The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra after the storm–Letter to Pioneer Press from Brad Eggen

The musicians of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra reluctantly accepted a shorter season and a 19 percent wage cut, the contract their employer insisted was the only chance to restore them to the stage.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman described the move as adopting “major concessions,” and the musicians’ committee representative called this a contract needed “to assure that there will be a 2013-2014 season.” It is now time to digest the impact of management’s dissonant six-month lock-out of artists recognized by many as the finest chamber musicians in America.

Let there be no doubt about the severity of this uncommon attack on our Minnesota cultural heritage. This lock-out was a course that no orchestra board should aspire to follow. While SPCO management will remind you of the challenges faced a few years ago in Detroit and Philadelphia following the banking industry fiasco and our nation’s economic setback, great orchestras that we in Minnesota would compare ourselves to, including the orchestras of Cleveland, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, have in the last year proven their financial resilience and uncompromising commitment to artistic quality with healthy contracts and modest salary increases. In the past two decades, the only two noteworthy orchestras outside our community that have been locked out by their employer are found in Indianapolis and Atlanta. Here in Minnesota, where we find the incredible Legacy Amendment and an engrained commitment

to exhilarating music as a foundation of our quality of life, the recent priority of brick and mortar structures over the artistic viability of their tenant organizations is mindboggling. Literally thousands of orchestra fans in Minnesota and beyond, and nearly all of the artistic partners hired by the SPCO to lead its artistic image, have screamed that diluting this cultivated SPCO product is not a pathway to health.
In the last half year, principal chairs in the SPCO have gone vacant as gifted performers picked up their families and left for more secure employment elsewhere. Management’s “cost-saving” contract induces a further reduction of the orchestra by incentivizing retirements, and consequently four more musicians will leave the orchestra in the next few weeks. Targeting the more experienced musicians, the Society’s retirement plan is designed to assure that several others will also leave by the end of this season. Historically, brilliant musicians throughout the world have been drawn to the SPCO as a destination site, but the pay scale ravaged by the Society’s austere bargaining is now far below the top tier orchestras in this country. As explained by a member of the orchestra committee, Carole Mason Smith, “the vast difference between the new SPCO annual salary of $60,000 and the salaries of other major American orchestras, many of which exceed $100,000, will make attracting such musicians very difficult.” Previously touted as “America’s only full time chamber orchestra,” the SPCO is now clearly a part-time organization with four months each year when no concerts are scheduled.

So what comfort can we have in the future of the orchestra that carries this city’s name? The forecast for the SPCO rests on the ability of the Society to reverse its cost-saving mentality and tap community and music industry resources to nourish the talent of the core group of world class musicians who remain:

1. Management will change. The SPCO Society has not had a chief administrator with prior experience operating a symphonic orchestra in the past six years, and its negotiation table featured an interim director with no executive experience leading a non-profit arts organization and no intention to stay. The appointment of a new president with a music background has now been announced and allows a chance for a renewed emphasis on artistic quality.

2. The current donor base is dedicated and must remain. Major long-term benefactors, uncomfortably drawn into the politics and details of the negotiations over the past many months, have consistently demonstrated their heartfelt commitment to the SPCO. It is to their credit that this organization has survived this traumatic challenge, and their stalwart support will remain for years to come.

3. The lock-out has identified a huge base of patron support which must grow. As the musicians sponsored their own concerts, and the Minnesota Legislature contemplated funding the orchestra musicians directly, the nation witnessed this community’s incredible loyalty and support for our unique ensemble. The pride for this orchestra has increased during the stress it has faced, and organizations like Save Our SPCO will draw further attention to the value of this artistic product and press for organizational reform and the growth of patronage.

4. Internationally renowned conductors and guest artists must return. One stunning dynamic of this embittering lock-out has been the consistent vocal support and commendation of the musicians by those who have served as featured conductors and guest artists over the past decades, including all artistic partners who have led this orchestra in the 21st century and its visionary leader Pinchas Zukerman who returned to direct the orchestra during the lock-out. These relationships have been challenged by concert cancellations, and the Society’s commitment to the opinions of their artistic leaders must be reinforced.

5. With new leadership, revenue must increase. It is axiomatic that a music organization cannot cut expenses, particularly the product it is dedicated to present, as a means to health. The Society must restore its revenue sources to attract and retain world-class talent. New management should have the passion and appeal to stretch the scope of the donor pool and target the government funds and private grant sources essential to sustain artistic viability. The excitement of returning to the stage and the forthcoming new concert hall will draw new crowds. Virtually unnoticeable price increases as small as $2 per ticket are inevitable. Patrons currently pay more for their appetizer beforehand than they do for the world-class orchestra performance, and revenue has markedly declined since ticket prices were sliced. It should be easy to sell one of the finest artistic products in the world if the staff is given the tools and guidance to promote exciting and innovative projects.

6. A healthy operational structure must appear. The role of a Board of Directors of a non-profit arts organization is to hire gifted experienced administrators and provide them with the opportunity to do their job, not to micromanage their chosen personnel or step into the shoes of administration. Certainly those who have attempted the conflicting roles of simultaneously serving on the Board and the administration will now recognize this error and move out of the day-to-day artistic operation and back to the business world occupied by attorneys, merger and acquisition specialists, and financial leaders.

7. Many gifted musicians held the course and will play inspiring music. The lock-out of musicians by the current management left exemplary Minnesota citizens without income, health insurance or other benefits for over six months, but their families were sustained by local donations, the emergency support of organized labor, and the remarkable generosity of union orchestras throughout America which sent sizable donations to the SPCO musicians. Those who remain are still the finest group of chamber orchestra musicians this nation has seen. They remain here out of dedication to this art and the high quality of life found in Minnesota. Despite the hurdles imposed on them, and the loss of many of their colleagues, they will pursue a path of artistic excellence that honors the music and this community.

Brad C. Eggen is an attorney and president of the Twin Cities Musicians Union.

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