Observers gloomy about Minnesota Orchestra's future

Osmo Vanska and orchestra
Minnesota Orchestra music director Osmo Vanska and musicians receive a standing ovation during a concert celebrating a Grammy nomination at the Minneapolis Convention Center on Friday, Feb. 1, 2013. The Minnesota Orchestra lockout is going on ten months with no end in sight for the musicians, management and audience.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

The start of July marks ten months for the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, with no end in sight for the musicians, management and audience.

It seems that many opinions are swirling in the classical world about what's happening at the orchestra. Few predict sweetness and light, but rather a gloomy outcome.

"I think what we are seeing in Minnesota is almost without parallel," classical music writer Norman Lebrecht said.

"They can't even agree on basic facts," labor expert John Budd said. "They can't even agree on who is going to put the facts together for them."

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"There's no win-win situation," blogger Emily Hogstad said.

Here's the situation: In April last year, orchestra management cited looming multi-million dollar deficits as it proposed a contract to cut musicians' salaries by more than 30 percent. Just as the previous contract expired at the end of September 2012, musicians rejected the management's proposal, calling it draconian. They claimed management was putting money before artistic excellence. On Oct. 1, orchestra management locked the musicians out.

Manny Laureano
Minnesota Orchestra principal trumpeter Manny Laureano, center in fringed jacket, at a rally for locked-out musicians, November 20, 2012. While the musicians have offered options such "playing and talking" and binding arbitration, they have not yet offered a contract counterproposal. The musicians say they don't have sufficient information from management to do so. So far, the orchestra has lost an entire season.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

"It very may well mean the end of the Minnesota Orchestra as we know it," conductor Bill Eddins said.

While the musicians have offered options such "playing and talking" and binding arbitration, they have not yet offered a contract counterproposal. The musicians say they don't have sufficient information from management to do so. So far, the orchestra has lost an entire season and the 2013-2014 season which was to feature the opening of a renovated and expanded orchestra hall now appears threatened.


Eddins doesn't think the two sides even see the situation in the same way. He is the music director of the Edmonton Symphony but has lived and worked in the Twin Cities for 20 years, including a stint at the Minnesota Orchestra.

"You have to have a common ground to have an argument, some kind of common ground," Eddins said. "And there is none. There is none."

"I personally believe it's going to take the intervention of a third party," said Hogstad of Eau Claire, Wis., and author of the Song of the Lark blog, which has been critical of management and its attitude to audiences.

"Whether that's a politician, a community leader, a mutually respected arts consultant, somebody like that -- if both sides are open to outside help, and I don't know that they are," Hogstad said.

Several observers believe the Minnesota Orchestra dispute will only be resolved with outside help.

Minnesota Orchestra rally
Members of the Minnesota Orchestra march through downtown Minneapolis during a rally Monday, Oct. 1, 2012. Minnesota Orchestra management locked out the musicians after contract negotiations reached a stalemate.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

There have been rumors about attempts at mediation, which neither side will confirm on the record. Budd, a University of Minnesota labor expert, is skeptical it would work.

"Outside intervention can usually be very helpful, but only when the parties are really willing to be helped themselves," Budd said. He worries that the duration of the lockout is doing increasing damage to the orchestra.

"People have lots of alternatives and the longer this stretches on, I think the greater risk the public will have found other arts and entertainment venues and organizations to support," Budd said. "And they're not going to go back to the Minnesota Orchestra to the same extent that they supported them in the past."


Both sides may have made major miscalculations during the dispute. Ideally, Minnesota Orchestra management hoped the 2012-2013 season would be the year of a tough contract negotiation settled quickly, with wounds salved by the opening of the new and improved orchestra hall.

Instead, the new hall has become a big stick which musicians have used to beat their message that management is spending millions on a building while trying to cut their salaries by a third.

"What was the Minnesota Orchestra, with regard to musicality and musical excellence, is more or less gone."

On the other hand, observers say musicians believed the prospect of having the new hall ready but without an orchestra would give them increasing leverage over management. Currently, there is no sign of any opening celebration on the horizon.

No union musician will play at the Minnesota Orchestra as long as the lock out continues, Hogstad said, and one shouldn't forget what she calls rage among some audience members who feel their concerns have been dismissed by management.

"I would like to send a very clear message to the MOA and anyone who is planning on renting out the hall, that as long as there is no resolution of this there will be picketing and leafleting by patrons," Hogstad said.

Perhaps the biggest miscalculation has been the popular belief in the orchestra world that the lack of job openings at top orchestras would mean few Minnesota Orchestra musicians would be able to carry out their threat to leave. Eddins said he believed that too.

"I must admit that I have been taken aback by how many people have gone and gotten jobs elsewhere," Eddins said. "It's not that easy to get a job in this business."


It's difficult to say how many players have actually left. Musicians say more than 20 players are leaving the Minnesota Orchestra to work elsewhere, but management reports it has received only a handful of requests for leaves of absence from musicians going to other organizations.

Eddins worries that talent drain could cause the orchestra to lose its musical magic. Chicago-based arts consultant Drew McManus, who also writes the Adaptistration blog about classical music, thinks that has already happened.

Osmo Vanska
Music director Osmo Vanska is pictured at a rehearsal Friday, Feb. 1 2013. Vanska threatened to resign if an agreement is not reached by September.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"What was the Minnesota Orchestra, with regard to musicality and musical excellence, is more or less gone," McManus said.

That's even before even considering the other elephant in the room: Music director Osmo Vanska's threat to resign if an agreement isn't reached by September. Like many of the observers MPR approached, McManus expects Vanska will leave.

"I would be surprised if that's not the case." McManus said.

Many people consider Vanska the orchestra's franchise player -- the individual responsible for raising the orchestra's profile internationally and making it one of the best bands in the world.

London-based classical music writer Norman Lebrecht, who writes the influential and internationally read Slipped Disc blog has been following the situation closely. While no musician or music director is indispensable, the loss of Vanska would hurt, Lebrecht said.

"That, I think, would be a major tragedy and a major wound," Lebrecht said. "It will be something that Minnesota and Minneapolis will not recover from easily and possibly not for a generation."

According to Eddins, Vanska's departure would leave a literal void that he believes will not be filled any time soon by any conductor close to Vanska's stature.

"To work in that scenario?" Eddins said. "Oh, no, no, no... I will 100 percent guarantee you there is not a conductor on earth that will get anywhere near there."

Eddins believes the two sides have a small and closing window to settle their dispute. He also believes the animosity felt by some individuals involved is so great they will never be able to work together again.

Lebrecht said he believes the make-up of the negotiating teams needs to change if contract talks are going to make any progress.

"If both sides are going to get themselves out of this rut and start talking to each other again, you need a different set of faces across the table," Lebrecht said.

Asked about broader implications of the dispute, Lebrecht said in some ways the future of orchestras in the United States is being fought on the streets of Minneapolis.

All those consulted by MPR News agree the next few weeks could be pivotal for the Minnesota Orchestra -- whether it will survive and in what form. Many worry that damage has already been done.

"This is such a great orchestra," Eddins said.

"When they turned on it was just awesome. Just fabulous playing. And to see it just kind of dismantled is an artistic tragedy."

Musicians and management have repeatedly stated they are fighting for the future of the Minnesota Orchestra, and say they are ready to negotiate -- if only the other side would be reasonable.