Orchestra musicians, management hope for agreement, fear walkout

Orchestra Hall
Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis. The Minnesota Orchestra's current five-year contract with its musicians expires in September.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

It's unusual for a metro area to have two major orchestras.

It's even more unusual for those orchestras to be engaged in contract talks with their musicians at the same time. But that is what's happening right now with the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Both institutions face severe budget shortfalls and are exploring deep reductions in costs. Some fear that could lead to a walkout by musicians on both sides of the river.

At an annual meeting last December, Minnesota Orchestra President Michael Henson reported the orchestra's largest deficit ever — $2.9 million. In an interview at that time with Minnesota Public Radio News, Henson did not mention how the orchestra's financial situation would affect its upcoming contract talks with musicians, but one could definitely read between the lines.

"It's worth stressing the orchestra will always be at the center of what we're doing. At the same time we quite clearly have to reset our expenses in order to match the generosity of this wonderful community that we live in," Henson said.

As if deficit were not a big enough challenge, the orchestra is also moving into the Minneapolis Convention Center for the coming season while Orchestra Hall undergoes a renovation.

Across the river, budgetary pressures on the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra are also intense. The SPCO is staring down a projected million-dollar deficit for the 2012-2013 season. It's also part of a consortium to raise money to build a new performance space at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts. The similarities with the Minnesota Orchestra are not lost on interim-SPCO President and board chair Dobson West.

Orchestra rehearses
The Minnesota Orchestra rehearses in this undated photo.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"We are both facing a difficult financial time and we're struggling to find a way to be sure we maintain our artistic quality and distinctiveness while at the same time being financially responsible," he said.

Hard times are not unique to the St. Paul Chamber and Minnesota orchestras, they're afflicting orchestras across the nation.

Two of the highest profile examples are the Philadelphia Orchestra, which is struggling through bankruptcy, and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which this spring reached an agreement with its musicians after a debilitating six-month strike.

Part of the hardship comes from the recession. The economic downturn adversely affected stock portfolios and the interest income of orchestras with endowments, including the Minnesota Orchestra. Corporate and philanthropic donations dropped after the financial crisis, and are only now beginning to creep back up. And there are other troubling trends.

Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's contract with musicians expired in June. It was extended another 90 days as the two sides continue negotiating.
Image courtesy of the artist

Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, said the ticket-buying habits of classical audiences are changing in ways that are hurting orchestras.

"From buying at the last minute, from this steady transition from buying subscriptions to buying single tickets, and also an overall, in aggregate, a general decline in attendances at classical music performances," Rosen said.

In Minnesota, the orchestras and the musicians say they're eager to preserve musical quality, but money is at the root of the contract discussions. The Minnesota Orchestra's current five-year contract with its musicians expires in September.

On average, orchestra musicians were paid $135,000 in 2011 — that's considered the going rate for artists at this level of education, training, virtuosity, and prestige for their orchestra. But in 2009, the musicians agreed to more than $4 million in concessions to help balance the budget.

So far, both sides have had little to say publicly on how the talks are going. But in June, when the orchestra eliminated nine full-time staff positions and laid off seven part-time administrative employees, it indicated it expected a comparable sacrifice from musicians.

That was a strong sign to Chicago orchestral consultant Drew McManus that the orchestra is striving to secure what he calls a 'sharply concessionary' contract. He questions whether now is the right time to impose that level of austerity, especially when the orchestra will be away from its natural home, Orchestra Hall, for an extended time.

"You're going to have an expected period of time when you're out," he said. "Things are going to be different. They're going to be harder. Do you want to make decisions that will impact the organization's operations and artistic functions ten years from now during that period, or do you want to wait until you're past that before you begin to have those conversations?"

Over in St. Paul, retired SPCO keyboardist Skip Layton James witnessed many collective bargaining sessions between musicians and management during his 42-year tenure.

Skip Layton James
Retired St. Paul Chamber Orchestra keyboardist Skip Layton James said just like with any contract negotiation, the tendency on both sides is to stake out a position and not budge. "The bad part of that is that when you get right down to the nitty-gritty of it, somebody really does have to back down or compromise, and sometimes you've put yourself in a position that it's really difficult to do," he said.
MPR photo/Chris Roberts

James said just like with any contract negotiation, the tendency on both sides is to stake out a position and not budge.

"The bad part of that is that when you get right down to the nitty-gritty of it, somebody really does have to back down or compromise, and sometimes you've put yourself in a position that it's really difficult to do," he said.

The SPCO's contract with musicians expired in June. It was extended another 90 days as the two sides continue negotiating. According to the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, the minimum annual salary for SPCO musicians is now approximately $67,000 for a 37-week season.

James said when the orchestra initially proposed trimming the season to 20 weeks, or in some cases, 15 weeks, musicians were alarmed. To them, it was an attempt to turn the orchestra into a part-time ensemble, and that represents a "sea change in the way negotiations have been before," James said. "It's totally new."

The musicians rejected that offer. Talks held on July 10 and 11 yielded little progress. James is hopeful the sides will work out an agreement.

"If there is a breakdown so that a walkout of some kind is authorized by the [Twin Cities Musicians Union]," James said, "the people of the Twin Cities should know that it doesn't just affect the SPCO.

"It will affect the Minnesota Orchestra, the opera, the Shubert Club, anybody that uses professional classical musicians. That's the strength of a union."

Former Minnesota Orchestra associate conductor Bill Eddins has one word of advice for both sides.

"Stop."

Eddins, music director for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, is concerned both orchestras are headed for an impasse with their musicians.

"Stop," he repeated. "Everyone stop what you're doing and sit down and look at what is happening."

Eddins also writes about orchestral matters on the blog "Sticks and Drones." He believes the financial woes affecting orchestras actually began during the economic boom of the late '90s.

"A lot of these orchestras started to expand like dough rising in a hot oven," he said.

Many made contractual promises that they couldn't keep, Eddins said. More distressing to Eddins are the generations of Americans who have never picked up a musical instrument, mainly because so many school music programs have been cut back or eliminated.

According to Eddins, more orchestra administrators are increasingly being plucked from those generations. He said they severely lack understanding of the work and expense required to become a premier classical musician.

"And when you have no appreciation for it, and you come in and you've got a structural deficit of however many millions of dollars, you go, 'eh, the workers' — oh, I love that word, 'the workers are overpaid,' " he said. "The first thing that happens, 'We got to slash their salary."

Eddins is worried. On one side, the Minnesota and St. Paul Chamber orchestras are engaging in financial restructuring. On the other, musicians are desperately trying to maintain what they view as a living wage. He said the stage is being set for a musician walkout, possibly on both sides of the river. A strike in St. Paul or Minneapolis, Eddins said, would be devastating.

"The musicians lose money, administration loses faith, board loses support out in the greater community, and you have alienated your audience," he said.

It can take years for an orchestra to recover from a strike, Eddins said, and sometimes it never does.

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