Orchestra contract talks a matter of money vs. artistry

SPCO strings
Musicians of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra perform in this file photo from 2008.
Photo by Sarah Rubenstein

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra celebrates the opening of its new season this weekend with concerts at the Ordway Center in St. Paul. Looming over the celebration is the shadow of difficult contract negotiations between the SPCO's management and its musicians. Similar talks are underway across the river in Minneapolis, at the Minnesota Orchestra.

Both orchestras enjoy international reputations and employ world-class musicians. But they both face multi-year, multimillion-dollar deficits caused by the poor economy and increasing expenses.

Both orchestras have cut administrative costs, and their musicians have made millions of dollars worth of contract concessions in recent years. But those measures haven't been enough to stem the tide of red ink, and the contract proposals put forth by the orchestras call for the musicians to take significant pay cuts. The musicians say that could threaten the future of both institutions. That's where the fight really begins.

MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA

The Minnesota Orchestra's annual budget is about $30 million, and musicians' salaries make up 48 percent of that total. Michael Henson, president and CEO, said it's going to take a new financial and artistic model to balance the organization's books for the long term.

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

Henson calls it a "reset," a sustainable model which will preserve the orchestra's quality while also making it financially stable long into the future. Part of that involves the musicians giving up some of their salary and benefits, he said.

The orchestra proposes reducing the musicians' average salary from $135,000 a year to $89,000. It also would reduce the amount of paid medical leave available to them. The players receive up to 26 weeks of fully paid medical leave because of the physical stresses of the job. Under the proposed contract, that pay would be cut in half after 13 weeks of medical leave.

The orchestra needs these changes to give it more flexibility in meeting audience demands, according to Henson.

But the musicians see it much differently, seeing the salary and benefit cuts as a threat to the orchestra's world-class reputation.

Doug Wright, the orchestra's principal trombone, is a member of the musicians' negotiating committee. He said the proposed cuts would move the Minnesota Orchestra from the top seven in the nation in terms of pay, down into the top 20.

If that happens, Wright said, players will inevitably seek better-paying positions elsewhere, and that is quickly going to hurt musical quality. He says the orchestra faces a clear choice.

"Does it want to be a major American symphony orchestra?" he asked. "Or does it want to lower itself to a third-rate regional orchestra?"

SAINT PAUL CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

Across the river in St. Paul, similar questions are flying about that city's Chamber Orchestra.

"These are career-changing cuts, that people cannot afford to stay here," said Carole Mason Smith, who chairs the SPCO musicians' negotiating committee.

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

The SPCO's latest proposal also would cut salaries for musicians, by reducing the number of guaranteed work days and limiting what's known as overscale pay. Smith said those changes could lead to many musicians losing more than half their pay. Base salary for a musician with the SPCO is $73,000 a year, and management said the average pay for musicians is $90,000.

Some players are so worried they are already auditioning for other orchestras, Smith said, and it's underlined the quality of the musicians here.

"We just had one of our violinists take the concertmistress position in the Detroit Symphony," she said. "She was in the back of the first violins."

Losing too many players would undermine the SPCO's quality, Smith said.

Dobson West, interim president of the SPCO, said he is committed to maintaining artistic excellence. But with the organization facing a $1 million deficit on its $11 million budget this year alone, it also needs to find a new way forward.

"The world has changed around us and we can't continue on, using the same old model," he said. "Will we get it right the first time? Who knows? But we are intent on finding a long-term solution."

The next negotiating session for the SPCO and its musicians is set for next week. The Minnesota Orchestra isn't due to meet again with musicians till Sept. 24. The current contracts at both organizations expire on Sept. 30.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the salary levels for SPCO musicians. The current version is correct.

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