Tag Archives: St. Paul Chamber Orchestra

Transcription of Feb 12 Hearing, Part 4

Part 4 of the February 12 hearing…

Other websites have posted a transcription of the next portion of the hearing, so I won’t bother transcribing that myself…

Here is SPCO bassoonist Carole Mason Smith’s testimony over at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra musicians’ website.

Here is Save Our SPCO chair Mariellen Jacobson’s testimony at SOSPCO’s website.

Both well worth reading! Fabulous job, ladies.

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Filed under Labor Disputes, Minnesota Orchestra

Jan 23rd Hearing, Part 5: SPCO and SOSPCO Testimony

Here are links to testimonies given by Carole Mason Smith of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Mark Thoson and Sarah Nagle of Save Our SPCO.

And so concludes the transcriptions! I hope they were helpful to you in some capacity, regardless what “side” you’re on.

I’ll offer my thoughts…at some point. I’m not sure when. I’d like to let them percolate a bit first. In the meantime, what do you think?


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Jan 23rd Hearing, Part 4: Orchestrate Excellence Testimony

This testimony was given by Laurie Greeno, co-chair of Orchestrate Excellence, in front of the Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee of the Minnesota House of Representatives on 23 January 2013. Rep. Joe Atkins chaired. You can listen to Ms. Greeno’s testimony here. It begins at roughly 47:30.


LG: Chair Atkins, ladies and gentlemen of the committee, thank you for considering the impact of the lockouts on our communities and the state of Minnesota. I’m Laurie Greeno, co-chair of Orchestrate Excellence, an independent coalition of over a thousand community members, donors, and concertgoers. In the last few weeks, this group of concerned citizens has formed to give voice to the tremendous economic, educational, and artistic repercussions of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout.

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Jan 23rd Hearing, Part 1: Rep Atkins’s Introduction

As just about everyone who has been following Orchestral Apocalypse ‘012-‘013 knows, the Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee of the Minnesota House of Representatives held a hearing on January 23rd in St. Paul to explore the impact of lockouts on our community. Everyone who was anyone was there: Minnesota Orchestral Association CEO Michael Henson! (this was a surprise; no one was expecting him) – Doug Wright from the musicians’ negotiating committee! – Carol Mason Smith representing the SPCO musicians! – representatives of Save Our SPCO! – representatives of Orchestrate Excellence! – heck, even Dobby was there! (although, rather bewilderingly, he chose to attend but apparently not to testify…? Odd.)

You can listen to and/or download the mp3 of the hearing here. Perhaps ironically for a musician, I absorb things better when I read them opposed to when I hear them, so I prepared a transcript of everyone’s remarks. I’m a fast typist and I had some spare time, so…yeah. I will devote one entry to each person’s testimony. I’m also planning a couple of entries devoted to analyzing what was all said (particularly by Mr. Henson), but those will come separately and later.

Rep. Joe Atkins, the chair of the Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee, began the meeting with the following words.

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Filed under Labor Disputes, Minnesota Orchestra

Hearing No 1: Date and Time

Many people have been asking when lawmakers will be holding hearings about the finances of the Minnesota Orchestra and/or St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Well, I have a concrete date for one hearing. This hearing will focus on the economic effect lockouts have had on the community. Here’s the press release describing it. It talks a lot about the NHL, but the Minnesota Orchestra and SPCO will be discussed as well…

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Filed under Labor Disputes, Minnesota Orchestra

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.

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Michael Henson’s Advent Calendar

Well, the two weeks of breathless anticipation have finally passed, and the First Annual (?) Song of the Lark Advent Calendar is now live on Tumblr!

Our primary theme this year is “Michael Henson’s Advent Calendar.” Our secondary theme is “a gaudy chintzy glitter-based aesthetic.” Our tertiary theme is “accountability to patrons and taxpayers.”

For more information on the project, visit


You can get all the sparkly details there. Watch me! In a jerky Youtube video! Adorned in a silky red shirt and a glittery garland! Yammering into a webcam for twelve whole minutes! While giving dramatic readings of three of the Christmas cards I sent this year! And showing off my holiday crafting project! And explaining for the unenlightened what an Advent calendar is, and how generally awesome they are! (There also may or may not be some Alex Ross fangirling.) (Spoiler alert: there’s Alex Ross fangirling.)

As the MOA is fond of saying, we all have a part to play! Jon Campbell, Richard Davis, Michael Henson, every reader of this blog. Let’s all come together in this celebration of the holiday spirit. Bookmark the calendar. Follow michaelhensonsadventcalendar on Tumblr. Check back daily. Answer my questions. It’s a veritable cornucopia of accountability! Yay!

If you have a memory or encouragement to share, you can email me it at songofthelarkchristmasproject [at] gmail.com. We still need more.

Wishing you all a wonderful holiday season.


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Two Approaches to Governance…indeed

I’ll just leave this here…

From the League of American Orchestras’ 2011 conference schedule

Two Approaches to Governance

The Minnesota Orchestra and The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra are both very successful institutions, offering strong programs to their communities in differentiated ways. Both are characterized by high-functioning boards, and, like their orchestras overall, their approaches to governance are distinct from one another. They exemplify two very different approaches to governance, and both styles are represented throughout our industry. This session will offer two views of governance, exploring what works about each, and what challenges and opportunities are embedded in each approach.

Michael Henson, president & CEO, Minnesota Orchestra; Jon Campbell, chair elect, Minnesota Orchestra; Sarah Lutman, president & managing director, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra; Dobson West, board chair, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra

Moderator: Sally Sterling, consultant, Spencer Stuart

Pity time-travel isn’t possible. Because I’d love to attend this session and learn how high-functioning boards operate, and see what challenges and opportunities are embedded in each orchestra’s approach.

(The Minnesota Orchestra’s Michael Henson, president and CEO, and Osmo Vänskä, music director, invite you to join them at Conference 2011)

I see the “Minneapolis is easy to get around” talking point had its origins many months ago.


(And yes, I have some opinions on today’s rather explosive front page Strib story. But they’re not quite yet ready for public consumption. Hold your horses. In the meantime though I found this and thought, especially in light of today’s revelations, that it was…interesting, shall we say, in hindsight.)

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Matt Peiken’s SPCO and Minnesota Orchestra Podcast

Hey peeps; listen up. I’ve got 50 minutes of juicy arts journalism for you. Matt Peiken from MNuet has produced a podcast you must listen to. I don’t care what you’re doing; drop it, and listen. Here’s a summary:

In this revealing and provocative conversation, Ellen Dinwiddie Smith of the Minnesota Orchestra and Carole Mason Smith of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra talk with MNuet’s Matt Peiken about the labor stalemates happening with their respective orchestras, their perspectives about what led to the musicians’ predicaments and steps they see going forward. Among other charges, the musicians make the case that the management of each orchestra is looking to transition from an orchestral focus to one of presenting a wide array of events. MNuet has asked to conduct a similar interview and devote an episode of “Whole Note” to representatives of each orchestra’s management.

Thank you thank you thank you, Mr. Peiken. I’m so thrilled we have an independent journalist in our midst.

Here are some teaser questions from the podcast: What are the missions of the SPCO and Minnesota Orchestra boards? How were certain individuals laid off at the Minnesota Orchestra in spring? Who gave back what when? Is there a kind of collusion happening among administrators at the highest echelons of American orchestras? Are musician-led ensembles in the Twin Cities’ future? Where are our local politicians in all this? And what about the children? Juicy stuff, huh? See, I told you you’d want to drop everything and listen.

If the managements at both orchestras refuse to take up Mr. Peiken’s generous offer to conduct in-depth interviews with them (and I’m guessing they will refuse), then I suggest that he post an mp3 of an hour of total silence. Or an hour of him asking questions to dead air. If those in charge can’t handle the heat, and won’t step up to answer their public’s questions, then let’s hammer home the void of leadership and vision and accountability as mercilessly as we know how. No offense to the good reporters who have been working on these stories over the last six weeks, but I’m so tired of the sound bites in 700-word articles in the mainstream press. This is the kind of in-depth conversation we need to be having. These are the questions we need to be asking, again and again and again, until those in power can’t bear to hear the sound of our voices anymore. Management, if you’re not going to answer the questions I’ve raised, or even acknowledge my existence, then at least sit down with someone like Mr. Peiken. If you don’t, we’ll assume you’re hiding something (what else are we supposed to do?). And we will act accordingly…


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Violinist Jill Olson Moser Writes About Minnesota Orchestra Subs

About a week ago, I was contacted by Jill Olson Moser, who’s a substitute violinist with the Minnesota Orchestra. She passed along a piece she’d written, sharing her concerns about the current conflict from her perspective as a sub. I haven’t heard anyone discuss what she discusses here, despite the vital importance of the topic. It was a hugely thought-provoking read for me, and I think it will be for you, too. So (for once) I’m going to shut up, and let a reader take center stage. I thank her for giving me permission to post her words here.


9:10 Tuesday Morning

A handful of weeks out of the year I have a week of work with the Minnesota Orchestra on my calendar weeks in advance. Sometimes I get a call 2-4 days before the first rehearsal. I leisurely go to the hall and check out the music. I enjoy listening to multiple recordings of the upcoming repertoire and I begin a thorough process of practice and mental preparation. But not at all unusual is the 9:10 call on Tuesday morning, just as I’m sitting down with a cup of coffee. This call starts with, “Hi, wondering if you can play this week,” quickly followed by, “Rehearsal starts at 10:00.”

That leaves 20 minutes to arrange a babysitter for as many of the hours between 9:20 and 4:00 as possible, get dressed, pack up the fiddle and fly out the door. The ten minute drive downtown is for canceling anything that was on my schedule during the rehearsal hours, and starting to leave messages for babysitters to tag team with whoever could bolt over for my hasty departure. Fingers crossed, traffic flows smoothly and there is an open parking meter right outside the stage door, or I will start to panic. Remaining, after racing downstairs, unpacking, checking the seating assignment and sitting in my chair, are about 30 seconds to glance at what I will be sight reading over the next two rehearsals. The rehearsal breaks on Tuesday are dedicated to rearranging my schedule for the rest of the week and lining up child care. If that goes smoothly, I hopefully have time to woodshed a few tricky passages. Believe me, these weeks fly by, as a Thursday morning Coffee Concert is just breaths away. Before I know it, I’m repeating the third performance on Saturday night of music that may have been foreign just days before.

Crazy, right? It is a funny thing, because I love it. Those crazy weeks are the mainstay of my career. You might ask, “Why don’t you make sure you’re at least dressed by 9:00 on Tuesday mornings? Well the thing is, there were years in which I always was. But budgets get cut, contracts require musicians to play with smaller sections, Young Peoples Concerts and Pops concerts that were once played by a full orchestra are now cut down to a few stands in a section. And what I can hardly believe enough to put in writing, orchestras get locked out. So now, I don’t plan on that call.

But let me back up a bit more. Because we subs could be secret agents for all of the notice we garner. You probably recognize us, we are a loyal bunch, and are so well treated that we stick around. In fact, we make a choice to build our careers around a job that doesn’t name us, and clearly doesn’t come with any job security or guarantees. Some of us have won other auditions for full time, decent paying symphony jobs and turned them down. Some of us have been offered stable University teaching jobs, but turned them down. Some of us could have been the tenured stand partners we play with from week to week, had the wind blown the other way in an audition. In part, the reason we keep subbing is because the sub work allows us to play with one of the greatest orchestras in the world. Because to quit subbing with the Minnesota Orchestra in order to play in a lesser orchestra isn’t so appealing. But lets be real here, it is also because we can make a decent living while doing so. Given the cost of living in the Twin Cities, the sub pay makes for a higher quality of life than many other “real” music jobs.

This takes me to the gamble. I could be talking about the fact that, at least in the violin section, we audition annually. From year to year I risk my place on the sub list. I could go from making $50K one year to making $12K the next if my Don Juan sucks at the audition. It is not easy re-auditioning, without a screen, in front of your colleagues. Let me say, every one of us agrees. It sucks. But actually, this isn’t the gamble I’m talking about. I’m talking about how a sub balances their work, because after all, we are freelancers.

In 2001 when I first won a spot on the sub list, I picked up and moved to Minneapolis. Shortly thereafter I won a sub spot with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Times were good. My weeks would fill with work from one orchestra or the other, and weeks that I wasn’t hired were a nice break. Time to get ahead with practicing other stuff. Those times are long gone. SPCO has had deep budget cuts and additionally, for years has been importing many of their violin subs from elsewhere. As I said before, in recent years Minnesota Orchestra has played with reduced sections, even for subscription weeks. So, the balance becomes more complicated.

Nothing in town compares to the pay of subbing with the Minnesota Orchestra for a freelancer. Depending on how much less something else pays, taking other work can really backfire. Also well paying is the Minnesota Opera, but even then it isn’t a clear decision. For instance, to play with Minnesota Opera, from just a financial perspective, it must not in its three weeks of rehearsal and performances conflict with even one week of Minnesota Orchestra, or you are losing money. If you sign a contract with the Opera for one production and then Minnesota Orchestra calls for all three of those weeks, you are out a couple thousand dollars. The subs are divided on whether that is a good gamble. Work with the Opera however, is guaranteed up to a year in advance, and some subs opt for that certainty. As you can imagine, our brains are always doing these calculations. But the reason I even go into this is because, it is in the best interest of the Minnesota Orchestra to have their best subs available when the orchestra calls at 9:10 on Tuesday morning. After all, these subs are not only expected to contribute and blend with the sound of the incredible sections they play in, they are expected to do it while sight reading.

There was an interesting Sommerfest concert this summer in which the cellos were featured in the Overture to William Tell. Five solo celli taking front and center. The Principal cello was out of town. In fact, due to injuries, illness and vacation days, the only orchestra members playing in the cello section for that concert were sitting on the front stand. The rest of the section was subs, including three of the solo parts. It sounded incredible! This was a concert in which Andrew Litton spoke in support of the musicians. He talked about how the measure of a truly great orchestra is in its depth. That it isn’t just superstar principal players that make a great orchestra, but having for instance, a full section of cellists worthy of featuring. I would add that another measure of a great orchestra is to have depth in its sub pool, which doesn’t happen accidentally. It happens because the musicians of the orchestra have fought for years to defend fair compensation for their subs. They understand that the quality of their orchestra depends on the support of this community of freelancers. Because on occasion you will end up featuring a cello section full of subs, and they have to sound great.

I do not write seeking a pat on the back; as subs we recognize that our names will not be listed in the program. But now as musicians have been locked out by management, I think about the future of this remarkable orchestra, and I can’t help but reflect on the important role subs play in this great ensemble. We tour the world alongside our tenured colleagues and sit side by side in intense and amazing recording sessions. There is no room for anything but the best, from any of us. We have all been pushed to grow and to improve under the baton of Osmo Vanska, and we too have done what has been asked of us. Our role could become even more vital, to step up as orchestra musicians seek other opportunities. But while musician pay is on the chopping block, I have a hunch that an easier cut by far will be slashing sub pay. A move which initially will leave us scrambling to scoop up whatever other work we can, and for many of us will be the moment when it no longer makes sense to have a career as a sub. We will follow the logical path toward reliable work; a smaller orchestra job, a teaching position, or subbing in another town. Even if we stay in town, when that 9:10 call comes on Tuesday morning, it just might not be worth it.


Filed under Not My Writing