The musicians of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra are returning to the stage, after a seven-month lockout marked by halting, sometimes bitterly contentious contract talks with orchestra management. The musicians Monday ratified a new, three- year contract agreement, and will perform their first concert of the year on May 9.
SPCO Interim President Dobson West greeted news of the musicians' vote with delight and relief. West said the contract puts the SPCO on a much more sustainable financial path.
"I think this is a really critical step," he said. "We have been working to put our expenses in line with our sustainable revenues while maintaining artistic quality, and this is a big step in the right direction."
The new contract reduces musicians' average annual salaries by approximately $15,000. The additional money musicians get for special artistic skills or leadership contributions -- called "overscale" -- will also go down by 20 percent. The size of the orchestra will be cut from 34 to 28 players, and a voluntary retirement buyout of up to $200,000 will be offered to musicians over age 55.
According to management, insurance and health benefits will remain the same, and the musicians will maintain the same artistic control over the orchestra they had before.
Carole Mason Smith, a member of the musicians' negotiating committee, said it'll be nice to receive paychecks and health benefits again after going without for seven months. But Mason Smith said she believes management is too obsessed with cost cutting and not focused enough on increasing revenues. And she worries about the impact of the contract on musicians.
"It's obviously very difficult. It's going to be a 20 percent [pay] cut, and over and above that, we're going to lose a number of players," she said.
The orchestra is banking on at least four musicians retiring, and Mason Smith said there could be more. She's afraid that number, combined with other musicians who might leave, will pose a serious threat to the SPCO's famed artistic quality. Interim President Dobson insists the orchestra will have the flexibility to retain the artists it needs to remain a world-class ensemble.
Mason Smith said the musicians ratified the agreement because they knew how important it was to resume the concert schedule before the season ended.
"If we didn't get back on the stage this spring, it would cause even more harm to the organization down the road," she said. "And because we care about the future of the orchestra, the negotiating committee strongly recommended this agreement, and the orchestra voted to approve it. "
Alongside that approval, musicians demanded that the SPCO immediately launch a search for a new leader, someone who has proven experience managing orchestras and more importantly, raising revenues. Dobson West said he has no objections to that.
"This has always been an interim position for me, and I share the musicians' goal of quickly finding a permanent president for the organization," said West.
The biggest problem SPCO management and musicians now have to tackle is repairing a relationship that's been ripped apart by the dispute. West doesn't think irreparable damage has occured, but he realizes the orchestra has a task ahead.
"We will have a period where we will have to go through a lot of healing with the musicians and the staff and the board, and make sure that the audience continues to be as supportive as they always have been," he said. "But the music is the main thing for this organization, and music can have a very healing effect as well."
On that point and at this stage, maybe only on that point -- musician Carole Mason Smith can find some agreement.
"I think we're here to play music," she said. "We want to make music, and we will do our darndest to make music," she said.