The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's announcement that 10 long-serving musicians are taking a retirement package stunned many who follow the orchestra.
The retirement deal came this week as part of the contract settlement resulting from the months-long lockout that shut down the orchestra for most of last season. It sparked sadness among friends of the orchestra, but also opened the door for the orchestra to plan for the future.
Each of the 10 musicians taking the package had played at least 30 seasons with the SPCO. All are well known to the orchestra's fans: trumpeter Gary Bordner, bassists Christopher Brown and Fred Bretschger, viola players Evelina Chao and Tamas Strasser, violinists Thomas Kornacker, Brenda Manuel Mickens and Michal Sobieski and horn-player Paul Straka. Also opting to retire is oboist Thomas Tempel, who has played with the SPCO for 44 years.
SPCO President Bruce Coppock says each of the players brought extraordinary talent to the orchestra.
"First and foremost, we celebrate their careers here," Coppock said. "Everyone from Chris Brown who was the principal bass player for a long time, who had a prior career as "Jesus Christ Superstar" and was really quite a character, in a way sort of a mascot for the orchestra."
Brown played the title role in a touring production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" before the show went to Broadway. Evelina Chao also is an accomplished novelist. Several of the musicians lead other ensembles and orchestras in their own right.
"So yes, on one hand we are saying goodbye to old friends. On the other hand orchestras are evolutionary beings," Coppock said. "All organizations are."
The SPCO's newly formed instrumentation committee, which consists of five musicians and three managers, is now working to decide on the best instrumental make-up for the SPCO in coming years and the repertoire it performs, Coppock said.
"As much as we cherish and respect the work that the 10 recent retirees have done," he said, "I think everybody also understands there is an opportunity to build for the future."
Coppock is confident the organization will be able to carry on a proud tradition.
"I have every faith that what will be on stage both in the immediate future and long term future will be of the highest international calibre at the SPCO," he said.
But Coppock acknowledges there is a lot of work ahead.
So does Skip James, who retired from the SPCO a number of years ago after serving as the orchestra's keyboardist for decades. He said there are a lot of immediate needs.
"They are going to find a bass rather fast," James said. "There is no principal cello. There is a second trumpet, but there is no first trumpet. There are no horns at all. They need a second oboe. They probably need two clarinets."
James expects the SPCO's sound to change just because it has new players. The orchestra has a reputation for one of the most rigorous audition processes in the country, so it is likely to take years to fill open positions permanently. For him, the whole situation produces mixed emotions.
“On one hand, we are saying goodbye to old friends. On the other hand, orchestras are evolutionary beings.”SPCO President Bruce Coppock
"I am sure that the new musicians that are hired to be in the latest version of the SPCO will carry on a tradition that will be good," he said. "But it isn't my orchestra and that's sad to me."
There is also the question as to how audiences will react to the departure of favorite players.
To lose 10 players of what will be a 28-member orchestra is not just unusual, but unprecedented, said Bill Eddins, music director of the Edmonton Symphony and a longtime Minneapolis resident familiar with the Minnesota classical scene.
"There is a tremendous amount of experience that is leaving there, and that is what concerns me the most," he said.
Eddins said the SPCO is now is in rebuilding mode -- just as the Minnesota Twins have been for some years. He hopes the transition goes better for the SPCO than it has for the Twins.
However, he said rebuilding an orchestra is far more complicated than rebuilding a baseball team.
"It's going to be a very interesting few years for the SPCO and I think all of us on the outside just have to keep our fingers crossed," Eddins said.