Daily Bow: Up Against a Wall in Minnesota

Daily Bow LogoUp until this year, the ongoing plight of the Louisville Symphony Orchestra and its long-locked-out players was the highest-profile story of its kind. For much of that storyline, it seemed that the situation in Louisville, with its deadlock between an unyielding management and now jobless players, was more or less the only one of its kind–an aberration in the current musical environment. This year, though, has seen a rash of bitter disputes between musicians and management. Depending on who you ask, the real barometer of our current economic climate here in the music world has been either the stunningly unfair new contract in Atlanta, the startling but mercifully brief strike of the Chicago Symphony, or the enduring and equally shocking lockout of the two gems of orchestras in Minnesota. While many of the fires have been put out, the situation in Minnesota remains fraught, and it gives us frightening insight into just what happens when musicians and their management have very different ideas of what the role of the musician is in a symphonic organization, what the role of the organization itself is, and how to deal with a lean economic outlook.

The Minnesota Orchestra has canceled its fall season, as it announced in September, and has now been locked out of Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis without pay or benefits since October 1, the day after its previous five-year contract expired. The magnitude of the situation in Minneapolis is so great that it has even made its way to the pages of CNN, where author Emanuella Grinberg explains to lay-readers that symphonic organizations can be the victims of lockouts, just like the higher-profile organizations like the NFL or other professional sports organizations. In fact, Grinberg points out, much of the disputes can be understood in those terms. The strikes are hardly simply a matter of money, as many people who commented on the CSO strike reminded other readers. In many of these cases, the base salary for a symphony member seems to be extraordinarily high for the average member of the workforce: to many people in, say, desk jobs, a salary of $1500 a week would seem like the mother lode. But this is where music, much like professional sports, differs from your average job. Writes Grinberg:

Similar to professional sports, or any competitive field for that matter, skilled players want to be on teams with other talented players that offer the best salary, benefits and work environment, said Christina Smith, principal flutist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which also experienced a month-long lockout before both sides reached an agreement in September. “We are, first and foremost, artists and perfectionists, and we want to have the greatest orchestra in the world because that’s who we are. We don’t sit in a practice room for a zillion hours to be mediocre,” she said. Many people don’t realize that being in the orchestra is a full-time job of performances and practices, and free time spent staying warm, she said.

The problem is not a cut-and-dry case of musicians wanting more money and management wanting to pay them less. Instead, the strikes and lockouts like those in Minnesota arise from a complex web of issues that cut to the core of some very fundamental things:

The rifts underscore the evolving role of orchestras in America’s cultural landscape, something orchestral organizations have been grappling with for years as new art forms compete for audiences….”Great art costs money and resources, and how much any community can support it is a constant push and pull,” [Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras] said. “The pattern that we see when we look at the entire community of 350 organizations is that most of them solve those tensions and resolve them without work stoppages,” he said. “There are lots of instances of seeing new audience development and marketing practices come into play and lots of creativity in programming designed to be appealing and attractive to audiences outside the typical pool.”

Rosen’s point is that there are many success stories among the stories of tension, and he, among others, find that the real discussion should start with a look at why some orchestras are faring just fine while others of similar size and stature are crumbling under economic pressure. Bruce Ridge, chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians and a double-bassist with the North Carolina Symphony, posits that the answer lies in the management’s corner.  “There is no crisis in classical music, the crisis is on the part of management of orchestra organizations,” he says. “Our field has a very strange way of promoting itself and undermining itself at the same time.”

The Minnesota predicament is a telling example of just such diametrically opposed tendencies. One of the biggest points of contention in this lockout is that the orchestra is facing fairly massive salary cuts–all while the management is spending $50 million to renovate Orchestra Hall. The musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra have rejected a cut in weekly base salary from $2,177 to $1,498, plus modifications to the terms for receiving seniority pay. Musicians feel that if the organization has $50 million to spend on a renovation but not to pay the musicians, something is not being handled correctly, and many have mentioned the use of the Minnesota Orchestra’s endowment as a solution, something that management is not willing to tap into. Management in Minnesota feels that they have taken the brunt of pay cuts, and Minnesota Orchestra CEO Michael Henson says that “great art remains central, but you can’t continue to spend considerably more than you generate. The world is repositioning itself and the arts is no different. We are now asking the musicians’ assistance in terms of being part of that solution.” To support his position, he says that “we’ve taken a hard and careful look at our finances in terms of how to create a long-term future for this organization.” According to CNN, Henson also claims to have taken a 7% pay cut since 2009, along with other members of management and administration.

While the idea solution would, of course, be for no one have need to take a pay cut, Henson’s complaints underscore a basic and fundamental dissonance between the musicians’ and management’s perceptions of what the purpose of the orchestral organization is. Atlanta Symphony CEO Stanley Romanstein terms his organization “entrepreneurial at our core,” while musicians in the orchestra put the art above the money. Minnesota Orchestra musicians displayed this difference in values prominently earlier this month when they played a concert to a crowd of 2,100 at the Minneapolis Convention Center on what should have been the opening night of their now-canceled season. The musicians, who are going without pay and have been doing so for a month, pooled their own resources to rent the Convention Center. The response to the concert was overwhelmingly positive, with many fans inadvertently giving clear insight into the cloudy situation. One response, on the musicians’ organization Facebook page, cut right to the core of the matter:

“It is really hard to think of not getting tickets for this season. Doesn’t management realize that we come to hear the MUSICIANS? Good acoustics are nice, a comfy building is nice but not essential. Musicians are essential. We need you!” Sonja Langsjoen said.

Sure, it’s difficult to run a business without a well-paid and well-heeled administrative staff. But it’s completely impossible to run a symphony orchestra without musicians. Hopefully somewhere along the lines the managements of the Minnesota Orchestra and others in similar straights will realize that.

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