Minnesota Orchestra musicians want a deal, but say they're ready to go it alone

Musicians play Beethoven
Four locked-out musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra played Beethoven for a crowd of more than 200 people in downtown Minneapolis at the start of a community meeting on Monday, Dec. 9, 2013.
Euan Kerr / MPR News

After 14 months of being locked out of their jobs, the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra said today that they are prepared to go it alone, without management.

Orchestra officials locked out the musicians more than 14 months ago. Since then the two sides have been embroiled in a bitter contract dispute.

In a meeting room at the downtown Minneapolis Hilton overlooking Orchestra Hall, a quartet of locked out musicians played for the more than 200 people who packed the room.

The gathering was described as a community meeting for the musicians to report back to supporters on the last year, and to look to the future. Its timing, two days before the Minnesota Orchestral Association's annual meeting, was no coincidence.

Musicians negotiating committee member Tim Zavadil thanked members of the community who have thrown their support behind the musicians since the lockout began or tried to resolve the impasse. He said the musicians are committed to the community and the music.

"It is our intention to continue the promotion of classical music, world class symphonic classical music in the Twin Cities," Zavadil said. "Whether we are here, locked out, or whether we are back -- and when we get back, to Orchestra Hall."

Zavadil said repeatedly that the number one priority for the musicians is to negotiate a new contract. However the musicians also outlined how they are organizing for the long haul. They've created a committee structure to support musicians through the tough times caused by the lockout, and to plan and present concerts in schools, and for the larger community.

Toward that end, internationally acclaimed conductors and soloists are approaching the musicians to come to perform in Minnesota.

Among them is violinist Joshua Bell, who has agreed to perform with the musicians, although they will not reveal the date as yet. However, they did announce that former Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra music director Hugh Wolff will conduct them and the Minnesota Chorale in a performance next year, part of a planned spring series of up to 10 concerts.

While the musicians maintained a determined front at the gathering, the tone was noticeably less confrontational than in recent months.

Negotiating committee member Tony Ross, known for blasting management, even poked a little fun at himself. He related a story about an encounter he had with someone sitting close to him in the audience of a recent concert.

"At intermission she says to me, 'Oh! You're that angry cello player,' " he recalled.

The crowd at the meeting burst into peals of laughter.

"My face just does not lie," he deadpanned.

Ross said the musicians have every right to be angry. But he also stressed that they are committed to reaching a settlement.

The musicians also reported they have raised over $650,000 in donations from individuals and from 87 other orchestras that have sent financial support.

But those contributions pale in comparison to the multimillion dollar budget of the Minnesota Orchestra when operating at full capacity, Minnesota Orchestra President and CEO Michael Henson said.

"We raise over $9 million a year in donations as the MOA from a revenue stream of $26 million," Henson said. "I think what the musicians report indicates is that we all need each other in order to go forward. So I remain optimistic we can sit down and we can find a solution."

Henson said he thought the musicians made positive comments at the meeting.

He declined, however, to reveal any details of what will be announced Wednesday at the Orchestral Association's annual meeting.

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