Locked-out MN Orchestra musicians hold 'season-opener' concert tonight

The locked-out musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra rehearse in a room at Macalester College under the baton of Conductor Laureate Stanislaw Skrowaczewski.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

Locked-out Minnesota Orchestra musicians will present what they are calling a "season-opener" concert at the Minneapolis Convention Center Thursday night.

Management locked out the musicians 18 days ago after months of negotiations failed to produce a new contract. Tonight's concert will be led by Minnesota Orchestra Conductor Laureate Stanislaw Skrowaczewski.

With contract disputes across the U.S. having shaken the orchestral world in recent months, it's unusual for a conductor to step into the fray so publicly. But Skrowaczewski fears for the future of the orchestra where he was music director from 1960 to 1979.

"Now, I feel danger to the level of the orchestra," he said. "Danger of being destroyed."

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

Thursday's concert replaces the official season opener which management cancelled along with all concerts through Nov. 25, just hours after imposing the lockout.

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski
Polish maestro Stanislaw Skrowaczewski conducts the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra during a concert in Tokyo in September 2002. Skrowaczewski was the music director at the Minnesota Orchestra from 1960 to 1979.
AP Photo/Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra, HO

"It is a special emotional occasion and it will see what will happen. It is unpredictable," Skrowaczewski said,

The musicians will play Dvorak and Shostakovich, in a program designed to bring out the seriousness of the situation for the players.

Cellist Tony Ross, who will be the soloist for the Dvorak, said the musicians are honored to have Skrowaczewski on the podium. He also said the concert allows them to reach out to their audience, who he said have been short-changed by management.

"The players do feel that even before this lock out the community was locked out earlier by our management not scheduling any concerts for us in September and the first half of October," Ross said.

The late start to the season was in part because the orchestra was in the process of relocating to the Convention Center while Orchestra Hall undergoes renovation.

With a $3 million deficit, management has proposed pay cuts which would take average compensation for musicians from $135,000 to $89,000 a year. There would also be a reduction in the size of the orchestra.

Cellist Tony Ross
Cellist Tony Ross (foreground) will solo at the locked-out musicians concert. He announced the concert outside the Convention Center two weeks ago accompanied by (left to right) Ellen Smith, Doug Wright, and Burt Hara.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

Skrowaczewski said he realizes the orchestra management needs to deal with the shortfall, but he said it's handling it in the wrong way.

"How? Cut the number of players? Change the repertoire to pop? More? It is terrible. It is against all principals that this hall and our work was done," he said.

Skrowaczewski also criticizes spending $55 million on building a new lobby at Orchestra Hall. The building was one of the hallmarks of his tenure as music director. He said the orchestra needs to go back to its original focus.

"This orchestra has to play only the greatest music with the finest artists," he said.

When told of Skrowaczewski's belief management actions will destroy the Minnesota Orchestra, its President Michael Henson said given the financial situation leaving things as they are is the destructive option.

"Maintaining the current status quo that we have will damage the orchestra substantially," he said. "In the medium- to long-term [it] is not an option that actually retains an orchestra of quality in this great community."

Which boils down to: The orchestra cannot afford to the salaries paid under the old contract.

Union meeting
Locked-out musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra gather at Macalester College to discuss tactics and strategy in advance of their upcoming concert.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

"You cannot spend more than you earn," he said.

Henson said playing pops concerts and the hall renovation are all part of serving and expanding audiences. For the same reason he said the contract costs need to be kept under control, or the orchestra runs the risk of becoming unaffordable to patrons.

"For example if we maintained our current model we'd have to increase our ticket prices by 100 percent. That would take our top ticket price from just under $80 to nearly $160," Henson said.

No negotiation sessions are currently scheduled. Henson said the ball is in the musicians court. The management offer has been on the table since April. Henson said he is still waiting for the musicians to respond with a contract counter-proposal which they can use as the basis for a negotiation.

"We very much hope that after six months where we have had no counter proposals that they actually begin to have substantive conversations with us so we can find a resolution to this," Henson said. Thursday, the players will play the music all sides say they are fighting to preserve.