The Special Case of the SPCO

Well, on the heels of the disappointing cancellation of EVEN MORE CONCERTS at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, here’s an essay on the SPCO from SOTL reader Rolf Erdahl. You may remember him from his well-received guest-blog “What Can One Person Do?” (and if you have not read that already, I highly recommend you do so).


One of my favorite books is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. It imparts important ideas about understanding, taking responsibility, discovering inner beauty, and connecting with and caring for the people and world around us. The Little Prince has a single rose on his small planet, “unique in all the world,” which he cares for, protects from dangers, forges a bond with, and loves. He discovers his rose is ephemeral, which means “threatened by disappearance at an instant.” His subsequent actions are always colored by the responsibility he feels to protect and cherish his rose.

During his journeys, The Little Prince meets people who can only see the world through narrow, skewed prisms, highlighted by how they view the stars. He meets a King who can only relate them by ruling them, a Businessman who wallows in owning and counting them, and a Geographer who catalogs stars and planets, but never visits them.

The SPCO is “unique in all the world,” it has a special bond with its community, it is ephemeral, “threatened by disappearance at an instant,” and we all are entrusted with the responsibility of its nurture and preservation. We must perceive it without biased eyes, see this miraculous ensemble for what it is and can be, and protect and preserve it.

Saying the SPCO is “unique in all the world” is not superlative hogwash or wishful thinking. I’ve played in and heard orchestras around the world. I’ve never heard the SPCO surpassed, and rarely heard it matched in quality of performance, both as an ensemble, and in the virtuosity of its individual players. Wherever I’ve travelled, when people who know music hear I’m from Minnesota, they ask about the SPCO.

The current lockout and labor dispute have effectively transformed the SPCO from a rare ensemble into a threatened and endangered one. Right now the players are under attack by implacable, immovable ideologies, budgetary and personnel numbers, and business plans that only exist by decree of the management. These appear to come from within a tight management circle, without any informed consideration of the potential disastrous artistic impacts of drastic pay cuts, and changes to full-time status, working conditions, and roles of the orchestra. Musician input on artistic decisions has been minimized and ignored rather than relied upon, to the point that several star musicians have resigned from the Artistic Vision Committee.

Anyone in any job would feel insulted and threatened by lockouts, 33% pay cuts, buyouts for people past the age of 55, bizarre two-tier pay scales, and radically changed business plans going forward (see SPCO management’s letter of 9/7/12). Despite that, musicians of the SPCO have remained quite civil in their public statements, recently offered further reductions in pay and temporary reductions in the number of musicians, and made other meeting-in-the-middle proposals to preserve the integrity of the ensemble intact. There is a very real danger that some players will leave for other orchestras or jobs or retire if a livable salary and a respectful workplace environment for a full-time ensemble are not found here. Several have already left, are auditioning and subbing for other orchestras, or making other plans. The SPCO is a chamber ensemble, “unique in all the world.” The loss of a few key players can very easily upset the delicate balance, forever destroying the ephemeral chemistry that has made for greatness. If the workplace environment fosters the notion that world-class players are arbitrarily replaceable cogs and burdens to the budget, it will be very difficult to retain or attract great players, regardless the pay scale.

Orchestra administrators around the world dream of achieving the ideal orchestra – skilled, versatile, flexible, and dedicated to reaching, educating, and uplifting a broad audience. The SPCO IS this orchestra of the future. Any Executive Director, Board, and community worth their salt should be thrilled to have them. They are incredibly skilled, versatile, flexible, and dedicated. They appear in all sorts of venues and configurations. They play the widest imaginable range of repertoire from Renaissance to Now. They do educational outreach and fundraising events. They have been cost effective in their choices of guest soloists and conductors, many of whom are respected leaders in their fields, though perhaps not yet household names that command top dollar. Their performances and choices have built up audience trust, enabling them to put together some of the most adventuresome, exciting, virtuosic, varied programming of any ensemble in the world. They know through experience what works artistically and what doesn’t, and should be seen as a priceless resources to consult for choosing exciting, viable ways for the orchestra to be a creative leader into the future. The members of the SPCO play for less pay than most of them could command elsewhere because the SPCO is “unique in the world,” and they’re committed to being a part of making that magic in St. Paul, MN. (See Skip James essay, Why Musicians Want to Join the SPCO.)

At its heart, this dispute has nothing to do with money, and all too little to do with artistry or vision. It has everything to do with people who think their relationship with the SPCO is to rule over it like the King, own it like the Businessman, or define it without experiencing it like the Geographer. What’s really at stake is the heart of the SPCO, what constitutes great music, and how the SPCO presents it to reach, serve, and uplift its audiences. Numbers are important, and have to be dealt with, but they are not the insurmountable obstacles portrayed by management. If you’re interested in more discussions of the proposals and numbers, see the musician’s document, “Claim-Reality-Truth,” Musician response to Dobson West’s Statement of Nov. 1, and Matt Peiken’s MNuet interview with Dobson West, and article, Orchestras Need New Equations to Move Forward.

I doubt Dobson West wakes up mornings, looks in the mirror, and asks, “What can I do today to destroy great music in Minnesota?” I do believe he is making decisions that could have that effect, and I have seen similar decisions and course changes made by insular management teams destroy orchestras elsewhere that have succumbed to “business plans” taking precedence over artistic integrity and vision. The ephemeral miracle that is the SPCO is not immune.

Mr. Dobson’s chief problem of circular thinking is that he, as acting President and Managing Director, reports to himself as Interim Chair of the Board. It’s hard to imagine him questioning, amending, or over-ruling any of his decisions in either capacity. It’s an unhealthy situation, even if all his decisions and directives were well-intended. (See Mary Lois Hall’s letter, under 3 Responses to Get Involved.) The apparent chief desire of management is to transform the mission of the SPCO organization from supporting an ensemble of excellence, into a presenting organization with a pick-up band, variable in size and personnel, whose ”mission” is more related to generating revenue from venues than it is of fulfilling a service to art and community through transcendent performances of great music by superlative performers.

No one person or entity “owns” the SPCO, regardless how much time or money or effort they put into it. Not the Board, not Dobson West, not “Kings, Businessmen, or Geographers,” not even the players themselves. We are all stakeholders in the public trust that is The SPCO. The first order of business is to recognize what’s at stake: the survival of the SPCO as a world-class orchestra. If we decide that’s something we want to preserve, we can and will find ways to do that, with whatever extra commitment and sacrifices are necessary to save it.

At the end of The Little Prince, a wise fox imparts “the most important secret of life” to the Prince:

One only sees truly with the heart; that which is essential is invisible to the eyes.

Close your eyes, listen, and you will see in your heart that the SPCO is an ephemeral miraculous confluence and chemistry of talents, “unique in all the world,” nurtured by 50 years of community love and support. We cannot afford to lose it.


Filed under Labor Disputes

4 responses to “The Special Case of the SPCO

  1. Pingback: The Special Case of the SPCO, Rolf Erdahl « Musicians of the SPCO

  2. jeanette ridge

    Beautifully written essay. If only the management could open their eyes to what is really at stake——-

  3. One other pertinent reference from the Little Prince is the fox’s admonition concerning the importance of creating meaningful bonds and connections between people. “C’est une chose trop oubliée” (it’s something that has been very much forgotten) in these lockouts that effectively segregate performers and audiences and boards and management from each other. Instead, they should actively seek input, common ground, and connections from and with each other to move forward.

    C’est une chose trop oubliée, dit le renard. Ça signifie “créer des liens…”

  4. Liz

    Well said and must be played to the management of the SPCO!!

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