Emotions, economy collide for locked out Minnesota Orchestra musicians show

Minnesota Orchestra rehearsal
The locked out musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra rehearse Beethoven under the baton of Edo de Waart on the state of the Ted Mann Concert Hall at the University of Minnesota.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

The locked out musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra will perform two sold-out shows this weekend at the Ted Mann Concert Hall in Minneapolis.

Management locked out the musicians Oct. 1 after failing to reach a new contract agreement. Former Minnesota Orchestra music director Edo de Waart, who will conduct this weekend's performances, said the longer the dispute continues, the more it endangers one of the nation's top orchestras.

During a recent rehearsal at the Ted Mann Concert Hall the walls rang with a sound that had been little heard in the last two months — the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra unleashed. They build a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to a dramatic climax.

"Beethoven Nine is a celebration of the human spirit, brotherhood, joy. There could be nothing more gratifying than to play this piece in this season," said principle cellist Tony Ross.

During a break in the rehearsal Ross seemed wistful as he considered the upcoming concerts. He said the orchestra members quickly became comfortable playing again together, but they cannot escape the fact that they are locked out and no contract negotiations are scheduled.

"It is an odd, an odd time," Ross said. "Because we are thrilled but we are also incredibly sad that we are in this situation we are in. So the juxtaposition of those two feelings is definitely something new to me and feels very odd."

The concerts on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon sold out in a matter of days. The musicians are offering a few standing room spaces, although those may well be taken by show time.

Tony Ross, Edo de Waart
Minnesota Orchestra principle cellist Tony Ross and Milwaukee Symphony Music Director Edo de Waart will perform in two concerts this weekend presented by the Locked Out Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"Undoubtedly it's going to be a great concert," Minnesota Orchestra Board Chair Jon Campbell said. "And I am sure the audiences are going to be really happy to hear the orchestra play again."

But Campbell said the board has to keep its attention on the organization's overstretched finances, specifically its $6 million budget shortfall.

"From the board's perspective, we just have to stay focused on this need to address this growing deficit that we announced last week," Campbell said. "And you know we all got to come together to do that, including the musicians."

The orchestra's management said it is waiting for a counterproposal from musicians. The contract offer from management cuts the average annual salary of musicians from $135,000 to $89,000.

It's a dramatic reduction which management said is needed for the long-term survival of the organization. But that explanation has been hard for the musicians, and de Waart to swallow.

"Here I find a sort of lack of respect for what has happened," de Waart said.

Paper cranes
A collection of hand folded paper cranes, one for each musicians, was made by a Minnesota Orchestra fan in Japan, and sent across the Pacific in support of the musicians' cause. The musicians displayed it on stage as they rehearsed.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

What has happened is through hard work and dedication over decades the Minnesota Orchestra has become very good, de Waart said. He ranks it in the top five orchestras in the U.S.

De Waart is currently music director of the Milwaukee Symphony and the Hong Kong Philharmonic. He led the Minnesota Orchestra from 1986 to 1995. It was good then, he said, but it has attained new heights under the leadership of the current music director Osmo Vanska. De Waart worries about the repercussions of the proposed cuts. This ensemble is world class, he said.

"To have come to this point, and then be confronted with the fact that you basically are scaled back to regional status, that is very painful," de Waart said. "And I cannot at this point understand why that is necessary."

De Waart said the orchestra's financial problems are real, and need to be addressed. But so is the danger to the Minnesota Orchestra's future, he said.

"The one thing I know is this orchestra needs to keep playing on the level that it is, and the board and the politicians and everybody who cares for it needs to do everything they can to make that possible," de Waart said.

Both sides say it is up to the other to make the next move. De Waart said he is proud to stand with the musicians this weekend. However, sometimes people don't know how close they are to destroying something of value, he said and de Waart thinks they are getting a little too close. People, he said, need to talk.

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