One year in, Minnesota Orchestra lockout jeopardizes another season

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Minnesota Orchestra
The Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra perform Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013 at the Lake Harriet bandshell. Principal trumpet player Manny Laureano conducts.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

To see the 200 voices of the combined Minnesota Chorale and the National Lutheran Choir thunder their way through a rehearsal of their part of Beethoven's 9th Symphony is an awe-inspiring experience.

But it is the sound of those voices that sweeps a listener away.

Their rehearsals, however, may all be for naught. The combined choir is scheduled to sing with the Minnesota Orchestra when its new season opens early next month. But the performances won't occur unless the orchestra's managers and musicians reach a deal soon that would end a protracted dispute.

Nearly a year ago today, the Minnesota Orchestra's management decided to lock out its musicians. Since then the two sides have made no progress on an agreement, even with the help of their esteemed mediator, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.

A new three-year contract offer management released Thursday would cut musicians salaries from an average of $135,000 a year under the old contract to $104,500. Each musician would also receive a $20,000 signing bonus. But the musicians immediately criticized it.

Adding to the urgency is pressure from music director Osmo Vanska, who wants an end to the dispute so that the musicians can start rehearsing next week for two upcoming Carnegie Hall concerts. If the concerts are cancelled, Vanska has said he'll resign.

Osmo Vanska
Osmo Vanska said the Minnesota Orchestra is playing very well, which makes him miss working with the musicians even more. The orchestra practices its final rehearsal Friday, Feb. 1 2013 before tonight's performance.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

When management pitched its latest offer on Thursday, Minnesota Orchestra President and CEO Michael Henson noted that the proposed salary reduction was not as large as the 35 percent cut orchestra officials originally sought.

"Including the bonus, that averages out as a 17.7 percent reduction across the three year life of this contract," Henson said.

Orchestra officials say they need to make the cuts to deal with looming deficits.

Henson said even with the lower salaries the orchestra still faces a deficit of $1.2 million a year over the three years of the contract. He also points out the offer was only possible because a group of 15 philanthropic foundations and companies raised extra money for a two-year bridge fund to cover the costs.

Minnesota Orchestra president and CEO Michael Henson announces the Orchestra Hall expansion proposal in this photo from June 2009. Henson on Thursday said even with lower salaries the orchestra still faces a deficit of $1.2 million a year over the three years of the contract offered by management.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Reaction from musicians' representative Blois Olson was quick and terse. He said musicians are offended that management made the offer in public, and not through mediator George Mitchell.

"Leaving the mediators process at this point is not a helpful move and shows management is desperate," he said.

Olson also complained that the offer was sent to the media at the same time as it went to the musicians. He called on the management to return to the mediation process and said the musicians will continue to work with the mediator and board members who are not on the negotiating committee to try to resolve the "orchestra-killing lockout."

The possibility that this weekend may be the point of no return is leaving many observers worried and frustrated

While other organizations such as the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Opera are doing great work, the Minnesota Orchestra dispute hurts everyone, said Randall Davidson, a composer, producer, conductor and performer who is very active in the Minnesota classical scene.

"There is a shadow over this community," he said. "And I am sorry to say it, the community is dying without them being here."

Davidson said if Vanska leaves as he has threatened it will take years of rebuilding to return the orchestra to the caliber it was before the dispute.

Minnesota Orchestra
An estimated 7,000 people attended a free concert by the Minnesota Orchestra's locked-out musicians Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013 at Lake Harriet.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

That, Davidson said, would in turn damage the community's reputation for artistic excellence. He said he is shocked and confused by the situation, and believes that is true of most people in the classical music community.

"I don't side with either side," he said. "I am just tired of being messed with. I think that is how most audience members feel. They are throwing up their hands and saying, 'Enough! Enough! Enough! Figure it out. This is not the way we are supposed to be.'"

Both orchestra managers and musicians say they remain optimistic a deal is possible by Monday, that Vanska's departure can be averted, and that the fall season may even launch on time. But both sides also admit time is running out.