchestra would be to take our state one notch down on the cultural map. Do we need more reasons to be called a flyover state?

But I digress. The point is that if you agree that we have here some of the country’s top musicians, then what, indeed, are the country’s top musicians worth? How does that compare to what the country’s top lawyers, salesmen, doctors, mixologists, golf pros, lobbyists, craft brewery owners, and vice presidents of real estate are worth? And can we learn something from those numbers?

The music world, particularly the classical one, probably seems to exists in its own little bubble. Many people aren’t concert-goers, and even orchestra patrons have little interaction with the musicians on the stage. I get why many people might not have much sympathy for the plight of the locked-out workers since, as many readers commented, they already make a lot more money than most of us. However, we are all members of the same local economy, and we would all like to see more Minnesotans working. When 80+ full-time musicians lose their jobs, they need to take other work.

About to see trickle-down effects

Readers commented along the lines of “if they’re so great, they’ll find another job.” All too true — orchestra musicians are already being offered temporary playing opportunities in other orchestras and are working freelance gigs here in town that they would ordinarily turn down. This lockout means a season of increased hardship for many freelance musicians in town who are deeply tied to our local economy. Freelance income isn’t going to stock options, vacation homes or investments in Chinese factories. Every penny goes right back into our homes, kids and local stores. A healthy Twin Cities arts community starts at the top, and we’re about to witness the trickle-down effect of this lockout.

The deafening silence from Orchestra Hall continues alongside the hubbub from the peanut gallery. Still, there is the occasional reason to take heart, as with comments such as this which I believe says it best: “there are — as you, an expert has verified — hundreds of musicians eager to jump in and take these jobs. … I played trumpet in high school, where do I sign up. Sort of like replacement refs. Anyone can do it.”

Just ask the Packers how that worked out for them.

In the meantime, I’ll try to get back to practicing.

Rena Kraut is a freelance classical clarinetist who performs, writes and lives in Minneapolis.

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