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

There is no fiscal or contractual strategy worth pursuing that results in the qualitative destruction of product.

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.

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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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