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How management’s self-inflicted wounds are killing Minnesota’s two world-class orchestras — and what to do about it

Leaders of the Minnesota Orchestra and SPCO are destroying them piece by piece, or as MNO violist Sam Bergman recently stated, musician by musician by musician.

Brutal industrial tactics should play no role in the delicate relationship between orchestra management and the highly talented artists they employ.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

When a disturbed individual deliberately provokes law-enforcement officers in a threatening way and provokes a lethal response, we call it “suicide by cop.” When the boards and managements of the Minnesota Orchestra (MNO) and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) engage in lockouts that provoke much of their best talent to leave, infuriate their other stakeholders and threaten the very existence of the world-renowned orchestras, we ought to recognize it as “suicide by lockout.” The leaders of these orchestras are destroying them piece by piece, or as MNO violist Sam Bergman recently stated, musician by musician by musician. Classical-music lovers need to continue to pull together, stand up and loudly say “Stop! Don’t do it!”

A lockout is a strong-arm industrial labor technique used by management to force a unionized work force to accept major concessions. The employees are forced into submission by long-term denial of salary and health benefits c which threatens them with personal financial ruin. It was most recently used by American Crystal Sugar, which forced its employees to accept its original proposal after being locked out for 20 months. During the lockout, nearly one-half of American Crystal Sugar’s work force quit or retired.

Brutal industrial tactics should play no role in the delicate relationships between orchestra managements and the highly talented artists they employ. Nevertheless, MNO and SPCO, represented by the same law firm as American Crystal Sugar, have invoked the same tactic. MNO has locked out its musicians since October 2012, demanding that they accept a 32 percent pay cut and indicating from day one that its proposal is absolutely firm.

SPCO recently settled its seven-month lockout, with the musicians ratifying a contract giving them more than a 22 percent cut in base pay and up to 20 percent cut in individual musician “overscale” pay. The settlement included retirement incentive payments for musicians age 55 and older, and a reduction in the size of the orchestra from 34 to 28. As we have seen, the results for both orchestras have been disasters.

Massive exodus of talent

Let’s look at what is probably a partial list of the self-inflicted destruction:

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Minnesota Orchestra

St. Paul Chamber Orchestra

  • As mentioned above, Principal Second Violin Kyu-Young Kim has taken a violin section position with the New York Philharmonic. Update: After publication of this commentary, the SPCO announced that he will remain with the orchestra and will become senior director of artistic planning.
  • Gary Bordner, Principal Trumpet, seeing the handwriting on the wall, took a leave of absence for the 2012-13 season and has now retired (see below).
  • Violinist Yoonshin Song left in 2012 to become Concertmaster of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
  • Thomas Tempel, oboist and English horn player with SPCO for over 40 years, recently announced his retirement.
  • Timothy Paradise, Principal Clarinet for 35 years, resigned in the fall.
  • Musicians of the SPCO recently announced that cellist David Huckaby is taking a leave of absence next year, indicating likely departure. Huckaby was one of the youngest and most recent additions to SPCO.
  • There is no longer a keyboard musician in the orchestra since Layton “Skip” James retired in 2010.
  • Resignations of a large number of the most senior musicians are now happening under SPCO’s supplement retirement package offering musicians age 55+ cash inducements to leave. Because of the lockout and generally hostile working environment, many musicians have decided to take the package and leave. Musicians of the SPCO have recently announced nine additional retirements: Thomas Kornacker, Co-Principal Second Violin;  Brenda Mickens and Michal Sobieski, violin; Evelina Chao, Assistant Principal Viola; Tamás Strasser, viola; Christopher Brown, Principal Bass; Fred Bretschger, bass; Gary Bordner, Principal Trumpet; and Paul Straka, horn. June 17 is the last day to participate in the program.
  • A total of nine principal-level positions in the orchestra have become or now remain open: Principal Second Violin (upon Kim’s imminent departure); Co-Principal Second Violin (Thomas Kornacker); Principal Viola (Sabina Thatcher resigned in 2011); Assistant Principal Viola (Evelina Chao); Principal Cello (Ronald Thomas resigned in 2010); Principal Bass (Christopher Brown); Principal Clarinet (Timothy Paradise resigned in 2012); Principal Horn (Bernhard Scully left in 2011); and Principal Trumpet (Gary Bordner). There are so many vacancies that SPCO no longer lists them on its orchestra roster.

This massive outflow of extraordinary musical talent from Minnesota is unprecedented. It is sad and discouraging to watch the decimation of our two outstanding orchestras happening in real time.

Origins of the damage

How did these disasters come about? Much has already been written about this from different perspectives. SPCO cited a deficit of up to $1 million that it stated could not be allowed to continue. Yet SPCO dropped ticket prices starting in 2009 to attract more audience members (“thanks to a balanced budget”). Despite its outstanding international reputation, SPCO ticket prices are now the lowest in the nation for comparable orchestras. Tickets to see the finest chamber orchestra in the U.S. are as low as $10, and 80 percent are $25 or less. The maximum price of $40 is below the minimum pricing of some comparable orchestras.

In fact, there is no longer any reason to purchase either season or individual concert tickets, other than out of ignorance. That’s because SPCO also offers a “membership” program under which you can attend an unlimited number of concerts for $5 per month – driving net pricing well below $10. For example, even looking only at the 16-concert series at Ordway Center and ignoring other concerts on the schedule, the $60 annual membership cost nets out to an absurd $3.75 per concert.

SPCO boasts that its lower prices have helped fill the neighborhood concert halls and “break down barriers associated with concert attendance.” Those are admirable goals. However, SPCO seems blinded to the way rock-bottom prices devalue its concert offerings. SPCO leadership also does not recognize the devastation their pricing strategy has caused to the orchestra’s finances. For example, for its fiscal year ending June 30, 2012, SPCO ticket sales and concert fees generated a shockingly-low 18 percent of total “revenue and support.”

Eyes-on-the-prize donors

SPCO past and returning president Bruce Coppock has published a detailed “business” analysis explaining why he and SPCO believe “concerts are a loss leader” and “filling the hall is the sine qua non, even at the expense of ticket revenue.” Contrary to what music lovers might expect, it turns out that orchestras need to stop worrying about ticket revenue and instead need to “think of ourselves as being in the patron-development business.” According to this theory, orchestras need to “continually develop patrons to the next [donation] level” based upon “the alchemy of patron-revenue growth.”

SPCO, by bringing Coppock back, is plainly signaling that it is prepared to ride this disastrous pricing strategy into the sunset. Even in the face of recent declining corporate donations and large budget deficits, SPCO has rejected numerous calls to raise ticket prices (see also here, here and here). Its leadership obviously prefers to ignore revenue shortfalls and to focus solely on cutting expenses. That is why SPCO leadership instigated a lockout seeking to slash musician pay and the size of the orchestra, even at the rather predictable price of wide scale musician resignations. The leadership clearly wants a much smaller, cheaper orchestra, at least if we assume they intended the natural consequences of their actions. If not, then they played their cards very poorly.

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Youth and (architectural) beauty

At the same time, SPCO, through its participation in the St. Paul Arts Partnership, has helped raise over $50 million to renovate one portion of the Ordway Center. This is completely consistent with what Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, recently dubbed the “Edifice Complex.” While SPCO will no longer have the nation’s finest musicians in its orchestra, at least it will have the shiniest and most acoustically brilliant concert hall in town.

SPCO also raised $3 million from a private fund earmarked to entice its senior musicians to leave, apparently because they are growing too old for – well, we don’t know for what. Fortunately, and to the musicians’ credit, newer and younger replacement musicians cannot be treated as second-class citizens. This is because the musicians adamantly resisted what management really wanted: a two-tier pay structure through which the “new” (read: younger) SPCO could be made even cheaper. Remarkably, both the musicians who would remain and those who knew they would soon be leaving made certain they did not benefit current employees at the expense of those who would come later. They thereby avoided leaving the future orchestra divided into two camps. There ought to be an award for that kind of selfless courage.

Drawing power

For MNO’s part, it has now been well documented from the Board Executive Committee’s own minutes that the financial “crisis” was deliberately created through management’s financial manipulation. While seeking public funding through the Legacy Amendment Funds, MNO took sizable draws from its endowment so it could “announce balances” showing that it was financially healthy. With labor negotiations upcoming, MNO made plans to turn off the endowment tap so it could “announce deficits” that would “demonstrate the need to reset the business model.” At the request of numerous Minnesota legislators, the legislative auditor has initiated an audit of MNO’s finances that will hopefully shed more light on these practices and the orchestra’s true financial situation.

Also suffering from the Edifice Complex, MNO raised $50 million to renovate the lobby of Orchestra Hall. The MNO board and leadership apparently saw no inconsistency in spending this massive sum on part of a building while claiming to have insufficient funds to pay competitive salaries to the musicians who are the heart and soul of an orchestra. In fact, a MNO board member publicly bemoaned the fact that nearly 50 percent of its expenses were to pay the musicians, without whom no performance could be held. The musicians aren’t buying it, and neither are the informed members of the audience or the public.

Activating the audience base

One bright spot emanating from these meltdowns is the organization of supporters of classical orchestra excellence, otherwise known as the audience. On the SPCO side, Save Our SPCO has organized audience members seeking a stronger voice and has brought together an Exploratory Committee of distinguished community members to look at forming an alternative orchestral organization and other options to improve the situation.

With the end of the SPCO lockout, Save Our SPCO has initiated a new fund-raising effort through which SPCO supporters can pool donations they would otherwise have given directly to SPCO. The funds raised, which currently stand at over $14,000, would be given to SPCO if changes sought by audience advocates are made. Those changes would include at least significant board representation for audience advocates. If SPCO is not willing to meet those requests, the funds will be used to support Save Our SPCO’s other initiative, which is studying the feasibility of establishing a new, world-class chamber orchestra in St. Paul.

Save Our SPCO has announced through fliers distributed at recent concerts that it supports orchestral excellence, respect for SPCO’s world-class musicians, retention of top artistic talent, financial stability, new organizational and artistic leadership, candor, transparency and a strong audience voice. Save Our SPCO is currently “crowd sourcing” a set of Guiding Principles through Facebook and web site postings. The end product of this process will be published and will guide the organization’s efforts going forward.

New models

On the MNO side, similar calls for change have been made. Bill Eddins, Music Director of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, has proposed a comprehensive model for change in the governance structure that includes a greater role on the Board of Directors for both musicians and “friends of the MNO.” Attorney and advocate Lee Henderson has also written a $5 million, five-year plan of action. There have also been various calls for the musicians of MNO to break away and form a new organization with its own board and management (see comments posted here and here, among others).

MNO audience advocates have formed Orchestrate Excellence. That group states that it intends to serve as a “positive voice to help end the lockout … seeking a solution to the current impasse that creates a path to a secure future for the orchestra and doesn’t compromise its musical excellence.”

Most recently, Young Musicians of Minnesota, formed “to express solidarity with the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra,” has set up its own website and Facebook page, published a letter of support to the musicians and released a video in which its members speak from their hearts and are shown taking action by writing letters to Gov. Mark Dayton.

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Greater coordination between Save Our SPCO, Orchestrate Excellence, other audience advocates and labor leaders of the MNO and SPCO musicians would be appropriate and might lead to new ideas and opportunities to collaborate. Direct coordination and integration of the efforts may be too much to ask of what are essentially volunteer organizations. Perhaps we could start by meeting over another local art form, a Minnesota craft brew, to discuss how we can work together either to help prevent these two fine orchestras from putting themselves 6 feet under or to develop a breakthrough plan of action.

Jonathan L. Eisenberg is a business attorney and a director of SOSPCO. He and his wife have been season ticket holders of SPCO for more than 30 years and have also been concert attendees and supporters of the Minnesota Orchestra. The views expressed in this article are solely his own.

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