Tentative SPCO deal brings relief, smiles

Violinists Leslie Shank and Elsa Nilsson
St. Paul Chamber Orchestra violinists Leslie Shank, left, and Elsa Nilsson, during rehearsals last year.
Photo courtesy Sarah Rubenstein

After six months of a lockout, musicians and management of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra have a tentative contract deal.

The agreement came even as the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra Board was meeting in executive session to discuss canceling the rest of the orchestra season.

Interim SPCO President Dobson West says that when the message came though that musicians were open to a deal, it changed the whole character of the meeting.

"I am delighted that we are truly I think on a path where we will very soon be back to having concerts for this community," he said. "That's what everybody's goal has been and we are finally getting to that point."

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The agreement states the musicians' negotiating committee will recommend musicians accept a management contract offer made last week. If accepted, the contract will cut each musician's base pay by $15,000 a year

"It is a significant pay reduction," says musician negotiating committee member Carole Mason Smith.

The deal would also reduce the size of the orchestra from 34 members to 28, Smith said. The reduction in numbers will be achieved through a retirement incentive package. The offer does include more artistic control of the orchestra for the musicians.

"It is a significant pay reduction."

For management, it reduces costs by over $1 million a year, which it says it needs to keep the SPCO financially viable.

This has been hard-fought, and even now there are a series of steps until everything is settled.

However, Smith says both sides agree the musicians vote will not happen until after SPCO management reaches an agreement with the national union, the American Federation of Musicians, or AFM, about broadcast and Internet usage of SPCO material.

Both sides thanked St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman for his efforts to bring about the deal

"A smile from sheer happiness and sheer relief."

Coleman admitted to wearing a broad smile at the news.

"It's both a smile from sheer happiness and sheer relief," he said. "This really came down to the final hours and minutes."

The mayor says he recognizes how tough the negotiations have been for both sides.

"The musicians were asked to take a lot of cuts in their pay and changes to the conditions of their contract, and that is always hard to do," he said. "And yet the Society knew that the finances of orchestras are different than they used to be. Some of the resources that used to be there aren't there and it's just not as easy to keep these things afloat."

Coleman says he knew though that if the sides kept at it they could find a deal.

Both management and musicians say they hope for a quick agreement with the AFM, followed by a musicians vote. That could be a challenge because musicians who were not paid during the lockout have sought work in many other places. They will need to come back for the vote, which also raises the question of how soon concerts can restart.

"I think everybody is focused on that issue," West said.

SPCO concerts are currently cancelled through April 21. No one can yet say for sure when the musicians might take the stage but West and Smith say they want it to happen as soon as possible.

Smith says the musicians have missed performing.

"We are so looking forward to seeing our audiences. We haven't played together as an ensemble since February now. That's a long time. That's a long time," Smith said.

And then, like the other people coming out of the SPCO offices, she smiled. It was a tired smile, and maybe slightly resigned, but it was there.