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Orchestra lockouts: The longer this goes on without music being made, the more devastating it is

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

MinnPost has noted the reticence of some politicians to take a stand in the orchestra lockouts (Doug Grow, Feb. 22). But I’m also wondering why so many people with a moral investment in these orchestras, and leaders in the field of classical music, have been generally passive bystanders. I’m reminded of the legendary soprano Phyllis Curtain exhorting us, in terms of our larger relationship to the world, to remember that a vehicle in neutral goes nowhere. And it seems that the stasis in Minnesota has reached a critical condition.

John Kennedy
John Kennedy

Certainly, there are bigger issues in these times — orchestra negotiations are not global warming. But what is unfolding in Minnesota is a signal of a wider “cultural cooling,” a social climate change. It’s very real, and this is an alarming front edge. In such circumstances, blame for present conditions is regressive. The argument that an orchestra is “great” or award-winning doesn’t change the impasse. That orchestras truly matter or should be revered is a deeper argument, which rightly envisions orchestras as precious resources in our human environment – like redwoods or other repositories of slow-growth grandeur.

Orchestras, as vessels of multi-generational generosity and passed-down musical wisdom, truly are a model of a longer view. I fell in love with the Minnesota Orchestra in the eighth grade, when at almost every weekly concert my love of music was restoked with an introduction to yet another wonderful composer. I studied with a member of the orchestra, played in the Minnesota Youth Symphony conducted by one of the orchestra’s players, and at 16, even conducted the orchestra through a summer program. I also became enamored of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, which led me toward a thing for contemporary music. After attending conservatory back east, I even played extra percussion with both orchestras before heading off to the wider music world.

A model of what can happen

There are many others like me, who can tell a story of being nurtured through the extraordinary human capital and wide community presence that is an orchestra. And now today, I find myself as a conductor of orchestras, who composes for them too. One thing I know from this journey is that orchestras are among the most extraordinary achievements of human culture. The collectivization of deeply specialized talent embodied in decades of practice, sublimated toward detailed musical scores, and realized through the non-verbal means of breathing together, listening, and eye contact, is an amazing organism. Orchestras make us proud to be human — they are a model of what can happen when people truly work together, in humility and with the full alacrity of heart and mind united.

Now, I don’t know all the details of why these two precious orchestras in Minnesota are not working. But I do know this has gone on too long, and the longer it goes on without music being made, the more devastating it is. For musicians, work is like spiritual practice — it is at the core of their relationship with life and how they give themselves to the world. To deny this of them is to inflict a psychological and spiritual wound. It is exile.

And there is also a deeper wound being inflicted on the community, in affront to the generations of people who gave to and built these institutions as well as the Minnesota arts community of which the region is so proud. An orchestra is part of the ecology of a community, with an impact that can’t be quantified and with intangible returns which accrue to the quality of life as a community resource.

Unsettling this ecology, as is being done, could poison the waters irreparably. Would Minnesota stand by while Lake of the Isles were drained dry and allowed to become wasteland? Do we need to see what would happen in succession to the chain of lakes?

Nothing being sought is worth this

Yes, there are issues. Changes in the world (as well as in music) have always brought about changes to orchestras. But do these issues really need to stop an orchestra from making music, and generating the beacon that is hope for settling differences? There is no fiscal or contractual strategy worth pursuing that results in the qualitative destruction of product. And nothing being sought in trying to fortify these institutions is worth such inglorious and unseemly lockouts.

Perhaps the stakeholders here can think of themselves in the image of what they are all hopefully fighting for. Call a negotiation and take an A — and listen. Take a deep breath — together. Let’s hope that with some eye contact and the generosity of spirit that is music, those involved will find that harmony comes in amazing variety. Please, Minnesota — get these orchestras back making music, and growing mighty again for generations to come.

Conductor/composer John Kennedy is the Resident Conductor and Director of Orchestral Activities at Spoleto Festival USA. He lives in Berkeley, Calif.


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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by John Bracken on 03/22/2013 - 08:57 am.

    Times Have Changed

    I live in a well to do western suburb. Much like the opera, I don’t know anyone who pays to see an orchestra. The public has spoken. They also do not go. Time to stop using money borrowed from the younger generations to provide tax write offs to support non-profit institutions. America is broke. Let’s stop extending tax free status (and write offs) for all the “non profits.” MinnPost, NPR, churches, all the arts organizations. Pay your own way or go away, but don’t turn to the tax code to prop up your funding model.

  2. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 03/22/2013 - 09:52 am.

    But among the people who DO attend classical music events

    (and there are many outside the kinds of well-to-do western suburbs being obsessed with sports and fancy possessions is the hallmark of a good citizen) support is overwhelmingly for the musicians and against the boards.

    As a subscriber, I wrote to the Minnesota Orchestra board asking why they didn’t accept the musicians’ extremely risky offer to submit to arbitration. Remember, by doing so, the musicians risk being told, “Sorry, you simply have to take management’s offer.” I received an e-mail from a board member saying that they could not yield control of the orchestra to an outsider who might not understand the organization.

    A retired arbiter of my acquaintance thinks that argument is nonsense, since all sorts of companies and organizations in the Twin Cities have been subject to arbitration.

    The longer this goes on, the more I suspect that the board has something to hide, if not in their financial records perhaps in the minutes of their meetings.

    The musicians in both the Minnesota Orchestra and SPCO have proved that they have the support of their audience (as opposed to the boards, some of whom don’t even attend concerts) by giving sold-out concerts on their own.

    It’s time for the boards to get over that all-too-common arrogance one sees nowadays, the notion that managers are more important than the people who do the actual work of the organization, which in this case is making music.

  3. Submitted by Herbert Davis on 03/22/2013 - 10:53 am.

    John knows the sad truth

    Because the public goes to casinos and sports stadiums we should just forget the fine arts.
    Our highschool now has artificial turf for our football field….we need an indoor stadium for football/baseball; we have one for hockey….seems like discrimination to me…recent headlines announce more cuts coming for our school budget ….probably should cut any and all fine arts, maybe close the library and ciut taxes.

    The GOP should draft Bracken- Bachmann for President 2016…we could finally have a winner from MN!

    God Bless America!

  4. Submitted by Cynthia Ahlgren on 03/22/2013 - 12:15 pm.


    Wow, John Bracken! Spoken like a true corporatist. “Pay your own way or go away…” So in addition to starving “MinnPost, NPR, churches, all the arts organizations,” you would also choke off libraries, indoor and outdoor ice rinks, zoos, sports programs like hockey and soccer leagues, and the Minneapolis parks system, because you — Mr. “well to do western suburb” — don’t need them. (To be consistent you must also include the Twins’ Target Field and the new Vikings’ stadium). Like you, not everybody attends concerts or opera, nor skates at public ice rinks or uses the public library, or enjoys the lakes and parks or follows the Twins or Vikings seasons, but we are proud that our mutual contributions combine to create a civilized community of such texture and diversity and excellence. This is a great community! I am not sure why you live here. Wouldn’t you be more at home on a deserted island counting your gold coins and worshiping Mammon? It would be a one-dimensional world, but that seems to be your comfort zone.

  5. Submitted by Emily Sojourn on 03/22/2013 - 12:49 pm.

    Indeed. Times have changed.

    In 1935, during the heart of the Depression, the Federal Theatre Project funded theatre and other live artistic performances with a goal to employ of out-of-work artists, construction workers, electricians and office personnel, thereby putting people back to work and stimulating the economy. Another goal was to bring much-needed entertainment and relevant art to poor families who didn’t have the luxury of sitting in the “well to do” suburbs ignoring opera and orchestras because they were bored by them.

    The budget for this project was less than three-fourths of one percent of the total WPA budget.

    But times have changed. We’re smarter now. We all know that the non-profits are what’s REALLY breaking our economy.

  6. Submitted by Bill Slobotski on 03/22/2013 - 01:24 pm.

    As one who never has made it to a well-to-do western suburb

    because my St Paul car always diverts off 94 and brings me into downtown to attend the amazing (and well attended) cultural events that are the reason I live here, I am sickened by the board of the Minnesota Orchestra. I cant imagine how a human being could attempt a more inept public relations and marketing package than this group has put forth.

    One would think after raising public money for a very unimportant and expensive building renovation that the last thing they would do is crush the reason the building exists.

    One would think that an orchestra nominated for Grammy awards and for being the only American orchestra at the Proms in 2010 would have a ferocious marketing department and capitalizing on said achievements. Words cant describe the failure of the orchestra’s board in this regard.

    I am sure the board is confident that this lockout will not affect money raising in the future because it has the intellect and foresight of a Magic 8 Ball, but they are, of course, wrong. The only way to bring a settlement to this lockout and to being faith to the public is to remove the leadership of the board as well as all other board members whose brains are best stimulated by cultural voids.

  7. Submitted by Jon Eisenberg on 03/22/2013 - 03:53 pm.

    We must not lose our arts treasures!

    ***there is also a deeper wound being inflicted on the community, in affront to the generations of people who gave to and built these institutions as well as the Minnesota arts community of which the region is so proud. An orchestra is part of the ecology of a community, with an impact that can’t be quantified and with intangible returns which accrue to the quality of life as a community resource. Unsettling this ecology, as is being done, could poison the waters irreparably.***

    Amen to that! The Minnesota Orchestra and SPCO are national if not international precious resources that are being destroyed in front of us. We must not let that happen! If we do not protect and preserve these resources, our quality of life will be seriously damaged.

    It is hard enough to get talented people to move to Minnesota, with our notorious weather and comparatively high taxes. Our arts heritage is a huge asset that helps people see Minnesota in a different, brighter light.

    As far as people not attending, the prior writer is simply wrong. Hundreds of thousands of tickets are sold in Minnesota annually, and there is obvious spinoff spending on meals, lodging and transportation, among other things. A decrease in corporate donations is a big factor. Public funding is there but is modest by comparison to the millions of dollars thrown at sports teams and stadiums so that multi-millionaire players have lovely facilities to play in. This allows the teams to stay profitable without charging ticket-buyers anything near the full cost of the enterprise. A bit of public funding for the arts is not asking too much as is done nationally and throughout the world. (And that’s not what these lockouts are about anyway.)

    I can only join in urging our elected officials to get involved and help drive efforts to get these lockouts resolved. New ways of leading and managing these orchestras are also clearly called for going forward.

  8. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/22/2013 - 03:42 pm.


    When management says that they are not going to arbitration, they aren’t making an argument, they are making a statement. From management’s perspective, the risk of arbitration is all on one side. If the players lose arbitration, they can always go to another orchestra, if they are dissatisfied with the award. If management loses, the existence of the the Orchestra itself, in their perhaps disputable view, is threatened. It’s not as if the Minnesota Orchestra has the same options a pro football team might have, to relocate to a different city if they can’t make it in Minneapolis.

  9. Submitted by Ken O'Hara on 03/22/2013 - 05:53 pm.

    The Forces at Work

    A decades-long slide in demand for the product
    A massive surplus of labor trained to provide the product (4000 conservatory grads per annum)

    Supply and demand are why this problem is playing out all over America. It isn’t unique to the Twin Cities, and isn’t about boards or politicians. Looking for a villain? How many of you tithe to either orchestra? Or give $500? The “greedy” boards give more than anyone. Few of the big talkers in this debate show up even at the $100 donor level. It’s a “community resource” they’d like someone else to pay for.

    The talented young musicians who get locked-out of these highly-paid orchestras by the paucity of opportunities will eventually organize their own ensembles. It’s how American orchestras all started in the first place. It is a skill of mental and manual dexterity. The little secret they don’t want you to know is the best 20-somethings can play better than all but a handful of those with current orchestra gigs. Classical music won’t die, but the organizations that deliver music to the community just might if they refuse to change. Either way, Bach will survive.

    • Submitted by Michael Wunsch on 03/22/2013 - 09:58 pm.

      response to Ken O’Hara

      I am deeply grateful for the time and the donations that the board members have devoted to the orchestra, and I know many others share this sentiment. I would agree that there is a need to broaden the donor base for the Minnesota Orchestra, and I think the board, management, and the musicians would have benefited enormously had a concerted effort been made to alert patrons that additional donations were needed to sustain current musician salaries and concert programming. I think that many patrons were surprised by the announcement of financial difficulties and sudden lockout of the musicians; as recently as 2010, CEO Michael Henson spoke about the solid finances of the ensemble.

      I recently moved to North Dakota, and I attended my first Minnesota Orchestra concerts only last year. The performances touched me deeply; my wife and I purchased a subscription for this season, and we were looking forward to making the trip to MN for performances. We traveled to MN for the Sibelius and both Beethoven performances and are deeply saddened by the loss of the scheduled performances. I would have donated generously had I known that financial problems existed, and I look forward to donating generously once this situation is resolved – provided, that is, that the focus on excellence in classical music is maintained and that musicians are treated respectfully.

      Relative to your comments on the supply of classical musicians, I would agree that many talented musicians are graduating from conservatories. However, I would urge you to remember that a great orchestra cannot simply be assembled by putting together technically brilliant young musicians; a great orchestra is composed of musicians that are technically brilliant, that are skilled at playing with others (which is very different from playing solo, and which often takes many additional years of experience) and that have the deep musical sense that only comes with years and years of practice and experience. Great orchestras develop a unique sound – something I would argue Minnesota has achieved – through years of tradition, passed generation to generation by elder musicians to young musicians.

      Please know that I deeply appreciate your efforts and your generosity (I presume you have been donating to this orchestra). Thank you for considering my thoughts. If we set a vision of musical excellence and are creative about finding solutions, we can achieve that vision. The Cleveland Orchestra is achieving record audiences, and so can we. Let’s do it!

  10. Submitted by MaryAnn Goldstein on 03/22/2013 - 07:09 pm.

    Wow— are you dismayed by many of the comments above?

    If you are, like I am, and a person who values the arts/artists in our society, please sign my petition to get the remaining 2012-13 Minnesota Orchestra Season resumed. This would be a first step in bringing back some trust (to the patrons and music lovers who have been locked out, to the Mpls businesses that have been losing business, to the musicians who don’t believe anything the Minnesota Orchestral Association says, and to the Minnesota Orchestral Association, who could really use some better PR than they have been getting). Thanks!

  11. Submitted by john milton on 03/22/2013 - 08:24 pm.

    Losing two orchestras

    There was a time when the Twin Cities’ top business leaders and philanthropists were committed to giving back to the community. That is no longer the case. Today, the ultra-rich are living in multiple residences, only one of which may be in Minnesota. And it seems far more important to build stadia for overpaid athletes than invest in compensating the truly rare talents that make up a symphony orchestra.
    And, sadly, the children of these new plutocrats are far more likely to be “tweeting” than reading — that old-fashioned way of learning something!
    — John Milton, Afton MN

    • Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/23/2013 - 08:45 am.


      At least part of the problem here is that Orchestra management extended stadium thinking to the orchestra, with an expensive renovation, taking place at perhaps the worst possible time.

      • Submitted by Elizabeth Erickson on 03/26/2013 - 08:53 pm.

        poor timing for the expansion of the lobby

        I completely agree with you. It was really the worst possible time. But management could have come clean and said “We really want to do this renovation, but our orchestra is in peril and we need to stabilize after this awful economic downturn” Everyone would have been fine with waiting a couple of years. They did not have to break ground last year. They really didn’t care how they came across. They didn’t care about trying to keep the orchestra intact. They didn’t care if they pissed off their donors. They didn’t care if they prevented their loyal patrons from enjoying the 2012-13 season. They didn’t care about a damn thing except trying to turn a non profit arts organization into a for profit glitzorama venue where I can hear Celine Dion scream instead of hearing Mahler. They made their choice about what was important and it sure wasn’t our orchestra.

  12. Submitted by Kevin Kooiker on 03/23/2013 - 01:18 am.

    Re: The Forces at Work

    This situation is not “playing out all over America.” There have been labor disputes and strikes in a number of places, but nowhere besides Minneapolis and St Paul has the orchestral management demanded such draconian cuts in pay and initiated lockouts. I don’t believe that these simultaneous lockouts are coincidental; nor is it coincidental that both orchestras are being advised by the law firm of Felhaber, Larson, Fenlon, and Vogt, which is also representing American Crystal Sugar in its lockout. It is obvious that the boards have fallen under the control of a group of attorneys and bankers who share an ideology. They seem to believe that art is a commodity that can be produced by any qualified group of workers, just like sugar. They are destroying an artistic community that has been built over generations, and they are violating the sacred trust they were given when they became part of the boards of these orchestras. They need to be replaced.

  13. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/24/2013 - 09:46 am.

    What’s going on

    A bunch of things are going on here, as is often the case. I think the basic problem of the orchestra is that it’s losing it’s audience and is finding it difficult to maintain an adequate revenue stream. The reasons for this have to do with the state of the economy, and the ways the economy is changing. It also is the result of management that hasn’t been successful in responding to these challenges, for whatever reason. Maybe they are incompetent, or maybe there aren’t any good solutions, but that the orchestra’s managers have failed the orchestra is apparent to all, and is the basis for what I perceive as a loss of confidence in management by the orchestra’s musicians. It’s that lack of confidence that underlies a lot of the problems with the negotiations, and it shows up in various, often irrelevant ways, such as claims that management hasn’t released enough financial information.

    What needs to happen is for the orchestra to effectively address it’s long term problems, in ways that rebuild confidence among the musicians in the orchestra’s management. That’s an extraordinarily difficult thing to do, first because the strategies needed to do that, are by not means obvious, and secondly, any movement toward those goals is made much more difficult in this poisonous negotiating environment. My thought here is what the Orchestra needs is a cooling off period, a short term deal, that gets the orchestra back to work, and gives management a chance to show that they are serious about really dealing with the long term issues.

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