SPCO sets lock out deadline: 6 p.m. Sunday

SPCO Concertmaster Stephen Copes
From left, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra Concertmaster Stephen Copes, and violinists Elsa Nillson and Ruggero Allifranchini.
Photo courtesy Sarah Rubenstein

There is a very good chance that come Monday morning the two top orchestras of the region will be silenced.

Management of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra today told its musicians that unless there is a contract agreement by 6 p.m. Sunday it will lock them out. Musicians called the management move dangerous and disingenuous.

Notification of the lock out deadline came as no surprise. After negotiations stalled last week it was no longer a question of if, but when musicians would be locked out. At a rally Tuesday in front of the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, SPCO musicians played what they believed might be their last concert in some time.

If the SPCO carries out its threat, it will be the first time in history that both the musicians of SPCO and the Minnesota Orchestra are locked out at the same time.

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"It's very unfortunate for everybody involved that we have reached this point," said SPCO interim President Dobson West. He said locking out musicians was not a decision taken lightly.

"It is not good for the musicians, and it is not good for the organization," West said. "But we believe we are at the point where we could no longer continue to play and talk under a contract that was increasing our deficit every day."

The musicians' contract expired at the end of September, but as often happens in orchestral contract negotiations both sides agreed to continue talking while musicians played under the terms of the old deal.

Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra musicians
Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra musicians rallied Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, outside the Ordway Center in an attempt to forestall a feared lock out by the orchestra's management.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

West said he cannot put a daily number on how much it was costing, but he said the SPCO ran up a deficit of almost a million dollars last year, and the current situation only added to it.

The deal now before the musicians is a four-year contract that sets a guaranteed minimum annual salary for current musicians at $62,500, and a base rate of $50,000 for new musicians. It cuts the size of the orchestra from 34 to 28 players and it offers buyouts to musicians aged 55 and older. West describes the cut as a 15 percent reduction.

"I understand that it is difficult for musicians to accept reductions in compensation. That's a normal occurrence. But we are where we are," West said. "We need to reduce the cost of that contract and the musicians need to acknowledge that fact and then we will find a solution."

Musicians said they have been trying to be part of the solution and management has not been interested. A statement they released called the lockout deadline "dangerous and disingenuous." Lead negotiator for the musicians Carole Mason Smith said they have twice offered to take a pay cut so they can continue to play and talk.

"We have made proposals and they have completely ignored those proposals," Smith said.

Musicians have long complained that management's proposed cuts will lead to an exodus of top players and destroy the orchestra. The players said in reality the wage cuts represent a 30 percent reduction. But Smith said she believes the dispute is no longer about the money.

"What this is all about it seems to most of us is that it is about the control of the orchestra," Smith said.

Smith says management seems to be trying to put the musicians on the same level as other SPCO employees.

"We might be 40 percent of the budget, but we are 100 percent of the product" she said. "And their proposal does not in any way exhibit that."

The musicians are organizing a meeting to vote on the proposal. While they are trying to arrange the meeting quickly, it may not happen before Sunday, Smith said. The timing is complicated by the fact that the SPCO has no concerts this week and many musicians are out of town playing with other ensembles.

West said if there is no settlement by 6 p.m.Sunday, the lockout will proceed and concerts through Nov. 4 will be cancelled. The Minnesota Orchestra is now in the third week of its lock out and no talks are scheduled.