New week, new blog entry: here’s Week -3 of Orchestral Apocalypse ‘012! In case you’re just joining me, here’s a link to the entirety of my coverage of Week -4, or if you just want a summary of week 4, here you go.
I have a feeling I’m going to be writing many, many paragraphs today. So please be patient with my rambling. Let’s get started…
Yesterday news broke that the SPCO management has offered a new contract to its musicians in advance of meetings on Monday and Tuesday (10 and 11 September). Here’s an MPR article: “SPCO proposes new contract for musicians.” According to the Star Tribune, “The offer boosts minimum salaries from the previous proposal, reduces the size of the permanent orchestra and creates a special retirement program for musicians 55 and older.” Go and read both articles yourself; there’s a lot of relevant stuff there I don’t need to repeat verbatim. A part of me celebrates that there appears to be some kind of movement; the other part worries this was all planned from the beginning. [I actually said in the comment section of my Tumblr blog post a couple days ago: “Does management *really* want to get a 28% (or 50%, or 67%) cut? Or are they lowballing so they can eventually come up to, say, 15%, get what they secretly wanted in the beginning, and have the advantage of looking like they’re compromising? Same goes musicians…” And when a 23-year-old with no training in arts administration guesses the exact percentage a couple of days before it’s revealed… I don’t know. That just strikes me as weird.]
The musicians at first had no comment, since they needed to read the contract through with their attorney. However, they did express a hesitant, very faint hope: “The musicians of the SPCO are encouraged, and we think our supporters should be, too, to learn the SPCO management has found money to spend. However, we are puzzled by how they intend to invest these funds. We hope to learn more in our upcoming negotiations scheduled for next Monday and Tuesday.” Later they wrote on Facebook: “Just to clarify, how is this proposal investing in the preservation of artistic excellence by buying off experienced, seasoned musicians to bring in new players at a lower rate? New players, of which there would be plenty if many of the over 55 musicians took the retirement package, would only receive $50,000, which is more like a 30% cut from the current base salary.”
I don’t know what to think. I see reason for faint hope here, and also reason for dejection. So I guess take away what you want. For now I’ll go with hope, simply because that’s been in such short supply lately.
The SPCO also started off their 2012-13 season yesterday in a performance of Beethoven and Stravinsky. The Pioneer Press raved about the performance, while the Strib shrugged. Apparently leaflets describing the situation from both management and the musicians’ POVs were handed out both in and outside of the Ordway. That must have been an awkward dynamic for audiences…
In the MPR article linked above, Minnesota management had more words about the audit the musicians are proposing: “Every year the Minnesota Orchestra performs a thorough, independent audit process by one of the nation’s top accounting firms. We have shared all of our recent audited results with the Union and answered these questions many times in our negotiation sessions over the last five months.” This obviously doesn’t address the musicians’ allegation that different numbers are being given to different people in different situations, so…as I’ve been forced to say so many times on this blog before, “feel free to speculate.” (I’m so sick of saying that.) We also found out in this article that the next negotiating session isn’t scheduled until September 24.
We also finally heard from the folks at the Pioneer Press, so we can confirm they’re not dead, as I feared yesterday. Actually, I should put the snark away for a bit: they were busy collecting information for an enlightening article called “SPCO, Minnesota Orchestra in tough contract talks.” Highly recommended reading. I’d still like the musicians and management to be asked more pointed questions, but hey, this is much better than no coverage at all. And space was clearly limited. So I’ll take what I can get.
There was a paragraph in that article that I think warrants some very deep analysis. (In fact, such deep analysis that I stayed up until 1:30 in the morning writing about it…)
Board chair [Jon] Campbell accepts there could be some turnover.
“The number of highly trained musicians that this country is producing every year is really quite remarkable,” he said Wednesday. “If you just take the top echelon of music schools in the U.S., they produce almost 3,000 performing artists a year. So couple what’s happening in the marketplace with a large supply — not to dismiss the fact that we don’t want to lose any of our wonderful musicians — but there may be some changes.”
So, wow. Massive essay incoming.
I’d like to play devil’s (and musicians’) advocate with Mr. Campbell for a moment. Yes, there are a lot of great graduates from top music schools, many of whom would be delighted to get any job in the field they trained for. Nobody disagrees with that. (Psst: just for future reference, it’s kind of insulting to imply we don’t understand there are lots of great musicians out there without jobs. Musicians aren’t stupid; we are more than aware of our obscenely accomplished colleagues and their professional struggles. But alas, you don’t play in an orchestra for a living, and you clearly don’t understand our weird insular culture, so I’ll be kind and cut you some slack. Just remember for next time. Okay?) And you know what? Many of those great graduates would likely fit in very well with the orchestra…that is, if they were hired one or two or three at a time, over a period of years. But that would not happen here. Your proposed contract encourages a scenario in which ten, twenty, thirty musicians – maybe more! – could quit, all within one or (if we’re lucky) two or three seasons. That means (unless you want to be beholden to subs long-term) you’d need to recruit ten, twenty, thirty newcomers over the course of a couple years. And no matter how great those newcomers would be, they simply would not have the cohesion and vision and experience the current players have. Period. No matter how fantastically gifted they are, it will take months and very possibly years for them to learn the Minnesota way of doing things…especially if only, say, 80% or 70% or 60% of the “original” musicians are left. (Remember, at least according to the musicians, 10% of the seats are already vacant. So even today, way before the new contract takes effect, we’re only at 90% “original” musicians.) I really cannot overstate what a huge learning curve these new musicians will have to navigate. Think of how complicated things would get if multiple principal seats open at once…which, of course, seems likely, since principals are the ones most likely to get good jobs quickly elsewhere. (Exhibit A: Timothy Paradise.) Remember the concertmaster hunt? Remember the years of searching that took? Think of the hassle of that. Then multiply it tenfold.
Amidst all this, let’s spare a moment’s thought for poor Osmo Vänskä. If a mass exodus does materialize, his job will be made immeasurably more difficult. Immeasurably so. Remember, he’s committed to recording a Sibelius cycle that people all over the world have their eyes and ears on. He is staking a big part of his hard-fought reputation on the assumption this orchestra stays world-class. If this new contract results in a high turnover and consequent artistic decline, I imagine he’ll be so frustrated – and probably humiliated – that he’ll accept a position elsewhere as soon as he’s free to do so. (Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if he wants a change of scenery regardless of how this contract pans out. He’s been here since 2003, after all…) Who would blame him for leaving? You can’t expect an internationally renowned conductor to stay in Minneapolis out of the goodness of his heart, no matter how good said heart is. If the chattering classes ascribe Vänskä’s departure to turnover, it would leave Minnesota with a soiled reputation, scrambling to find an inspiring dynamic new music director on top of trying to replace a huge number of musicians and dealing with the demoralization of the rest. What a headache for management! Are they prepared and willing to take all that on? I want to hear them say they are.
Also think of what the sudden high turnover rate would mean for the audition process. According to the musicians’ union, despite the fact that 10% of the seats in the orchestra are vacant (more than ever before), management is resistant to making new hires. (This is understandable; subs are cheaper, and auditions are inconvenient and time-consuming.) But in order to have any remote hope of sustaining artistic quality over the next, say, five years, management would need to put forward a plan – preferably in the next couple of months – describing in great detail how they will replace those ten, twenty, thirty musicians in a very, very short period of time. Even then it would be a stretch, and it would be a logistical nightmare to pull off. They’d need to find ten, twenty, thirty weekends where the hall is available (frankly, probably impossible at this point) – schedule around Vänskä’s already-scheduled out-of-town concerts – form and coordinate the schedules of audition committees – wait for the winners of the jobs to become available (a process that often takes months) – wait for the new members to gain tenure… It would be ridiculously ambitious (dare I say impossible?) to tackle the massive turnover problem while still keeping the orchestra’s world-class edge. Honestly, if I was in management’s shoes, I’d much rather have the challenge of trying to squeeze millions of dollars out of reluctant donors!
So. If anyone from management ever brings up the fact there are lots of talented young players who would kill to have a Minnesota Orchestra job: remember, it’s not that simple, and Campbell’s casually implying so makes me wonder if he understands this. A major orchestral audition is not like a Subway or Walmart interview, and for good reason. Realistically speaking, it will probably take at least five years to hire all the replacements. And in that time, artistic quality will almost certainly deteriorate, likely severely, as the newcomers attempt to get their bearings.
Of course once artistic quality starts deteriorating, attendance will decline. Donors will become less enthusiastic about opening their pocketbooks. And then we run the risk of becoming a disappointment or – shudder – even a laughingstock during the proposed 2014 or 2015 European tour that management is clearly super-excited about. And so the vicious downward spiral will continue. We’ll end up with a gorgeous new hall with a confused mishmash of an orchestra within it. If the building is the most important thing, you might as well disband the Minnesota Orchestra itself and hire a house orchestra of freelancers. At this point, I’m honestly wondering why management just doesn’t propose that. I believe it would mesh more closely with their stated goals. Maybe that will be their next suggestion. God, I hope not. But I don’t know.
Anyway. Management says that one of their goals is to create a “symphony orchestra of the highest artistic quality.” If this is indeed their goal, I’d think that they’d want to avoid such a nightmare mass exodus scenario at all costs. And I’d think they’d really want to avoid it when Orchestra Hall is under construction. As difficult as it would be, desperate fundraising, canceling tours, cutting salaries somewhat while retaining great working conditions, thinking of creative ways to retain and satisfy players, drawing on a shrinking endowment for a few more years – basically, anything else you can think of – would be a much easier, safer bet than attempting a major renovation of the orchestra roster. I’d be so interested in hearing more from management on this topic. Reporters, if you’re reading this, please ask them some of these questions!
On a closing note, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to request that Campbell’s words be put in management’s Q&A under “Will pay cuts cause the best talent to leave the Orchestra?” instead of the condescending non-answer that’s there now. Be up front with us: your current proposals will cause musicians to leave, very possibly en masse. And if musicians leave en masse, artistic quality will suffer. And if artistic quality suffers, you will, by definition, fail at your stated goal to maintain a “symphony orchestra of the highest artistic quality.” Period. If that’s the direction you want to take us, or feel obligated to take us thanks to the terrible economy and Minnesota’s inability to support a world-class symphony orchestra…then say so. Tell us that. Yell it from the roof-tops. But please don’t hide the truth. Don’t sugarcoat it. You are serving the public, and your public deserves to know.
All that being said, it’s fantastic to hear some acknowledgment from management that, yes, it is possible that musicians will leave. That’s progress! It’s better than the Lame Paragraph of Naive Hope on their website. So kudos to Mr. Campbell for that. Hopefully he and his colleagues can go on record answering some more of these difficult questions ASAP.
Before I sign off for the day… Here’s some happy news: “Grantmaking to the arts rebounded significantly in 2010, growing to $129 million, which is 20% above 2009 levels. The rise follows an almost steady decline in arts giving since 2004.”
Could it be…
Could it possibly be…
A relatively news-free day in Orchestral Apocalypse ‘012?
What am I supposed to do if I’m not blogging about orchestral crises? Practice? Go outside and feel the sunlight on my face? Take a long hot bath while trying not to fixate on how desperately out of touch Jon Campbell is? I’m adrift…
Yes, the only piece of news today is this one from the Star Tribune called “What price orchestral excellence?” (Yes, I too find that prepositions are over-rated.)
I was probably more overjoyed than I should have been to read that someone on the board apparently subscribes to the radical notion that musicians are people (to paraphrase a famous quote). Here’s Richard Davis. head of the management negotiating team:
“These are real people with real lives [as opposed to fake people with fake lives? hmm], and they have to protect their own financial circumstances and artistic integrity. There’s a risk that they find their way to another place, and those who can leave will. It’s going to be a personal decision where they want to perform.”
Okay, so. Slowly but surely we’re inching closer to what I need to hear from management: an acknowledgment that their current proposals will make it impossible for them to achieve their own stated goal of creating a symphony orchestra of the highest possible quality. But if today we hear acknowledgment that musicians are people too, my friend, then maybe by Tuesday we can get to “yes, we probably will lose a lot of musicians”…and then maybe by Thursday “yes, artistic quality will decline because of this.” And then by Friday maybe we could shoot for “yes, we’re really looking forward to fundraising after revealing the fact we want more money to finance a crappier product” and “yes, we’re really really looking forward to the headache of replacing multiple principal players at once” and “yes, we’re really really really looking forward to seeing what the London critics think of our ensemble of 30-50% subs during our planned 2014-15 European tour.” I want to hear management say those things: without them, I just have to assume the members of the board are idiots or, worse, cynical disingenuous liars. Reporters, are you out there? There are a lot of simple questions that will be easy for you to ask and difficult for them to answer. Ask those questions. Get a scoop. This is a story.
(Also? Davis’ words need to go verbatim under the question “Will pay cuts cause the best talent to leave the orchestra?” Stat.)
I do have to say, I’m surprised that Davis and Campbell aren’t coordinating their messages better. One implies in a brutally insensitive manner that seasoned musicians are easily replaceable by fresh-faced college graduates; another speaks semi-reasonably and semi-respectfully about how many will choose to work elsewhere. What is this, some bizarre orchestral board version of good cop, bad cop? Because it’s not working. It just sounds weird – disjointed – and it makes me more worried than ever that they’re in way over their heads. I think I speak for hundreds, if not thousands, of people when I say: you need to get your s*** together. Don’t think we aren’t watching you.
I’m also frustrated with the Star Tribune, since in their article they repeated a claim that we heard from musicians a few days ago: that “the board ‘rejected outright’ an offer two years ago of an additional $1.5 million in reductions.” Nobody has elaborated on that story. What’s up? What reductions were suggested? When exactly, under what circumstances? Why didn’t management take it? Why did the reporter mention it if he’s not going to provide any context? This reminds me of Wolf Blitzer when, after Paul Ryan’s nomination acceptance speech, he said something along the lines of “it will be interesting to see what the fact-checkers have to say about some of these claims…” Holy frick, what? No! You are the fact-checker! H***, what is a reporter if he’s not a fact-checker? Some kind of truth-immune clearinghouse for biased press releases? No! Do your job! Do it better! Unlike me, you actually have access to these people! Use! It!
I’m also confused by the following sentence: “Final contracts at the Minnesota Orchestra and the SPCO likely will not include the draconian numbers in the initial trial balloons…” What? Who said that, and when? Is this an admission this is all just a sick game? That one or both sides are floating false numbers and percentages just so they won’t need to compromise? Who let that cat out of the bag? That’s not a kind of leadership to aspire toward…and certainly not the kind of leadership a world-class orchestra deserves. No, that’s just frigging lame.
I have low blood pressure, but I’m going to need hypertension medication by the time this is all over. Holy crap.
I wonder what Vänskä is thinking at this point. I can’t imagine he’s happy; he has so much at stake. Could he have any input or influence in the following weeks? Or is management so entrenched that they wouldn’t even listen to their own music director? There’s another question I’d like someone to answer on the record: what would you do if Vänskä said your current proposals would severely impact the quality of the orchestra? Would you agree with him and then work to publicize his statement, or would you contradict the judgment of your own music director? Management, if you absolutely must, choose one or the other: your version of fiscal stability OR sustaining the level of artistic excellence the Orchestra has now. But don’t pretend we can have both. To do so is cowardly, cynical, disingenuous, incompetent…and I could go on, but I’ll stop.
Well, I should probably take a day off when I can. SPCO management and musicians are meeting tomorrow and the next day. Hopefully there won’t be any news out of those until late Tuesday or Wednesday. I am just…at this point I am sick and tired of news. Hopefully what we hear out of St. Paul will be good, or at least faintly hopeful.
Here is a video of some adorable kittens:
Oooookay, so! Forgive the stretch of silence here over the last few days, but there’s been a flurry of activity in Orchestral Apocalypse ‘012. The other day a crazy raging delusional b-i-t-c-h wrote a provocative blog called “Is Minnesota Orchestra management lying to us?“, and it went just a tad viral, and I’ve been a little distracted keeping up with what the blog’s author has to say in the comment section. Have you read her work? She’s insane.
Let’s get back to some real news.
Musicians and management talked on the 10th and 11th, discussing the new proposal that was originally floated by management back on 7 September (15% salary cuts, smaller orchestra, severance packages, $50,000 guaranteed salaries to new players, and some other stuff). According to MPR, musicians are not being shown the legal wording of the contract, and in fact, will not see it until “next week at the earliest.”
Let me get out my calendar here. Unless I’ve fallen into some bizarre Twilight Zone vortex in which the traditional rules of time no longer apply, “next week at the earliest” would mean “Monday September 17th.” Correct? And that’s at the earliest.
Okay, got it. So when does management want a response?
By the next negotiating session.
Which is – ?
Which is Friday.
And, granted MPR is reporting this correctly, and assuming I have not lost my ability to read and comprehend simple sentences, management can’t guarantee the language will be available on Monday. In fact, they can’t even guarantee the language will be available by Friday. Which – in case you missed it when I said it a few sentences ago – is the same day they want a response from musicians.
I personally can think of only three explanations why this is happening. Chime in in the comments if you can think of more.
1) People in management are incompetent. If this proposal was even a remote possibility before it was floated, shouldn’t the basics of it have been drafted back in, say, August? If it wasn’t a remote possibility, did something major change financially within the organization over the last four weeks? If so, what?
2) People in management are trying to intimidate the musicians by throwing a lot of stuff at them right before a strike and hoping the musicians want to avoid a strike or lockout so badly that they won’t fight back.
3) People in management routinely sign long complicated contracts with wide-reaching legal and fiscal consequences without having the exact phrasing of those contracts available to them for more than a few days…or even, conceivably, a few hours…or, even more unbelievably, not at all. Really, management? You really do that? No? I didn’t think so. Then why are you asking your musicians to do so? What am I missing?
For crap’s sake. These discussions have been going on since December 2011. What the h*** is happening? Who dropped the ball and why? Will any of the story – or the Minnesota story – ever come to light? How can we dig this information up? I understand that hardly anybody can talk now. I get that. But once this all passes over, we need to demand accountability. Because we need to know who is incompetent – on either side – and pressure them to leave their jobs to someone a little…more able. As residents of the Upper Midwest, we deserve truth and transparency in our arts organizations. Because this isn’t just their orchestra: it’s ours, too.
Not much news out there about Minnesota besides the furor over the crazy chick’s blog. The Minnesota Orchestra musicians’ blog mentioned it here. I do have a caveat to what they had to say…I don’t know if I’d call myself totally independent. I do, as I’ve said since the very beginning, have personal and professional connections with members of both orchestras, and no connections to anyone in management. (It’s a lot easier for poor disabled 23-year-old Wisconsinites to come up to the stage to say hi to musicians; members of management tend not to make themselves as available to the public nearly as easily or as often as musicians do. Maybe that’s something they should keep in mind in the future? It’s a lot easier to be disgusted by the actions of people you don’t know, and the tone of this blog would probably be very very different if I knew even a couple of people in management as well as I know a couple of musicians. But anyway, I’m digressing.)
However, despite the fact I do have connections with some of the musicians, I want to make it crystal clear: I haven’t talked about the details of the negotiations with ANYONE. Anyone. Nobody has told me anything about negotiations; nobody has contacted me about negotiations; I actually joked with one friend that he should try communicating with me telepathically. I’ve sent my love and best wishes to a couple musicians, but that is it. All I’ve heard from them is what we’ve already heard in the press: the fact that many musicians are discussing leaving, and that they are deeply distressed over the direction management wants to take them. And that’s not exactly news.
Anyway. Just wanted to remind everybody of that.
We appear to be in a kind of Orchestral Apocalypse limbo, with the SPCO musicians waiting to hear the formal language in management’s proposed contract, me still wondering how management can in good conscience ask the musicians to give their opinion on the contract without giving them time to consider the actual contract, and the Minnesota musicians not set to meet with management until 24 September. I welcome the lull; I have responsibilities in the real world, and it’s nice to leave my laptop without having the nagging feeling I’m missing out on some major crisis.
In fact, the only piece of worthwhile Apocalypse news today comes from Drew McManus in his blog post “A Bad Idea in Any Economic Environment.” He thinks it’s dangerous for the SPCO to have a two-tiered salary system for musicians. Thought-provoking stuff. Be sure to check out the comment section of his post.
Quick question: is anyone going to the Minnesota Orchestra musicians’ Lake Harriet bandshell concert on September 16 at 4pm? I’d love to go but I’m working. Would anyone be able to go and offer a report? I will give you a big virtual gold star if you do.
This beautiful gold star could be yours if you go to the Lake Harriet concert and write about it!! Act now!
No news today except for the fact the musicians of the SPCO have announced they’re playing a free concert at Macalester College at 7:30pm on 2 October. Garrison Keillor will be hosting. Details here. Feel free to speculate what this means, if anything, in regard to negotiations…
More news as it develops.