Last weekend, the Minnesota Orchestra played to three successive sellout crowds at the Ted Mann Concert Hall.
At a recent rally, Tony Ross, principal cellist for the orchestra, told musicians’ supporters that the orchestra would continue to play concerts despite the year-long lockout. The music, he said to cheers, “belongs to the community.”
In a recent Star Tribune op-ed piece, music lover Lawrence Perelman offered this advice to the musicians: “Follow Maestro Vänskä’s lead and resign from the Minnesota Orchestra Association. Immediately announce the creation of the Minnesota Symphony, a self-governing orchestra modeled on the Vienna Philharmonic.’’
On the surface, the idea seems intriguing. After all, it is the artists who draw the crowds — and the dollars.
But most who follow the business of large orchestras say the economics of the idea simply won’t work.
Most of those who responded to questions about the idea of the musicians walking away from the mother organization, asked not to be named, for fear of making a bad labor situation even worse.
Plenty of problems
As idyllic as self-management might seem, here are just a few of the problems:
• It would disrupt whatever is left of the stability of the orchestra, meaning more members would leave for more traditional orchestra structures.
• It would take years for an organization of musicians to build the sort of funding strength the 110-year old Orchestra Association has created. (The Association endowment is in the area of $150 million.)
• There’s a question as to whether the huge patrons of the Association ever would follow revolutionary musicians no matter how talented.
In his piece, Perelman suggests that the musicians would need to play about 100 concerts, with receipts of $100,000 per concert, to generate the $10 million needed to pay 100 musicians $100,000 per year.
But consider: Those three sellout crowds last weekend likely generated ticket revenue of less than $150,000 total. Internationally acclaimed pianist Emanuel Ax, who typically would be paid in excess of $30,000 for the concerts, performed for free, an act of solidarity with the musicians. Osmo Vänskä conducted as a farewell gesture to the orchestra and the community.
In other words, even before such things as the costs of health-care beneﬁts, stagehands, a few administrators and sales people, the numbers don’t come close to adding up for the musicians.
Two sides need each other
Like it or not, the musicians and the board members need each other desperately.
Even as Ross told the crowd at the recent rally that the orchestra would continue to perform during the lockout, he made it clear that the ultimate goal was to return to Orchestra Hall.
It should be noted that Perelman isn’t alone in his desire to see the musicians work to ﬁnd a new model.
Rena Kraut, a freelance professional clarinet player, would love to see the musicians move away from the Association.
“But I don’t have to pay their mortgages,’’ said Kraut. “I do think it’s time to ﬁnd a new model for supporting orchestras. But I don’t think it’s fair to ask these musicians to be guinea pigs, either.’’
Out of frustration with the board, which she believes has taken a one-note stand in the lockout, Kraut has started an online petition drive.
Online petition effort
The petition went online on Tuesday, and as of Friday morning, Kraut had collected nearly 2,500 signees.
The petition covers two areas:
• She says that no tryouts for orchestra openings be held until the dispute is resolved.
Her concern is that given the fact that management is being represented by the same law ﬁrm (Felhaber, Larson, Fenlon and Vogt) that represented Crystal Sugar in the lockout of its employees, orchestra management might attempt to ﬁnd replacement musicians to perform. That tactic was employed by Crystal Sugar.
• That leaders of the current board resign. Kraut believes that current leadership so poisoned the atmosphere at the beginning of this dispute that it will be impossible to create the trust needed to end the dispute.
“I don’t have grand ideas that this will change anything,’’ Kraut said. “But I do hope that it helps make it clear to management of other orchestras that this is not the approach they should take.’’
It should be noted that to date, management has shown no inclination to ﬁnd replacement musicians. Also, there has been no sign of revolt within the board that would be needed to create change at the top.
Back to the initial concept, an independent orchestra.
Sinfonia one small example
There is an example in the Twin Cities. For 36 years, Jay Fishman has managed and conducted the Minnesota Sinfonia. (For the ﬁrst 11 years, his orchestra was known as the Minneapolis Chamber Orchestra, but a dispute with his own board led to a split and the creation of the Minnesota Sinfonia.)
Fishman has succeeded in survival by ﬁnding a niche: linking classical music to education in schools, especially schools in impoverished areas. In addition to performances in elementary school gyms for 10,000 students a year, the Sinfonia presents free concerts for the community throughout the region.
(Its next concerts are at St. Paul Johnson High at 7 p.m. Oct. 25 and at 4 p.m. Oct. 27 at Temple Israel in Minneapolis.)
The idea of carrying classical music to people who might otherwise not have had the opportunity has appealed to funders ranging from the National Endowment for the Arts to the McKnight Foundation to business such as Target and Ecolab Systems.
But the budget for the 25-member orchestra of union musicians is small: about $500,000 a year.
A great deal is asked of these musicians. They may need to perform at elementary school gyms at 8 in the morning. One member of the orchestra hauls around lighting in the trunk of his car. The musicians are responsible for cleaning up the venues in which they rehearse. All of this, for around $2,000 a year in the early going, with salaries now totaling $6,000 to $7,000. When they go on tour, it’s to rural areas of the state.
But, Fishman said, “We have terriﬁc players who have been with us for years.’’
The payoff for Sinfonia players comes in scores of little ways. A mom and her children who thank players after a free concert. A kid drum player who understands after a school performance/math class that there’s an important relationship between math and music. “I’ll study math,’’ the kid promises. A standing ovation after a particularly strong performance.
Fishman won’t say whether Minnesota orchestra musicians could make it on their own, nor does he take a public position on the dispute. He does talk about how the Sinfonia battles for survival each year.
But then, he is not seeking dates in international concert halls, nor is it an orchestra striving to be among the best in the world.