Other orchestras see bright future despite Minn. lockout

Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Detroit Symphony Orchestra Musical Director Leonard Slatkin leads the orchestra during a rehearsal in Detroit, in April 2011.
Carlos Osorio/AP

The contract fight between the Minnesota Orchestra and its musicians shows no signs of ending. In January, the lockout will spill into its sixteenth month, the longest labor dispute ever at a major American orchestra.

Still, if you're a music lover needing a little holiday hope, here's some: Struggling orchestras elsewhere in the country are seeing light at the end of the tunnel.

Take Detroit. Two years ago the symphony suffered through a contract fight and a six-month musicians strike in a city crippled by its own financial woes. It was the longest orchestral dispute at the time.

An eventual deal brought pay cuts, reduced staff and a reorganization. But the symphony also balanced its budget this year, the first time since 2007, and launched plans to build new audiences and raise $30 million a year in the next decade.

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"We completely acknowledge how hard it was for our musicians to accept and agree on new conditions and we are sad that it took a six-month strike," said Detroit Symphony President Anne Parsons. "But in many ways I think we have all left that behind us, and moved forward. Regardless of how anybody feels about the outcome of the decision, you've got to be all in."

Financial problems almost sank the Colorado Symphony two years ago, but it also reorganized -- nine musicians now sit on the board and hold a majority of the orchestra's artistic committee -- and launched an ongoing fundraising effort.

"You can complain about who is being unreasonable whether it's the musicians or management. But if you are not working together you're not going anywhere," said Jerry Kern, co-chair of the symphony's board of trustees. At one point, Kern said, a Minnesota Orchestra staffer called Colorado's chief operating officer to ask how come musicians and management get on so well. "His first response was 'Well, for one thing, we didn't lock them out.' "

The North Carolina Symphony
The North Carolina Symphony rehearses in Raleigh, N.C., in February 2009.
Gerry Broome/AP

The Minnesota Orchestra dispute between management and players is over wages, work rules, and artistic control, with no end in sight. As with orchestras, the Great Recession magnified the tough times.

Everyone agrees that the one constant in the future of classical music will be change. And generally outside of the Minnesota Orchestra everyone seems optimistic about that future, while admitting there's a lot of hard work ahead.

"Any orchestra could slide off the road into the ditch the way Minnesota has done in the absence of constant attention," said Gary Hanson, executive director of the Cleveland Orchestra.

Cleveland is doing well. And in recent months supporters of the Minnesota musicians compared Cleveland's success to the Minneapolis quagmire as evidence of Minnesota management ineptitude.

Succeeding, said Hanson, means getting everything right -- artistic excellence, smart fundraising, innovative programming and audience development all scaled to each orchestra's community.

Both sides in the Minnesota dispute say they want a settlement, but there are no negotiations scheduled. The Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra will launch a 10-concert spring season in the New Year which includes appearances by Itzhak Perlman and Joshua Bell.

The conflict, though, is "unprecedented and it's a terrible thing to have happen to this great asset for the community of Minneapolis and the whole state of Minnesota," said Bruce Ridge, a bassist with the North Carolina Symphony and chair of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians.

His members, he said, have been sending donations to support the Minnesota musicians. When he travels abroad to conferences the first questions he hears are always about Minnesota.

Musicians have always had to strive for the highest-possible musical excellence, he added. Now, they also have to become passionate advocates for their music to the larger community.

"They are also going to have to be able to articulate that not only is there value in their orchestras, and not only can all orchestras be saved, but there are reasons to save them," Ridge said. "There are reasons for them to continue thriving in our communities."