The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s May 10 concert at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie was no ordinary event.
Except for concerts the players themselves put on, the orchestra had been silent for more than six months, having been locked out by the board after contract talks ground to a halt in October — only to be revived in March by the intercession of St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who cajoled and coerced both parties into concessions that resulted in a tentative agreement April 9. Neither side really got what it wanted. Musicians accepted a pay cut of 18.8 percent and a reduction in orchestra membership from 32 to 28, and the board got about $200,000 less in expense cuts than it had hoped for.
But at least there was live music again, and the audience showed its appreciation of that fact by giving the players a cheering standing ovation as they walked on stage. One long-time subscriber, Bill Weir, a retired clergyman, gripped tickets in his hand for the remaining three programs in the season, as if he were afraid of losing them.
“We thrive on the power of music,” Weir said, gesturing to his companion, Pattie Dorf of Buffalo, Minn., a retired special-education teacher. “We’ve been starved for music these past months.”
Friday’s program was a typical SPCO concoction, a mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar – actually, the virtually unknown in the case of Arnold Schoenberg’s Ten Early Waltzes for String Orchestra, which were first performed in 2003, some 50 years after the composer’s death. Cellist Steven Isserlis was the guest soloist, and violinist-conductor Thomas Zehetmair presided at the podium. Zehetmair is one of the orchestra’s five Artistic Partners who, addressing their specialties, perform – more or less – the function of music director.
The orchestra played in its customary alert, well-drilled manner and seemed responsive to Zehetmair’s direction. Missing, however, was a kind of joy in music-making that has always characterized this ensemble’s playing. The mood onstage was sour. “We can do this. We’re professionals,” the musicians seemed to be saying. And who can blame them? It’s been a tough year. Many of the musicians gave extra music lessons to help pay their bills. One was forced to sell his house. Another, a key player, took a job with the New York Philharmonic. Others were engaged – temporarily, it is hoped – with other orchestras. Several players onstage were substitutes.
Even so, the alternative looked worse. At least the SPCO settled, whereas the Minnesota Orchestra, suffering an even longer lockout, was still battling it out: board and management versus musicians and their union in a bitter struggle with no apparent end in sight. And the tension was mounting: The orchestra’s revered music director, Osmo Vänskä, had said publicly that he will resign if the dispute isn’t soon resolved. (Finns seldom make wild claims.)
Not a predictable outcome
Surely there was some small irony in this situation. Here were the participants in the state’s “big” orchestra – older, richer, socially more connected, arguably more renowned – practically at each others’ throats, while the actors in the “small” ensemble took a deep breath and signed on the dotted line. One might not have predicted this. The chamber orchestra, that is, has always seemed fragile, more vulnerable to financial disarray than has the colossus to the west, the mighty occupant of Orchestra Hall. Perhaps it also appeals to a more refined taste than does the more costly symphony orchestra, whose programming, at least in theory, has to be tailored to a larger audience.
To be sure, the Minnesota Orchestra has suffered financial crises, especially lately – it currently claims a budget deficit of $6 million, whereas the SPCO is in the red for just $895,000. Nonetheless, for sheer exasperation, for unequivocal “I’ve had it up to here,” there’s nothing in the Minnesota Orchestra’s 110-year history like the moment in 1976 when the SPCO music director, Dennis Russell Davies, and manager James Borland said publicly: we’re broke, and we’re moving the orchestra to some other city that will give us adequate funding. Sports teams move to where the money is. Why can’t we?
A year earlier, the orchestra shut down for five weeks in order to balance the budget, but no concerts were canceled. In 1983, there was a one-week furlough to save $200,000. In 1993, Minnesota Public Radio hosted a “Save Our SPCO” Radiothon that raised $750,000 for the orchestra (nearly three times what was needed), and in 2003 the musicians accepted an 18-percent pay cut for the first year of a four-year contract.
And yet the chamber orchestra lives on, a bit unsteady on its feet at the moment, to be sure, but possibly in better shape than its bigger, older brother, still offering relatively innovative programming and remaining, as it has always boasted, the only full-time professional chamber orchestra in the country. If only one orchestra survives this unpleasantness, a crisis closely watched in arts circles around the country – let’s say, survives in recognizable form — maybe it will be the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
Return of Coppock
To that end, the announcement last week that Bruce Coppock would return as the SPCO’s president and CEO surely bodes well for this organization. Coppock, 61, held this post from 1999 to 2008, when he retired to undergo treatment for a rare cancer diagnosed in 2006. He has been in remission since 2009. In 2011 and 2012 he served as general manager of the Cleveland Orchestra’s Miami residency.
A former cellist who moved into management because of an injury sustained in a car accident, Coppock engineered a dramatic increase in the orchestra’s subscriber list, expanded the popular, low-priced neighborhood concerts and oversaw construction of the SPCO Center, a small performance and rehearsal hall in the Hamm Building in downtown St. Paul.
Importantly, he got on well with the musicians, according to all reports and, like one of his predecessors, Deborah Borda, he made bold moves, the most surprising of which came in 2004, when, with the cooperation of the board, he bought out the final year of then-music director Andreas Delfs’ contract, replacing him with a group of ever-evolving Artistic Partners – among them, Joshua Bell in that first round.
The format was an echo of Borda’s installation in 1988 of an Artistic Commission, a three-man team (Christopher Hogwood, Hugh Wolff and John Adams) to run the orchestra instead of a single music director, a scheme, like Coppock’s Partners that, contrary to naysayers, worked surprisingly well. (And before that, for the benefit of the history-minded, there was Davies, a motorcyclist with long hair, conducting Cage and Carter and outfitting the musicians in counterculture-friendly blue velvet suits as an alternative to those stuffy tuxedoes.)
Coppock spoke by phone last weekend from his home in Mendota Heights.
MinnPost: Perhaps you’re the appropriate person for this position right now. Your years with the orchestra were good ones. For the musicians, said to be demoralized by the long lockout and bitter negotiations, maybe you symbolize notions of recovery and reconciliation.
Bruce Coppock: I truly hope so. It’s kind of you to say that. Actually, I didn’t come to this lightly or all that quickly. But after the lockout was settled, I started getting phone calls both from within and without the SPCO, and I began thinking about it through the SPCO’s eyes. There would have been a six- or eight-month search for someone, and then another six or eight months to get a feel for the organization. I figured that I could come back and provide some artistic grounding and some confidence both within the community and the organization. At least this is a guy who’s been there and knows the ropes. I hope that we can pick up where we left off. I know that these are different times, but there’s still a wonderful orchestra here, a fantastic audience and a great group of Artistic Partners. There’s a lot to work with, and a new concert hall coming on.
MP: The opening date of the hall, which will be constructed on the site of the McKnight Theater, has been announced as March, 2015.
BC: Yes, and it’s fully funded. They still need to raise some of the endowment to underwrite the day-to-day operations of the hall. It’s a $75 million project. We’re at about $65 million now, which is no mean feat. It will have 1,100 seats, a perfect size for the chamber orchestra, and it’ll be our primary home. That will free up Minnesota Opera to do single-casting because they can put a little more time between performances, and it will allow the Ordway to do more of its own productions: dance and Broadway. And it will be available for all the other groups in town as well.
MP: What’s the status of your health?
BC: I’m in complete remission. I feel great. I went through an extremely rough patch in 2008 and 2009. But thanks to the miracles of new medical technologies and probably a lucky piece of genetics – nobody knows for sure – I’m one of the few people who have been able to pacify this disease. I’ve been basically healthy for close to four years.
MP: What is your first priority with the orchestra?
BC: The first thing is to restore confidence in the artistic enterprise. In the midst of all the financial concerns, that’s something that hasn’t been given much attention. There are all these questions: What’s the make-up of the orchestra going to be with 28 players rather than 34? What’s the next generation of Artistic Partners look like? What does moving into a new concert hall really mean to the SPCO? How do we find the right balance with the neighborhood concerts? We’re not going to give those up. And then last but not least, focusing on rebuilding the national and international reputation of the orchestra. We were in Europe twice in my time. That’s not very much for a major orchestra.
MP: What’s the size of the endowment?
BC: Between 35 and 40 million. There’s no question that building a strong financial base for the orchestra is key. We always set a goal of six endowment dollars for every dollar of operating dollars. It’s at three and a half to four right now. So there’s work to do there.
MP: Why so many lockouts in orchestras around the country – Atlanta, Indianapolis and others – and such acrimony on both sides? Is it simply a delayed reaction to the recession and therefore a drop in endowments?
BC: That might have been the catalyst for it, but I’m not sure that was the cause. As along as I’ve been in the orchestra business – close to 25 years – there’s been enormous financial stress, which has to get solved either by more revenue or less expense, and more usually a combination of the two. You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of orchestras that haven‘t had financial problems the past 15 or 20 years. With some orchestras, the problems have gotten so deep, in Atlanta, for example, where the accumulated deficit is almost as big as the annual budget. That’s untenable.
In the SPCO case, the board, many of whom were veterans of the 1992 crisis, said “Never again.” This orchestra has had only two deficits in 20 years. It was a forward-looking thing here, the board saying, “Sure, we can manage this for a year or two. Then where are we?” So rather than waiting until the problem was completely intractable, like the Philadelphia Orchestra is right now, they tried to deal with it ahead of time. As for the acrimony, I think it’s a clash of expectations, which is one of the reasons I’m proud of the SPCO board for the generous offer of an early retirement package: three years’ salary. Doing that allows the reduction in the size of the orchestra to be done by attrition, which was the humane thing to do. People’s jobs won’t be eliminated in order to get down to 28 players.
MP: When Dennis Davies took command of the chamber orchestra in 1972, there were 22 players with one more added the following year. To some ears back then the string sound was skimpy.
BC: That eventually went to 28, and those were salad days for the SPCO. But if you look around the world, the range of permanent positions in chamber orchestras varies widely. The smallest I know – and one of the best – is the Australian Chamber orchestra, which has 13 permanent players. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe has 50.
We all hope that the Minnesota Orchestra will return to the stage as expeditiously as possible. In this community, if there are going to be two orchestral organizations, which there have been for many years, they have to be about different things. We can both play Beethoven and Mendelssohn symphonies, but beyond that, there’s a very distinct repertoire each organization can play and thereby provide much more breadth and depth to the community.
MP: Which leads to the question that never goes away: Is the Twin Cities a big enough market for two orchestras? If the answer is no, maybe they ought to merge. That was the conclusion of a comprehensive study in the late ‘80s, that the two orchestras here should combine their resources. It was a taboo subject at the time. Asked about it later, Brent Assink, then SPCO president, said a merger would kill off the SPCO. Is there anything good to be said for the idea of a merger?
BC: I agree with Brent. Would it make sense for the Walker and the MIA to merge? No one would suggest that. It’s true: Both orchestras are struggling. But how much richer is this community because it’s had both? And if there’s a little friendly competition between the two, that’s OK. If it keeps everybody on edge a little bit, that’s OK, too. A merger would mean the absorption of the SPCO by the Minnesota Orchestra, not through any mal-intent but simply through the nature of things. I don’t see any upside for the community in that.
MP: What do you think made this agreement happen?
BC: I think the musicians and the board might still be challenged if the mayor hadn’t played such a powerful role. Chris Coleman displayed true leadership. He deserves all the praise in the world. He brought the parties together. He met with them. He had one group in one room and another group in another. He shuttled back and forth, making a deal. He held their feet to the fire. It was a really impressive display of community leadership.