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Who’s ‘winning’ Orchestra fight? Both sides, weak as they are, claim key support

Musicians seem to have considerable popular support. But management and the board continue to have direct access to the major donors so necessary to long-term survival.

Minnesota Orchestra musicians and supporters participated in a rally outside Orchestra Hall on Tuesday evening.
MinnPost photo by Susan Albright

While musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra continue to be locked out, it should be noted that orchestra management and the board of directors continue to be locked in.

At this point, it’s hard to see which body is in a weaker position.

Musicians have the talent. Management has the keys to a refurbished building. Musicians seem to have considerable popular support. But management and the board continue to have direct access to the major donors so necessary to long-term survival.

The big question surrounding any possible end game would seem to be what sort of feedback the management/board is getting from longtime supporters.

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A little incident at Tuesday night’s rally of the orchestra and its supporters outside Orchestra Hall may offer some insight.

Veteran violinists Jean DeVere and Arnold Krueger were quietly discussing the situation when they were approached by Lois Gibson, longtime fan and supporter of the orchestra.

“We’re taking them [the Orchestra Association] out of our will,” Gibson told the two musicians. “My husband [Larry] and I are working on the letter now. We always wanted to nurture the orchestra because it was such a wonderful part of our lives. But what has happened with [Osmo] Vänskä  is the last straw.”

The will is going to be changed, she said, and their legacy gift that was to go to the orchestra will be given to some other organization.

“There is no chance that in our lifetimes this orchestra can be what it was,” she said.

But this sentiment is not universal. In a Tuesday New York Times piece, reporter James Oestreich quoted Michael Krasnoff, who also said he’s had a legacy gift in his will for the Orchestra Association.

“At the beginning, I was ambivalent,” he said. “I didn’t side with either.”

But now, he said, he’s “frustrated” by the players. Presumably, that means his legacy gift will stay in place.

Across the region, donors surely are making similar split decisions about their support of the orchestra.

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Management expresses confidence

To date, orchestra management expresses confidence that key donors are sticking with the organization.

The Symphony Ball, held last month, was a significant indicator, management believes. Every attendance and financial goal was attained. About 500 people attended, and those attending pledged $1 million, which orchestra management says was the goal.

Additionally, there was an “auction” to raise money for educational programming by the orchestra. The goal was to raise $250,000, but bidders shot past that target in moments, pledging more than $500,000 for the project. (Those funds will be used only after a settlement has been reached.)

Michael Henson, controversial president and chief executive officer of the orchestra, said the ball was just one of many signs of support management has received from key donors.

The board/management also has been careful to stay in touch with those contributors, holding monthly private meetings to answer all of their questions. Donors have come out of those meetings, agreeing with management on steps that must be taken to create long-term sustainability for the orchestra.

Anthony Ross, principal cellistMinnPost photo by Doug GrowAnthony Ross, principal cellist and member of negotiating committee, center: “We will not stop the music.”

In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Henson repeatedly returned to his single talking point, the long-term sustainability of the orchestra.

He does not, he said, look back and question the decision to lock out the orchestra. He feels bad about departures, but his view is there is no choice but to get the sort of cuts management has consistently demanded.

“I’m driven by my love of classical music,” Henson said. “We’re not going to sacrifice a 110-year old orchestra for a two- or three-year contract.”

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He also amended a comment made by Jon Campbell, who heads the orchestra’s board of directors.

Campbell was quoted in the New York Times article as saying in the wake of Vänskä’s resignation: “The time pressures we were under are now removed. We’re probably in a pause for the next few months.”

In the interview, Henson agreed with that comment, adding only that the situation would change if musicians would indicate “that negotiations could be meaningful.”

The board, he said, is unified, and key donors continue to support the board.

Musicians tout strong support, too

But musicians appear to have strong support as well, and in some ways it seems to be growing. 

More than 4,000 people, for example, attended a free concert at the Lake Harriet Band Shell last month. The crowd showered the musicians with ovations and post-concert adoration.

The public also is buying tickets for musicians’ concerts.Over the weekend, the musicians will play two concerts at the Ted Mann Music Hall, a venue that seats about 1,120.Ticket prices run from $60 to $20, and musicians are hoping for sellouts.

The announcement Thursday morning that Vänskä is returning to the conductor’s podium for these concerts is powerful in every way. Vänskä’s return to say “farewell” surely will be taken as a sign of respect for the musicians he led for a decade. It also will surely boost the morale of the musicians and energize their supporters. 

At Tuesday night’s rally, musicians were talking optimistically of playing a full season of concerts at venues throughout the Twin Cities.

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“It’s the community that owns this orchestra, not management,’’ principal cellist Anthony Ross told those attending the rally. “We will not stop the music. We’ll play every hall until we get back here [to Orchestra Hall].”

Musicians are dividing proceeds from the concerts as one source of income.

Creating their own concert schedule isn’t the only thing keeping musicians afloat financially. Many of the musicians who haven’t left for more peaceful pastures are finding opportunities to perform with the now undermanned St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and with other orchestras around the country. 

Percussionist Kevin Watkins, for instance, soon will depart for a six-week tour with the Cleveland Orchestra.

Those opportunities to play elsewhere and the cheers of the local crowds have the musicians feeling unifed.

“It’s hard to explain the feelings we have for each other,” Watkins said. “When we perform, we’re a team, and now — through this — we’re remaining a team.”

Other unions’ support?

From the beginning of the year-old lockout, there’s been some question about whether elite musicians could receive support from more tradition unionists.  Certainly, management has tried to drive a wedge between middle-class workers and musicians.

Management made much of the fact that their last offer — which would have amounted to more than a 17 percent cut in pay for musicians over three years — would give musicians, on  average,  salaries of   about $105,000. Additionally, they would have received one-time bonuses of $20,000.

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Musicians unanimously rejected the proposal.

Bill McCarthy, president of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation, said most workers aren’t fooled by such management positioning of the offer.

“When bankers [top leaders of the board of directors are bank executives] are saying someone else makes too much money, we get that,” McCarthy said.

Besides, McCarthy said, the lockout tactics employed by the board are familiar to workers across the country. The only difference in this situation is that the locked-out workers carry violin cases, not lunch buckets.

If anything, local labor leaders at the rally seemed pleased by a more militant attitude expressed by some. None was more militant than Ray Hare, president of the American Federation of Musicians. Hare, in a stemwinder of an old-fashioned union speech, went through many of the names of the board members and the companies they head or work for. He called on those attending the rally to boycott those companies.

Spirits seem surprisingly high among the musicians.

Management options?

Where does that leave management?

If the intent of the year-long lockout is to break the union, it doesn’t seem to be working. If the intent is to ultimately hire replacement workers — as was done at Crystal Sugar when workers were locked out — it’s a losing strategy.

To become a replacement worker, musicians would have to resign from the union before going to work. It’s hard to imagine local musicians doing that, and harder still to image elite musicians from other regions of the country being willing to step into this mess.

The only thing that is certain is that someday this will end. All labor disputes do. But there will be no victories.

Leslie Shank, violinist with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, attended the rally Tuesday. The chamber orchestra did settle after a lockout and long, bitter negotiations.

“It’s been hard to go back to work,” said Shank, who was a leader of the musicians’ negotiating team. “I’m happy when we’re playing, but the rest of the time, I think many of us are still in shock and there’s still some anger and depression.”

What’s most difficult, she said, is that 10 members either left for other orchestras or accepted buyouts. There are empty chairs where colleagues and friends once sat.

“It’s going to take at least two or three years to be back to what we were,” Shank said.

There’s even more bitterness — and more empty musician chairs — surrounding the Minnesota Orchestra brawl.

When the situation finally is resolved, the big unknown is who will be around to help pick up the pieces.