Do the Twin Cities need 2 orchestras?

Minnesota Orchestra
The Minnesota Orchestra, in an undated file photo.
Photo by Greg Helgeson, courtesy Minnesota Orchestra

Both the Minnesota Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra are in the middle of negotiating new contracts with their musicians. Both organizations face multi-million dollar deficits, and no one involved in the talks expects quick resolution.

But even as the bargaining proceeds, some people are asking whether Minnesota needs two world-class orchestras.

It seems like a simple enough question to answer, depending on how one feels about classical music. But it's more complicated than that. It's actually several questions -- and some of the answers aren't that easy.

1. WHY DO THE TWIN CITIES HAVE TWO ORCHESTRAS?

The Minnesota Orchestra began life as the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra in 1903, and now enjoys the reputation of being among the world's greatest.

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra launched in 1959 with the specific mission of performing chamber music, a repertoire written for a small ensemble, usually with only one musician to a part.

Many of the world's great composers wrote both for full orchestras and chamber groups. Then, as now, the SPCO is the only professional chamber orchestra in the U.S. It also enjoys an international reputation.

2. DON'T THEY PLAY THE SAME MUSIC?

The two orchestras have very different sounds, and they don't see each other as competition. Dobson West, the SPCO's interim president, likens the situation to the range of pro sports in Minnesota.

"The Minnesota Wild is a professional sports team," he said. "The Vikings are a professional sports team, but the game that they play is entirely different. And so there is nothing that says they steal from each other."

So it is with the orchestras, he said. There is some audience overlap between the two, but not much. Some people prefer the intimacy of the SPCO's 34-member ensemble, others the majesty of the Minnesota Orchestra with three times as many players. And some cynical classical fans might point out that both orchestras have been at the top of their games for a lot longer than any Minnesota sports team.

It's when you return to these other questions that the larger issues arise.

3. CAN MINNESOTA SUPPORT BOTH ORCHESTRAS?

Bruce Ridge, president of the International Conference of Symphony Orchestra Musicians, or ICSOM, sees it this way.

"The question is not whether or not the Twin Cities can continue to afford to support both organizations," he said. "I think the question is: how can you afford not to support them?"

Joe Spencer
Joe Spencer, director of arts and culture in St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman's office, said having two world-class orchestras in the Twin Cities is a major recruiting tool for Minnesota businesses. He also says St. Paulites take pride in having the SPCO as a part of the city.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

The orchestras are part of Minnesota's cultural legacy, Ridge said, and can't be simply cast aside.

Orchestras, like sports teams, bring prestige and people, to a city. They are an integral part of a thriving arts community.

"It's one of our best competative advantages as a metro area," said Joe Spencer, director of arts and culture in St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman's office.

When it comes to attracting top business talent to the state, and tourists, a burgeoning cultural scene with two major orchestras is a huge positive, Spencer said. The importance is not just to people looking in from the outside.

"For St. Paul, having the world's most famous chamber orchestra that's a part of our downtown fabric and part of our community, that's a part of who we are," said Spencer. "That's a part of our soul as a city, to use Mayor Coleman's words."

4. CAN MINNESOTA AFFORD BOTH ORCHESTRAS?

Increasingly, music lovers are being asked to put a price on their orchestral souls, and someone is going to have to pay.

The Minnesota Orchestra's annual budget in fiscal 2011 was $30 million, and the SPCO's was $11 million.

Carole Mason Smith
Carole Mason Smith has played with the SPCO for over 30 years. She is now chair of the SPCO Musicians Negotiating Committee for the ongoing contract talks with the orchestra.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

Ticket sales only cover about one-fourth of those budgets. The rest comes from private donations, foundations, grants, broadcast revenue, and other earnings. The recession has made things even tighter.

Some foundations have moved their focus from the arts to social programs, and in the case of the Minnesota Orchestra, the downturn bit deep into endowment revenues.

Economist Robert J. Flanagan of Stanford University said orchestras have faced the same basic economic challenge for centuries, and it all revolves around productivity.

"Most symphonies require the same number of people today that they required when they were composed," he said. "Most plays you see in the theater require the same number of actors, and so on."

From an economic point of view that's a problem, because productivity can't be improved, noted Flanagan. You can't use fewer musicians to play that Beethoven Symphony without altering it dramatically.

"The performances do generate revenue, but costs inevitably rise more quickly," said Flanagan. "That creates an ever-widening gap and an ongoing challenge, as orchestras struggle to fill the shortfall."

Flanagan recently published "The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras," a longtitudinal study of 63 orchestras. In it, he concluded that unless there is major change in how orchestras handle their finances, that revenue gap will continue to grow with crippling results.

"Many cities ... in the U.S. probably only have enough resources, given current tastes for classical music, to support one orchestra."

When asked if he thinks Minnesota can support both orchestras, Flanagan said he is not intimately familiar with the situation here, but the trend doesn't bode well.

"Many cities and areas in the United States probably only have enough resources, given current tastes for classical music, to support one orchestra," he said. As time passes, Flanagan added, it seems inevitable that economic forces will concentrate orchestras in the largest cities in the U.S.

Not surprisingly, Flanagan's book has attracted attention in the orchestral world. He's heard from many musicians who object to an economic model being applied to an artistic enterprise.

Those in the classical community in Minnesota argue that things are different here.

"We've got two great orchestras. We have a tradition that supports both of them," said Gwen Pappas, director of public relations for the Minnesota Orchestra. "So it's not really a textbook case. It's a case based on history and what the community historically has been willing to support." It's likely all of these issues will come to the fore in coming weeks, as both the orchestras negotiate new contracts with their musicians.

No one involved in the talks denies the difficult financial issues facing the orchestras. The disputes are over how to resolve them in the short and long term. The contracts for both orchestras expire at the end of September.

Carole Mason Smith, who has played bassoon with the SPCO for three decades, chairs the orchestra's musicians negotiating committee. She says the talks are tough, but she remains hopeful.

"We are all still practicing," she said. "We are getting ready for the season, so we are optimistic. Still."

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