Orchestra strife leads some musicians to leave

SPCO principal trumpter and wife
Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra principal trumpet player Gary Bordner and his wife Donna in their St. Paul home. Bordner is on a leave of absence from the SPCO as he pursues a career change.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

Locked-out musicians at the Minnesota and St. Paul Chamber Orchestras have been warning of a dangerous decline in artistic quality if they accept new contracts sought by management.

They say the severe cuts in salary and benefits will force many musicians to seek employment elsewhere. We hear from two of them who have already made that decision.

Gary Bordner, who has been principal trumpet player for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra for the last 32 years, recently decided it was time for a career change.

Months before the SPCO locked out its musicians, the 59-year-old Bordner put down his horn, took a yearlong leave of absence, and started looking for a new line of work. He's considered everything from teaching to concrete design, and even checked into a job at a taconite processing plant.

It's not that he feels the quality of his musicianship is slipping, or the thrill of playing with America's premier chamber ensemble is gone.

"I would like to leave the orchestra in my time frame, rather than someone else's," he said.


The SPCO's latest contract offer would reduce the number of musicians from 34 to 28 players, and would cut the musicians' guaranteed salary by 15 percent. The musicians unanimously rejected those terms in late October. Management has locked them out and canceled the ensemble's performances through the end of the year.

Dobson West
Dobson West, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's interim president, said of his organization's musicians: "They have worked extremely hard, they are very skillful, they are very professional people."
Photo courtesy SPCO

For Bordner, the disappointment, dissension, and dread that has characterized contract talks between SPCO musicians and management weren't factors in his decision. But he's concerned about the trend going forward.

The organization the SPCO has become is not what it was when he joined in 1980, Bordner said. The orchestra used to do extensive touring of both coasts and the Midwest, and played one-stop concerts around the region. It used to go into the studio every year to record, and those projects paid musicians pretty well.

"That's all gone," Bordner said. "We don't do that anymore."

No more residency program in Chicago, no more serving as the pit orchestra for the Minnesota Opera.

"Then you see that you're losing say in the organization, you see the model changing," he said. "You see the earth underneath you as being much more shaky. You have to consider other options."

In Bordner's view, the dramatic salary reductions SPCO management is demanding will ultimately drive musicians away. It's especially true, he said, given what musicians must invest in education and training to become virtuosos, and the debt loads younger artists are shouldering when they graduate from conservatories and music schools.

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

"If you can't make a decent living playing, I think people will have to do what they need to do, hopefully, to realize their dreams," said Bordner. "And I'm not convinced it's staying here."

The ongoing contract stalemate at the SPCO hasn't yet led to an exodus of musicians. But Bordner knows of a couple players who feel so jittery about the future they put their homes on the market. Bordner also worries what prospective musicians will make of the financial restructuring underway at many orchestras.

"When they consider music as a career and they see what's going on, I think a lot of talented players are going to say, 'Maybe I should do this as a hobby, but go into dentistry,' " he said.

But interim SPCO President Dobson West said under the contract he's proposing, the SPCO will still be a desirable place for a musician. For example, he said, the SPCO's season is only between 30 and 40 weeks long, which leaves time for musicians to pursue other artistic pursuits.

"I think that is an important aspect why many of the musicians want to be here," he said.

West said he isn't worried that salary reductions will deplete the orchestra of its talent, because the SPCO negotiates each musician's contract individually and will still have the capacity to meet the salary demands of its most important players.

"A 42 percent cut ... would you not look for work the next day?"

"We will have the ability to pay what we will need to pay to attract and retain the very best musicians for a chamber orchestra," he said.

From concert to concert, West said, there's quite a bit of flux in the musician lineup anyway, depending on absences, vacancies and what configuration the music requires.

"If you look on the stage every single week, you will not see exactly the same players," he said. "You will see a core that is there all the time, and that is what is really critical that we maintain."

Although SPCO and Minnesota Orchestra musicians' salaries will take a big hit in the contracts sought by management, a lot of other orchestras' salaries are going down as well, said Leonard Slatkin, music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Slatkin wonders whether Twin Cities musicians will find opportunities available at orchestras of comparable quality, where the turnover is very low.

"There aren't that many jobs in the top-tier orchestras," he said.

Slatkin questions whether some veteran musicians will be able to muster the energy and will to get back into "tryout" mode.

"Think about it," he said. "Good, long-experienced musicians, all of a sudden in a position to audition for a job again, when they may not have auditioned for 20, 25 years. It's not so easy."


It wasn't easy for violinist Peter McGuire, acting first associate concertmaster for the Minnesota Orchestra. But he's decided to leave.

McGuire, who's 35 and from Mankato, has deep roots in Minnesota. Ever since he was a young student at the Mankato Suzuki School, his dream was to play violin for the Minnesota Orchestra.

Peter McGuire
Peter McGuire, first associate concertmaster for the Minnesota Orchestra, has decided to leave Minnesota to take a position with an orchestra in Zurich, Switzerland.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

He got there, but after 10 years, he's accepted a position across an ocean and thousands of miles away, at the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich -- Switzerland's flagship orchestra.

McGuire said he started to feel uneasy long before the orchestra made its first contract offer this past spring.

"There was this kind of 'the bully's going to meet you at lunchtime' feeling for at least a year and a half," he said.

When Minnesota Orchestra management proposed deep cuts in musicians' salaries, McGuire took it personally.

"You say I'm much less valuable than I have been, and what choice do I have but to prove that's not the case?" he said. "A 42 percent cut ... would you not look for work the next day?"

The Minnesota Orchestra's contract proposal calls for reducing the musicians' average salaries by more than 30 percent, and reducing benefits, such as paid medical leave.

McGuire doesn't buy the argument that all orchestras are in a financial free fall or are seeking the same level of concessions as the Minnesota Orchestra. He points to orchestras in Cleveland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington D.C., all with sterling reputations, as being on more stable financial footing.

McGuire said he doesn't want to stay with an orchestra he feels is moving in the wrong direction.

"Show me an example where somebody has cut their way to catapault forward later," he said. "It makes sense that that should have happened, but I don't know where it has."

Michael Henson, president of the Minnesota Orchestra, said he doesn't want to lose any musicians, but he can't stop them if they go. He wants players who want to be here.

"So loyalty comes in, and then it's ultimately about personal choice," he said.

Even though management is seeking reductions in musicians' salaries, Henson said the Twin Cities will always have great appeal as a place to have an orchestral career.

"There are many many more things than purely dollars and cents," he said. "This is a great place to live, it's very easy to get around. It is one of the truly great communities of America and the world to live in, and that means a lot as well."