SPCO musicians ratify contract; concerts to resume May 9–Pam Espeland, MinnPost

On Monday, the musicians of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra accepted management’s latest proposal and its conditions, which include a significant salary cut and the downsizing of the orchestra from 34 players to 28. After a lockout that began Oct. 1 and lasted 191 days, they will play their first official concert on May 9 at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Apple Valley, a program of music by Schoenberg, Robert Schumann and Mozart featuring cellist Steven Isserlis and conducted by Thomas Zehetmair.

The lockout is over, but all is far from copacetic. Along with signing a three-year agreement, the musicians called for “the immediate commencement of a search for a new SPCO leader with proven orchestra management experience, and the vision and skill to substantially increase revenues.”

“We’re eager and excited to return to the stage and play music again for our loyal audiences,” said Carole Mason Smith, chair of the musicians’ negotiating committee, in a press release sent yesterday afternoon. “But we remain deeply concerned about the artistic quality of the SPCO for future generations.”

We spoke with Mason Smith later that day.

MinnPost: How are you feeling, now that the lockout has ended?

Carole Mason Smith: It’s a relief to know that we’ll be getting back to work, that we’re going to have revenue coming in to every household. But it’s a regressive agreement, and there’s no improvement over the course of the agreement. Besides being personally difficult on musicians and their families, it makes it more of a challenge to remain competitive musically. So that’s something we’re going to have to work out.

There are going to be a lot of changes. We’re really going to have to scramble to be competitive. With all the openings we’re going to have, because of people leaving and taking incentivized retirements, it’s a real concern. We won’t know until June [how many people will stay].

MP: The musicians have called for the SPCO to immediately start searching for a new leader. Dobson West is interim president; he wasn’t supposed to be there permanently. Was there any effort to find a new leader during the lockout?

CMS: They started it, then suspended it. Now it’s time to start again. I don’t think that should come as a surprise to anyone.

MP: Will the musicians have a say in choosing the new leader?

CMS: That’s yet to be determined.

MP: Did the orchestra, in fact, come close to not having a 2013-14 season?

CMS: You’ll have to ask the management. They said it was a real possibility the orchestra would cease to exist.

MP: Was that a turning point for the musicians?

CMS: We took notice of it, for sure. It’s not a matter of cost, it’s a matter of being able to find the revenue. To do that, we need new management, new leadership who will understand the idea of not sacrificing the product.

MP: What is the general mood of the musicians?

CMS: What we’re going to do right now is concentrate on making music. The sooner we can get back to that, the sooner we will find our own center and figure out where to go from there.

A lot of musicians have taken other guaranteed work, not knowing what would happen. You can’t blame them. But you won’t see everybody you’re expecting to see at our concerts. A lot of musicians – regular, core members – won’t be there. I’m glad we have our artistic partners coming in. It will make a difference to see Thomas [Zehetmair] and Dawn [Upshaw] and Edo [de Waart].

MP: When will the new season be announced?

CMS: I don’t know. I would assume as soon as possible. We’re behind. There was difficulty lining up a season because of uncertainty.

MP: Who planned the new season?

CMS: We have not been allowed inside the building [the SPCO offices] for seven months. I don’t know who planned the next season. I would assume the artistic director, Patrick Castillo, planned it, but he resigned last week. I hope he completed the season, but I haven’t seen it.

MP: When do you start rehearsals for your May 9 concert?

CMS: May 7. We were not allowed to have music until after the lockout was declared over – that’s at midnight tonight. Having music has been a big concern for a lot of our musicians, but management would not hand out music. We like to be prepared. This has not made it any easier.

It’s good to get back to work, but this is going to be really challenging. It really is.

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