Minnesota Orchestra and SPCO Negotiations: Summary of Week -3

On 30 September the contracts of the musicians of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) and Minnesota Orchestra expire, and tense negotiations are ongoing. I’ve written thousands and thousands of words (literally) on the subject, and if you want, you can find those here. If you just want a summary of what happened last week, click here.


In early September the SPCO musicians were claiming that management was proposing a contract that included 57%-67% salary cuts. (Interim CEO Dobson West later denied this.) In advance of meetings between musicians and management on Monday and Tuesday, management proposed a new contract. This one included salary cuts of 15%, a reduction in the size of the orchestra from 34 to 28 players, retirement packages for players over 55, and a new two-tiered salary in which current players would be guaranteed $62,500 a year, while new incoming players would only be guaranteed $50,000. In this Star Tribune article, West refers to the new contract as a “significant stretch for the Society and its donors.” Although the outline of the contract was released on 7 September, it is unclear when management originally drafted and approved the ideas contained within it. I’m also not clear why it took this long to get to this point, as negotiations have been ongoing since December of last year…?

Happily, the musicians didn’t reject the terms of the proposed contract outright, and in fact they almost seemed vaguely hopeful about them. “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.”

After these meetings occurred, MPR reported that management never showed the musicians the formal language of the contract. In fact, according to the musicians, management will not be able to draft the language in the contract and share it with musicians until “next week at the earliest.” Nevertheless, management would like “a response” from the musicians by the next negotiating session on 21 September, which would only give the musicians a few days – at the most – to look over the document.

Since then, nothing more has come out, and so I can only assume that the musicians are still waiting on management to draft and share that contract. In the meantime, time is ticking, and their current contract expires in sixteen days. So, um, no pressure or anything…feel free to take your time, guys…it’s not like you’ve been negotiating for the last ten months or anything…

Minnesota Orchestra

Developments in Minneapolis were a lot more depressing this week.

If you’ll remember from last week, after management released their proposed contract without the musicians’ say or knowledge via website, the musicians fought back by requesting an independent audit of the orchestra’s finances, alleging that different people have been given different numbers at different times. Management responded thus: “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 doesn’t address the musicians’ allegation, so feel free to speculate. (I’ve used the phrase “feel free to speculate” so often on my blog lately I feel inclined to trademark it…)

Sadly, it’s becoming increasingly clear that management’s proposals will cause many musicians to retire or seek work elsewhere (if they aren’t already, and many clearly are). In an interview with the Pioneer Press that made musicians around the nation cringe, board chair and Wells Fargo executive vice president Jon Campbell said of potential turnover:

“The number of highly trained musicians that this country is producing every year is really quite remarkable. 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.”

Campbell did not elaborate on whether he would like to implement an accelerated schedule of auditions to replace the departing players; if he is envisioning an orchestra with a large percentage of substitute players; or if he feels the musicians won’t be able to get work elsewhere and are therefore in effect trapped in Minnesota. Unfortunately, nobody followed up on that question.

Campbell’s colleague Richard Davis, head of the management negotiating team, commented in another interview:

“These are real people with real lives, 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.”

As you can imagine, these comments were not particularly well received by those who view the morale of musicians as being even a halfway important part of an orchestra’s artistic and fiscal success.

I stayed up late a couple nights last week writing a few essays about those two quotes. You can dig them out of my blog if you want. They made the rounds nationally. Mainly they consist of me pressuring management to admit publicly that it will be very difficult to heighten artistry if Minnesota faces a high turnover rate in the next few years. (As of right now, they’re still claiming they’ll be able to raise artistry while simultaneously struggling with high turnover and demoralization. Have fun with that, management!) I get the feeling I might be screaming at a brick wall, but hey. I tried. It’s the best I can do.


The musicians of both orchestras are organizing free concerts in the next few weeks, ostensibly to thank the public for their support, but I imagine also to court goodwill. On 16 September at 4pm the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra will be playing at the Lake Harriet Bandshell in Minneapolis. Orchestra violist Sam Bergman will host. Details available here. On 2 October at 7:30pm the musicians of the SPCO will be giving a free concert at Macalester College. Minnesota institution Garrison Keillor will be hosting this show. Details here.

I know this will sound totally ridiculous, but despite the geyser of bad news this week, I’m feeling bizarrely hopeful. Maybe it’s a bad case of Gingrichian delusion; I don’t know. But I’m getting the sense that more and more people are asking vitally important questions we’ve left unasked and unanswered for far too long. Who is really in charge of our orchestras? What credentials should decision-makers have? Who should have what powers? How should the world of business and philanthropy intersect with the world of artistic excellence? When budgets are tight and salaries need to be cut, what inexpensive efforts can management and musicians take to respect one another? Yes, this is a time of flux and change and very possibly grave danger for many orchestras. Yes, many many tears have been shed and no doubt will be shed. Many sleepless nights will be had. And the situation in the Twin Cities will certainly get much worse before it gets better. But these questions, and others like them, needed to be asked. Badly. And I’m beginning to think we needed a few crises to shake us up and make more people ask them.

Either that, or I’ve gone totally completely insane from blogging so much lately. That could very well be, too.

Keep those prayers and positive thoughts coming. We need every single one.

More next weekend.

1 Comment

Filed under My Writing

One response to “Minnesota Orchestra and SPCO Negotiations: Summary of Week -3

  1. Great post. I agree with your opinion about the lack of transparency today when it comes to artistic endeavors such as performance orchestras, bands, etc.

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