A few years ago, I attended a stupendous concert of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” conducted by Osmo Vanska at Orchestra Hall. It was performed by the combined forces of the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. As we walked up the aisle afterward, my son, a cello student at St. Olaf College, said to me, “What an incredible sound those two orchestras made together. Isn’t it amazing to have both of them here in the Twin Cities playing for us?”
We had just heard two world-class orchestras, each at the top of their game, conducted by one of the finest conductors on the global circuit, play a 20th-century masterpiece of music in Minneapolis. Not in New York, not in Chicago or Los Angeles or Boston, but right here on a cold January night in “flyover land.”
This great legacy is now in dire jeopardy if both managements succeed in gutting work rules, salaries and benefit packages of these two irreplaceable organizations.
By locking out the players, by refusing to submit to binding arbitration, by silencing the music, the two symphonic boards of the SPCO and the Minnesota Orchestra have made it clear that their intent is to thwart the Musicians Union and those protections which have been carefully put into place respectively, for over a century (MO) and a half-century (SPCO).
The labor offers that are on the table from both managements insult the artistic excellence of the two orchestras and are far below comparable salaries and work rules in other American symphonies with which these orchestras compete for the best players, soloists and conductors.
Instead of stonewalling, these two symphonic boards could work WITH the musicians to tackle the real issues facing the preservation of this cultural heritage of classical music. We are an increasingly pluralistic society where mass media makes it harder and harder to convince the public to attend live music.
All performing arts groups struggle to face the following challenges in building new audiences and sources of revenue: aging audience members, philanthropic competition in a time of decreased foundation and government support, an economic “perfect storm” with drops in endowment and personal income, a demographic tsunami of Americans from non-European roots, cuts to music and arts education in public schools, and the devaluation of historical European high art culture.
More and more conservative programming of music has been a desperate attempt to fill seats in classical venues. Both of our hometown orchestras have been adventurous and diverse in their repertoire, but they too have failed to sell enough tickets.
I offer these suggestions to both symphonic boards:
Start playing concerts in the New Year as soon as possible. The longer there is silence, the greater the risk that these wonderful orchestras will lose the core of the audiences they have, and that current musicians will continue to seek work elsewhere. (I counted 14 string section vacancies in the Minnesota Orchestra at the concert on December 16th of Beethoven’s “Ninth”).
Start talking immediately with the musician negotiating committees to find common ground. Consider binding arbitration if nothing else yields progress.
Enlist the best allies any symphonic board has: the musicians of the orchestra. They have thought long and hard; they want their orchestras to survive. They have marketing ideas and educational outreach ideas. Instead of imposing artificial concepts from “on high,” use their intellectual and creative gifts to develop a new paradigm for the successful orchestra in the 21st-century.
The power of music is needed like never before–to heal in an age of spiritual angst and to foster the connections experienced in live performance.
The Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra feed our very souls with their artistic achievements, recreating the brilliant color, abstracted design and ineffable beauty of a world musical heritage.
This is a legacy worth fighting to keep alive in Minnesota.
Professor Emerita of Music, St. Olaf College, member of the Minnesota Opera Orchestra