A tempest strikes American orchestras

Minnesota Orchestra lock out
Members of the Minnesota Orchestra, including violinist Taichi Chen, left, acknowledge drivers passing by during a rally in Minneapolis. Monday, Oct. 1, 2012. Minnesota Orchestra management locked out the musicians after contract negotiations reached a stalemate.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

More than a week has gone by since the Minnesota Orchestra locked out its musicians after failing to reach agreement on a new contract. When the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra's musician contract expired, it opted to continue negotiating while playing and has scheduled talks for this Thursday and Friday.

But the labor strife and financial woes that affects the Twin Cities two major orchestras aren't isolated; it's happening across the country.

American orchestras are going through a tumultuous period that may forever alter how they're run and their relationships to their communities. Horrible economic conditions and menacing long term trends spawned an orchestral tempest which first reached landfall in Detroit and is now sweeping the rest of the country, according to arts and entertainment reporter for the Detroit Free Press, Mark Stryker.

"This hurricane of rising costs, and the recession, and long-range cultural forces that sort of pushed classical music to the sidelines of civic life, these forces created unsustainable models, economic models in many cities, he said.

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Mark Stryker
Mark Stryker, arts and entertainment reporter for the Detroit Free Press, says "The real issue here is that audiences have lost the sense of what an orchestra can mean in their lives, and to their families and to their communities."
Photo courtesy of Donald Dietz

The financial meltdown of 2008 and resulting 'Great Recession' has also given orchestras an opportunity, said Detroit Symphony Orchestra Music Director Leonard Slatkin, He said they are not only trying to restructure financially but are changing their operational model from arts to more of a business model.

"An arts model said, 'OK, we'll try not to lose so much money,'" Slatkin said. "A business model is 'we're gonna try to make some money.' And 2008 was a very good way to say, 'we can't afford this anymore.' "

Lockouts have become more prevalent in many industries in recent years. John Budd, a labor relations expert at the University of Minnesota, refers to the American Crystal Sugar and NHL lockouts as high profile examples. Budd was unsurprised by the Minnesota Orchestra musicians lockout, but with concerts canceled through Thanksgiving, he thinks this lockout could be a lengthy one.

"At this point I think it's just going to take time for one side or the other to see how serious the other side is in its resolve, and unfortunately have some economic pain imposed on both sides which will eventually bring them back to the bargaining table," Budd said.

Economic pain is something the Detroit Symphony Orchestra knew all about in 2010. Mired in a nearly $9 million budget deficit and a $54 million real estate loan debt, the DSO was on the verge of collapse. Musicians went on strike for six months, which Stryker said divided the community and engulfed the orchestra in vitriol and ill will.

Leonard Slatkin
Leonard Slatkin, music director for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, said the financial meltdown of 2008 and resulting 'Great Recession' has given orchestras an opportunity to rebuild their organizations.
Photo courtesy of Donald Dietz

"A six-month strike like we had in Detroit takes on the weight of a literal civil war," Stryker said.

Stryker says it was only when both sides collectively realized they were about to lose a cherished institution that they were able forge an agreement. A group of banks retired the $54 million debt, and the orchestra reduced its deficit to $3 million. Musicians accepted 23 percent pay cuts. On the upside, the orchestra recruited some prized players to fill some vacancies, including new concertmaster Yooshin Song, formerly of the SPCO. It also launched a series of initiatives to reach out beyond its core Detroit audience. Music director Slatkin said people are beginning to feel optimistic about the future again.

"I know it's going to sound awful but maybe we had to have a strike to get us through that, to really confront the realities," Slatkin said.

Minnesota Orchestra president Michael Henson said he has watched the evolving situation in Detroit and other cities with interest.

"At the same time, that's only helpful to a degree," Henson said. "You've got to look at your own community, your own orchestra, and then find your own solutions to the challenges you face."

But even for the orchestras that make it through this period of financial upheaval, there is a larger, more entrenched problem. Stryker said orchestras must confront declining community relevance.

"The real issue here is that audiences have lost the sense of what an orchestra can mean in their lives, and to their families and to their communities," Stryker said.

And what he has learned from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's painful ordeal is that time doesn't heal all wounds, progress does.