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Minnesota Orchestra and SPCO 2012 Negotiations: Week -3

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…

***Minnesota Orchestra***

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.”

9 September

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:

12 September

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 – ?

21 September.

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.

***Minnesota Orchestra***

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.

13 September

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!

14 September

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.


Filed under My Writing

Minnesota Orchestra and SPCO 2012 Negotiations: Week -4

The Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s musicians’ contracts both expire on September 30, and a lot hangs in the balance. Despite the nearness of this important date, I haven’t been able to find a decent up-to-date compendium of information about the discussions. I wasn’t going to blog about the situation myself beyond what I already have, for the simple reason I find the subject matter sad. But after the Minnesota Orchestra’s Inside the Classics blog was suspended (or ended, or put on hold, or whatever the crap it was) a few days ago, I got more than sad; I got pissed, and I decided I might as well channel that pissedness into something semi-useful. I had some spare time, and I figured I could at least assemble some links for people so they can read up on the situation without having to compulsively stalk Google News. Everything I write here will be based solely on what has already been said in blog entries, interviews, newspaper articles, etc. There will be no gossip here – no secrets – no “I heard from such and such who said that such and such said such” – no unnamed sources – no scoops: just information that is already publicly available to anyone with an Internet connection. Work by other writers who use any of the above methods of information-gathering will be promptly ignored, because that’s just not my style. You guys can use Google Blogsearch if you really want to read that kind of stuff (although I’m not sure why you’d want to).

Before we begin, keep in mind I’m not a journalist, or a union drone, or an arts administrator. I’m just a blogger, a freelance violinist and violist, and a patron of both the SPCO and the Minnesota Orchestra. I have an instinctive sympathy for professional musicians. I want both orchestras to continue to perform at the highest possible level, and for the long-term. And as I’ve mentioned in this blog before, I have professional and personal connections with people who are in both ensembles. So yes, I will do my best to be fair, but no, I will not be neutral. If you feel this renders what I have to say irrelevant, feel free to stop reading.

I’m planning on doing one entry a week, with each entry being updated as many times as I deem necessary throughout the course of the week. That way I won’t spam you with dozens of short updates. Visit daily if you want to see the most recent stuff. Or, if you patronize violinist.com, as I know some of you do, keep an eye out for updates, as I’m also planning to post them there, too.

Remember, even if you’re not in the Twin Cities, you can help by liking the Musicians of the SPCO and Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra on Facebook. Doing so will keep you up-to-date on what’s happening and give you suggestions for how to help.

Here’s to speedy, satisfactory resolutions for both organizations. Love you guys.


Week -4 (30 August – 8 September)

30 August 2012

The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) and Minnesota Orchestra are currently in the process of re-negotiating their musicians’ contracts, both of which (coincidentally) expire on September 30. In the next few weeks (and possibly beyond…) there will be a lot of news coming fast and heavy from all four sides. What’s happening in the Twin Cities has the potential to become a national story, and y’all really should keep an eye on us to see what our orchestras and our communities do right…or wrong. I’m keeping a running entry here discussing what is going on from my perspective as both an SPCO and Minnesota Orchestra patron and music blogger. Anyone with additional thoughts or news, please chime in.

To start, Minnesota Public Radio ran a primer on the situation here.


Five days ago, an article called “Fearing for ‘our orchestra as we know it'” written by Evelina Chao, assistant principal viola with the SPCO, was posted on the St. Paul Pioneer Press website. You can read that here. (I recommend doing so.) Chao writes, “Unfortunately, in recent negotiations to sign a new contract (our current agreement expires Sept. 30) the SPCO management and board have proposed wage cuts of 57 percent and 67 percent, as well as reducing drastically the number of concerts involving our full ensemble. These proposals have caused some musicians to sell their homes, audition for jobs elsewhere, and request leave in order to seek work in another field… Corporations reduce costs by outsourcing work. We believe our management envisions reducing costs by making wages untenable for existing musicians, causing them to leave, and by importing people from elsewhere to perform as SPCO musicians on a per-service basis.”

On August 28, MPR ran a story about various SPCO musicians heading to the Minnesota State Fair to share their talents and spread awareness of the situation to the public. In this article, SPCO Interim President Dobson West is quoted as saying, “I don’t know how they arrived at those numbers, but they are not correct numbers. We have never proposed that kind of a magnitude of a cut.” I’ve been unable to find an interview in which Mr. West discusses (what he feels are) the correct numbers. When he does make them public, I’ll post a link to them here.

That same day, the musicians of the SPCO released a PDF summary of the negotiations so far. You can read that here. This document discusses some eyebrow-raising changes to insurance, tenure procedures, seniority pay, sub compensation, etc. Go read it. It’s…pretty depressing. Cue up some happy, triumphant music to listen to afterward; you’ll likely need it.

***Minnesota Orchestra***

We’ve heard comparatively little coming out of Minneapolis this week, but my gut tells me that’s likely to change within the next few days, as musicians and management are meeting today (August 30).

One story that has flown entirely under the radar is that on August 27 the orchestra’s blog was unceremoniously stopped with this truly bizarre post. All it says is, “The Inside the Classics section of our website is currently being redesigned. Sam and Sarah’s blog will be temporarily inactive, as we plan the 2012-13 season at the Minneapolis Convention Center, which begins February 8, 2013. We look forward to sharing the new season with you.”


The Minnesota Orchestra blog is (um, was) written by a violist (Sam) and the principal pops conductor (Sarah); they co-host the Orchestra’s Inside the Classics series. Clearly there was no serious discussion about the cessation of the blog with either of them. There were no good-byes, and no hint of an impending ending or break in previous entries. The author of the Truly Bizarre Post is not Sam or Sarah, but rather a shadowy figure, heretofore unknown, named “admin”. Don’t let the excuse that they’re busy planning the upcoming season fool you: the Inside the Classics series has been going on for years now, and both Sam and Sarah are consummate professionals who are fully capable of updating a blog and planning a concert series at the same time. I can literally think of no credible reason why this happened. (Someone is scared they’ll write a pro-musician entry? Someone doesn’t want the public asking questions about the negotiations in the comments section? An escaped enraged zoo monkey came into the Orchestra’s offices and started slapping on a keyboard and miraculously typed those exact words and then by accident clicked post?) And “admin” is going to blame the blog’s break – or whatever it is – on Sam and Sarah’s implied inability to balance both, when they’ve balanced both for years? Really? … As my best friend says, “LAAAAYAME!” If whoever is behind this entry is going to lie so transparently, he or she could at least do us the favor of lying entertainingly. How about telling us how Sam and Sarah are going on an exciting African safari for the next six months?

As a music blogger myself, this really annoys me. (Clearly.) I can’t think of two better bloggers on orchestral culture, and it just seems the height of stupidity and irresponsibility to kick those articulate voices to the curb, presumably with no warning. Hey, Minnesota Orchestra, if you’re trying to foster good-will with your public, here’s a news flash: you’re failing. Miserably.

1 September 2012

First off, a welcome to my new blog readers. Hello! This article spread like influenza; night before last I laid in bed with my laptop until one in the morning, repeatedly clicking refresh on my stats page, shocked at the numbers I was seeing. (You guys stay up late!) There is clearly a real thirst to know more about what’s happening. Hopefully this interest is a sign of how beloved these two orchestras are. Like I said above, please feel free to comment here and engage in a dialogue. I approve all blog comments that aren’t spam, no matter how violently you disagree with what I’m doing. Look in the comment section for proof of that.

Onto business.

I forgot to mention in my last entry that on August 27 MPR put out an article with the provocative title, “Do the Twin Cities need 2 orchestras?” Upon reading that question, angry defensive heartburn ensued. However, despite the tone of the headline, it actually turned out to be a pretty pro-orchestra article, and draws the conclusion that yeah, two orchestras are cool…and even necessary. Thanks for the coverage, MPR, but please don’t use skeptical headlines like that again, or I might be tempted to fling back the question: “Do the Twin Cities need 2 sports teams?” And that would not be a classy move on my part.

Moving on…


There has been relatively little news out of St. Paul over the last forty-eight hours. However, I was happy to see this article on MinnPost’s website because it included a long-awaited public response from SPCO Interim CEO Dobson West on Evelina Chao’s Pioneer Press article. It’s worth checking out in full, but here’s the Reader’s Digest version: “We have never proposed and wouldn’t propose salary cuts in the 57 to 67 percent range. That magnitude is way beyond anything we have proposed… We are not reducing in any way our commitment to the community in terms of the number of concerts we perform. We perform roughly 120 concerts per year. We will continue to do that… It is not our intention at all to turn this into a per-service orchestra. We understand that it is important to the overall sound to have a constancy among our musicians…  We have a great ensemble. Everybody – the musicians, staff, board, and management – loves this ensemble. We do not want to do anything to damage it. But we cannot ignore the financial realities we face, and that other arts organizations – in particular, orchestras – face. We need to address the largest single cost we have, which is our musicians.” I’m happy to hear from management, but unfortunately these remarks muddy the waters more than anything: they make very clear that one side is either point-blank lying, or else very very stupid. Who is it, and which is it? As best as I can tell, no actual numbers or percentages – or really any details about management’s proposals, period – were discussed in this interview…just refutations of Chao’s article. So feel free to speculate, I guess. As MinnPost rather helplessly notes: “Until journalists are invited to the bargaining table, this is what we know.”

The organization MN2020 put out a pointed editorial called “Sour Notes” drawing parallels between the SPCO’s situation and the exciting national pastime of union-bashing. Regardless of your opinion of the author’s politically progressive viewpoint, I think we can all agree on its closing line: “Mediocrity yields no rewards.” Artistic…or fiscal.

***Minnesota Orchestra***

There’s not much to report from the other side of the river. Today the Minnesota Orchestra musicians posted a blog entry describing the latest talks with management. Here is the entirety of the entry: “On August 30 and 31, the Musicians met with the board and management in two sessions totaling 5 hours. The parties continued to discuss both artistic and financial issues, and agreed to meet again in September.” End entry. This is by far the vaguest report we’ve gotten yet. I was interested to see the talks apparently extended to August 31; last I heard they’d only been scheduled for August 30. Read into that what you will.

2 September 2012


Over the last week, the musicians of the SPCO and the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra have taken markedly different approaches to the PR battle. The SPCO has been blogging, posting on Facebook, writing editorials, soliciting testimonials, giving interviews…while the Minnesota musicians have been almost totally silent. The differences in approach are striking, and it will be interesting to watch how they play out in the upcoming weeks.

SPCO bassoonist Carole Mason-Smith gave interviews to progressive radio hosts Nancy Nelson on August 30 and Jack Rice on September 2. You can listen to the interview with Nelson here (Ms. Mason-Smith’s interview begins at 44:30, after Nelson gives an amusingly stereotypical liberal apology for shouting her guest down in a previous segment…it’s like a real-life version of Russ Lieber from The Colbert Report!). The interview with Rice starts here (at 29:00). Personally, although I’m unabashedly liberal and likely agree with the majority of their opinions, I’m not a tremendous fan of either Nelson or Rice’s interviewing styles…although of the two, Rice elicits the more enlightening conversation by far. Keep in mind if you’re politically conservative, or in any way sympathetic to management’s positions, your mileage may vary with these interviews. However, despite any Olbermann-esque tendencies on behalf of the hosts, Carole Mason-Smith was a brilliant, lovely, level-headed surrogate for the SPCO musicians. Kudos to her. She also recently appeared in this lovely little interview with Fox 9. If you watch it, you can see some Telemann!

As an outside observer, I do have to say that the SPCO musicians have really kicked management’s butts in the PR battle over the last couple of weeks. In interview after interview after interview, the conflict has been framed almost exclusively in pro-musician terms, and management has done hardly anything to push back against that narrative…save for Dobson West’s brief (and confusing) interview with MinnPost on Friday. Do they not think they need to win an argument in the court of public opinion? – are they still formulating a strategy of their own to communicate their vision? – do they not have a vision? – are they waiting until we get closer to September 30 to discuss these things? If they are waiting until closer to the deadline to speak, why don’t they say so? At this point your guess is as good as mine. But the silence is deafening. And very weird.

On September 1, conductor and SPCO artistic partner Edo de Waart gave an interview in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, discussing his upcoming concerts with the SPCO. He was asked, “Are you following the contract issues at SPCO?” He responded with a simply lovely sentiment: “If you ask me this question in two weeks, I would say yes. Since I’m only a partner, I do not inject myself into it. My point of view is this: If a country with 350 million people that prides itself as one of the greatest countries that ever was can’t sustain a 35-piece full-time chamber orchestra, the only one in that country, that’s really shameful. I’m not blaming anybody, but there should be a way that can exist. This is a jewel. It’s a beautiful little orchestra. It cannot, in my view, it should not be made smaller and it needs to keep its competitive edge by attracting the best players by paying a decent salary.” This is a simply beautiful summation of what I feel in my heart, and I thank the maestro for verbalizing it.

That same day, the SPCO musicians released a collection of charts discussing their salaries and such, the detail of which would make the graph-obsessed Paul Ryan proud. I am notoriously math-impaired so I’m not going to comment on them, but if you want to delve into the numerical geekery yourself, click here.

***Minnesota Orchestra***

We’ve heard nothing new from Minneapolis besides what I wrote yesterday. In the absence of news, we send the organization our thoughts and best wishes.

4 September 2012

Here’s a switch from Sunday: today there is no news from St. Paul, and a couple of items out of Minneapolis…

***Minnesota Orchestra***

According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra will put on a free concert at the Lake Harriet Bandshell on September 16 at 4pm. Instead of relying on the Minnesota Orchestra to organize the show, the musicians are doing it all themselves. Courtesy of an unfortunate sentence fragment, it’s unclear who the conductor is, but it seems to be bass player William Schrickel. Banished “Inside the Classics” blogger / orchestra violist Sam Bergman will serve as host. The Minnesota Orchestra Musicians’ website says the Lake Harriet Bandshell concert used to be an annual tradition, but it hasn’t been observed since 2007. So it’s very, very cool they’re bringing it back this year. The program includes work by Beethoven, Dvorak, Williams, and Heitzig, among others. You should go!

In other Minneapolis news, public radio personality Marianne Combs re-posted a link to the “Do the Twin Cities need 2 orchestras?” article from last week. There’s no new information in Combs’s post, but you might want to follow the comments, if only to take the pulse of the public radio crowd.

5 September 2012, 11:30AM

No news from Minneapolis yet today, but geez the SPCO more than made up for that: management has released a mother lode of documents. Late last night my reader “St. Olaf Musicians” left the following link in my comment section:


This is a link that came in a September 4 email to SPCO patrons from the interim CEO Dobson West. I have not found this site in my (literally) hours of reading about this conflict. I am not sure when it went live. It has never appeared on a Google News search or a Google Blogsearch search. It also – as best as I can tell – is not linked from the SPCO website. No media outlet has yet acknowledged its existence. We’ll see if reporters pick up the story today or tomorrow.

There’s enough information here to keep a journalist busy for days. Highlights include a Pioneer Press editorial co-written by Dobson West on September 1 (why did this not appear with a Google News search? why haven’t any other websites or newspapers picked it up?), summaries of negotiations from management’s perspective, and letters between attorneys. And that’s just touching the surface. There is a lot of stuff here.

I won’t be able to offer the context and perspective that this chunk of information deserves. I’m too young and have no experience in arts administration. So, hey, American arts journalists and bloggers and anyone who can translate this stuff into plain English and doesn’t have an ideological ax to grind: Listen the crap up. I’m likely naive in hoping for this, but it is really time for you guys to step up to the plate. This is not a time to imitate the vapidity, commercialism, and false equivalences of a 24-hour news network. This is the time for some serious hard-hitting journalism. A lot is at stake. And these stories are not adding up.

Once I’ve had time to process these very dense documents, and check them against the documents the SPCO musicians have made available, I’ll offer some thoughts and questions from my perspective as a patron.

As a totally off-topic nitpick, am I the only one who is really turned off by the way that West signs his letters to SPCO board and musicians as “Dobby”? Has he never read Harry Potter? This is not a character you want people to think of when they read your name in a business setting. In a conversation as important as this, every word counts, every word makes an impression. Best to come across as professionally as possible with a full name, and not risk associating yourself with an obsequious house-elf with Dark Wizard masters. Yes, this complaint may be illogical. But on the other hand, illogical first impressions very quickly add up to an opinion.

As always, feel free to share what you think here.

Below I’ve reproduced the email that my reader “St. Olaf Musicians” says was sent out to SPCO patrons yesterday.

September 4, 2012

Dear SPCO Patron,

I want to take this opportunity to welcome you to The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s 2012-13 season.

Our season kicks off with a free concert at 7pm this Thursday night in Saint Paul’s beautiful Mears Park as part of the Concrete and Grass Music Festival. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Artistic Partner Edo de Waart joins us for a program featuring Stravinsky’s Concerto for Strings and Octet for Winds alongside Beethoven’s grand Eroica Symphony. The following weekend we welcome two Artistic Partners to the stage when Edo de Waart and Christian Zacharias join the orchestra for Brahms’ magnificent Second Piano Concerto alongside two of Strauss’s finest works, the Opus 7 Serenade for Winds and Metamorphosen. We hope you have the opportunity to join us for these great season-opening programs.

We’re proud to announce that more than 2,500 people have now joined our SPCO Membership program. SPCO Members can attend unlimited SPCO concerts for only $5 per month. We’re especially pleased to see that a significant number of brand new audience members have joined us through this program. In addition to our affordable new Membership program, our regular ticket prices are also affordable at only $10, $25 or $40 each. Low prices are part of our commitment to being accessible to the broadest possible audience. As a result of our accessibility efforts, our annual attendance has increased by over 20,000 over the last decade. What’s more, we’ve been able to significantly reduce our marketing expenses, so that we are now generating more net revenue than we were with higher ticket prices. We’re delighted that what makes good sense for our mission has also proven to be a financial success.

In the midst of the excitement surrounding the start of our new season, you may also have heard that the SPCO and its musicians’ union are in the process of negotiating a new contract, as the current contract expires on September 30. The SPCO, like many orchestras across the country, faces a challenging financial situation due to long-term changes in the arts funding landscape, exacerbated by the economic downturn. We’ve done much to avoid deficits in recent years through aggressive expense reduction on the administrative side of the budget, having eliminated over $1.5 million in annual expenses since 2008, including reducing the size of the staff by 17%. However, the work we’ve done to date has not been sufficient to solve our financial challenge, and we will have a deficit of up to $1 million for the fiscal year that ended in June. If nothing changes, we will face even larger deficits in the years to come.

Our future health and vitality is dependent on aligning our expenses with our predictable, sustainable revenues. Musicians’ salaries and benefits comprise the single largest expense item in the SPCO budget and we are now looking for the contract to be a part of the solution. It is our sincere hope to work as collaborators with our musicians in solving this challenge. We value our musicians’ considerable talents, training and dedication, and we are confident that by working together we can develop a solution that ensures the SPCO is both financially sustainable and artistically vibrant.

There have been some rumors circulating about what the SPCO Board and Management intend to accomplish through these negotiations, so I’d like to take this opportunity to set the record straight. The SPCO does not intend to reduce the number of orchestra concerts we offer to this community. We do not intend to cut musician compensation in half, create a part-time orchestra or move to a freelance model. We are committed to having a chamber orchestra of the highest caliber in this community for years to come, but we will only be able to accomplish this if we have a contract that we can afford.

As the season begins, it’s likely that our contract negotiations will become a more prominent part of the public discussion. If at any point you have questions about what you are hearing, we invite you to contact us directly. We will continue to provide you with updates as there is news to share, and you may also visit our negotiations updates webpage at thespco.org/contract.

Meanwhile, enjoy the start of the 2012-13 season! And if you’d like to enjoy even more SPCO music in the comfort of your own home (or on your iPhone or iPad), we invite you to visit our Listening Library at thespco.org/music, where you’ll find more than 250 full-length SPCO recordings available for free listening.

Thank you for supporting the SPCO. Now more than ever, we’re extremely grateful for the support from our audience members and generous contributors. We look forward to seeing you this season.


Dobson West



This isn’t going to end well, is it?

5 September 2012, 3:30PM

***Minnesota Orchestra***

The Minnesota Orchestra management has launched a new website discussing the conflict from management’s POV. You can find that here. It’s loaded with as much information as the SPCO’s new pro-management website is.

The centerpiece of the website is management’s proposal. According to this MPR article, under this proposal, “the average wage of a musician in the orchestra” will drop from $135,000 to $89,000. The Minneapolis Star Tribune says, “The average base salary of a musician would fall to $78,000 from a current level of $109,000.” “Average wage” and “average base salary”: those are important distinctions to keep in mind as you follow this story.

Public radio personality Marianne Combs summarized the information dump in an article titled “MN Orchestra opens up about contract negotiations.” “The orchestra has launched a web page on its site with links to the 2012 contract proposal, the orchestra’s most recent annual report, and supplemental information on the negotiations, the endowment and other financial challenges. For journalists this is great news – it means we have access to a wealth of information that will help us to better analyse the situation, and tell you the complete story. Check back in the coming days as we dig in to the details to sift out the most important facts, and talk to the Minnesota Orchestra musicians to hear their side of the story.”

It’s comforting to hear that MPR is on this. Their coverage of “Orchestral Apocalypse ‘012” has consistently outshone the Pioneer Press and Star Tribune’s. If you only have time to follow the coverage of one media outlet, follow MPR.


The Star Tribune also is on the SPCO story that I posted about earlier today. Not much new information in that article, though.

It’s times like these that one wishes instantaneous cloning was possible. One brain is simply not enough. These kinds of discussions would be confusing enough with just one orchestra, but then when you have two going through basically the same thing at the same time in the same metro area…it becomes mind-bending.

And the cynical part of me wonders if management wanted it this way. Do you think it was coincidence that both orchestras released the exact same kind of data within twenty-four hours of one another, after clearly spending a long time assembling it, and very possibly a long time sitting on it? Are the orchestras’ managements coordinating in any way? If so, how? For that matter, are the orchestras’ musicians coordinating in any way? If so, how? I wonder.

Is anyone else reading through these dozens and dozens of pages? What are you noticing? What are you thinking? What are you feeling? Anyone up for a group therapy session? Anyone wanting to get drunk yet? I don’t even drink and I want to get drunk. Badly.

All the analysis I have to offer right now is that this is sad, and I’m sad. I’ve been steeling myself for this conflict for months, but…it’s still sad.

6 September 2012

The bombshell of the morning is that the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra are claiming that management went public with its proposal without telling the musicians they were going to do so (if I’m understanding correctly). I don’t really know what to say to that, but here’s the most recent Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra blog entry. And here’s a Star Tribune article about what happened.

Lots and lots and lots of questions here. What kind of warning did management give to musicians before making the contract public? If they didn’t give any warning, why not? Because going public without telling the musicians beforehand seems…unnecessarily dickish. (Kind of like shutting down the Inside the Classics blog without telling its authors. Sorry, but I’m still bitter about that one.) Is it true there were no counter-proposals from musicians? If so, why? The musicians say that two years ago management rejected $1.5 million in concessions from musicians. What’s the story behind that? We desperately need someone to cut through all this spin.

One thing I’m seeing a lot of on various blogs and newspapers is analysis of salary cuts, with only brief mentions here and there of the proposed changes to working conditions. Call me crazy, but I’m not convinced that the salary cut is the most important thing at stake here. Yes, a 25% pay cut makes a big flashy exciting headline. It entices people to click on links and take umbrage. But I’m guessing the musicians consider the myriad of other changes within the contract to be the bigger issue. As trombonist Doug Wright says in the Star Tribune this morning, “…They are trying to erase 40 years of accrued working conditions” (italics mine). Keep an eye on this in the coming weeks; remember this is not just a battle over salary and numbers. The musicians believe they are fighting for not just a world-class salary, but world-class working conditions that will attract – and retain – world-class talent. They claim that many will seek work elsewhere if the proposals are enacted, and unfortunately, it seems they have a legitimate concern: look at the number of musicians who left the orchestra just within the last season alone. And according to the Minnesota Orchestra Musicians’ website, for what that’s worth: “The Minnesota Orchestra has an unprecedented number of unfilled positions at this time – more than 10% of the orchestra. The Musicians are deeply concerned that there are no auditions planned at this time to fill any of the vacancies.” One important question that will help you decide where you stand: do you think the musicians are bluffing when they say that many of them will quit if management’s proposals are enacted? I have the advantage of knowing some of these musicians. The ones I know? They aren’t bluffing.

I haven’t yet had the time – or frankly, the inclination – to wade through the massive information dump the Minnesota Orchestra management put out. (I’m still stuck in the SPCO’s.) But I did glance through it, and one portion of Minnesota’s Q&A really rubbed me the wrong way. It can be found here, under “Will pay cuts cause the best talent to leave the orchestra?”

Salary is one factor that helps people to determine whether they want to remain in a job. [And the award for “Most Obvious Sentence In The History Of Ever” goes to… Minnesota Orchestra Management! Congratulations!] There are many other factors as well, especially in a mission-driven organization like the Minnesota Orchestra. This orchestra has many great advantages for musicians. The Twin Cities are a terrific place to live, with a cost of living lower than in many other cities where top orchestras are located. And the Minnesota Orchestra has a great artistic profile because our board, music director and management are committed to ensuring that our organization continues to tour, make recordings and engage in artistically significant projects. [Yeah, musicians: what have you done lately to raise the orchestra’s artistic profile? Pffff.] This positively impacts the daily lives of Minnesota Orchestra musicians.

So, if I’m reading that right: “well, the Twin Cities are awesome, and we’re still going to let our musicians tour and record and stuff, so despite unpopular wide-reaching changes in their contract, and despite the fact many of them could make more money and have more fulfilling careers elsewhere, we think and hope the musicians will stay”? Hmm, where have I heard phrases about how one should avoid planning for the future based on hope rather than reality lately…(hint: it’s the fourth paragraph down).

I’d be grateful if a reporter could ask someone in Minnesota management what their thoughts are about the very real possibility of a mass exodus. What happens if, say, even ten of the musicians leave? (And unfortunately, I can envision a scenario where many more than ten leave…) Is management prepared for such a scenario? How would they feel if such a thing transpired? Would they feel regret? Sadness? Shock? Do they feel that an orchestra full of substitute players will be able to retain the same high artistic standard as full-time players?

It seems awfully naive to expect to sustain a world-class orchestra by providing less than world-class wages and working conditions. I’d be so much more comfortable if the powers-that-be openly acknowledge that yes, their proposal may well make people leave, and negatively affect the quality of the orchestra…but that’s what tough economic times call for, and that’s a sacrifice Minnesota is willing to make. I don’t like when political parties earnestly claim we can balance the budget without raising taxes or cutting entitlements. And I don’t like it when a similar tactic is used here. Management may be telling musicians that they can’t eat their cake and have it, too…but neither can management when they paint an unrealistically rosy picture of the orchestra’s artistic future.

On a closing note, I want to caution everyone following this story: take nothing, absolutely nothing, at face value. Refuse to trust anyone. (That includes me.) Orchestra contracts are complicated, complicated beasts that are impossible for outsiders to fully understand. If you’re not in the business – and sometimes even when you are in the business – you will not be able to judge the accuracy or implications of what anyone is saying. Period. There will be endless ways to massage numbers, phrases, proposals…especially when negotiations are ongoing, and the terms are (presumably) open to shifting. So take everything that is being said right now with not just a grain of salt, but a f***ing salt mine. And hang tight.

7 September 2012

Hey guys, are you ready for your daily dose of orchestral acrimony? If so, take an aspirin, pop some popcorn, and gather round!

Here’s MPR’s story “Orchestra contract talks a matter of money vs. artistry” and here’s a MinnPost article that briefly discusses the conflict. I love this line in MinnPost: “With current contracts for both the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra set to expire Sept. 30, we’re hearing a lot more than we usually hear from both sides, maybe more than we want.” Take it from someone who has spent hours every day this week attempting to comb through it all: we are hearing more than we want. A lot more.


Not much news from the SPCO today. Hopefully patrons and journalists are still paging through the information dump from a few days ago (I know I am). The biggest piece of news, which I suppose is not really news at all, is that the musicians are pissed. Last night I read this status update on the SPCO musicians’ Facebook page, with a link to the MPR story linked above: “Good news! According to this article, the SPCO musicians’ average salary is $110,000, whereas last week our management was quoted saying our average salary was $90,000, and we are supposed to believe their budgetary forecasts?”

SPCO musicians? As Jon Stewart says…could I see you over at camera three?

Look. You have a point. (Although I’m not sure which article it was where management quoted the $90,000 figure…it would be great if you could include that link, too, because there have been so many articles lately.) However, despite the fact you have a point, this update made me strangely uncomfortable. Such a tone was unnecessary. It may be cathartic, but it will win over no new converts to the cause, and will only serve to further antagonize your opponents. Yes, I know you guys have been through hell this last year. I can only imagine what it must feel like. You have been disrespected and condescended to, and you have every right in the world to be upset. But imagine what someone who hasn’t been following this story day in and day out might think if they hear one side use snark. Status updates and blog entries are forever. You must never write anything in the heat of the moment. And remember: public opinion exists not on a pro-musician or pro-management continuum…public sentiment can very very very very very easily turn anti-musician AND anti-management. So please, please, court goodwill wherever you can. Be sickeningly sweet in public, even if you keep a Dobby dartboard in your basement. And yes, I realize I’m one to talk…in the course of this blog project, I have compared the Minnesota Orchestra management to penises and linked SPCO Interim CEO Dobson West to a house-elf…but I’m not associated with you guys. Be better than me. And everybody else. (At least in public. Privately, feel free to say what you want.)

Okay, unsolicited lecture over. Just…be careful, okay? And work on the assumption that people who are just tuning into this story are going to get tired of both you and management. Quickly.

That being said, Dobson West does come off in interviews and in SPCO documents as annoying, incompetent, and out-of-touch, and often breathtakingly so. In the MPR article, he says, “The world has changed around us and we can’t continue on, using the same old model. Will we get it right the first time? Who knows? But we are intent on finding a long-term solution.”

I think that deserves to be repeated: “Will we get it right the first time? Who knows?”

“Who knows?”

“Who knows?”!?!?!?!?

Yes, I too find that calling for risky controversial change and then expressing a flippant doubt to MPR that the risky controversial change might not actually work always serves to highlight a person’s executive competence and leadership abilities!

Sorry. I’m falling victim to the same bad temper as everyone else. Sigh. But…camera three time again.

Look. Mr. West, the  St. Paul Chamber Orchestra is not some kind of non-profit laboratory. There is no “first time.” There is “a one and only time.” If you blow this chance, if you make any mistakes, the SPCO will suffer, and very possibly suffer very badly. However, we all know you won’t need to worry about that, because by the time the worst is over, you likely won’t be here. Because in a few years, if not earlier, you’ll get another job (that is, if you can get hired if you drive the SPCO into the ground, but face it, you probably will). Then I and my Twin Cities friends will get stuck with the task of rebuilding. And that is not cool. So please please please don’t be so flippant. This was a huge misstep on your part, and it would be lovely if you’d apologize, or at the least explain what the h*** you meant.

***Minnesota Orchestra***

Despite all that, the biggest news of the day comes from the Minnesota musicians, who are requesting “an independent audit of the organization’s finances, including its endowments.” (Star Tribune article here. Question: have the journalists over at the Pioneer Press died? Do we need to send someone over there to check if they’re okay?) The request was made in a letter from chief union negotiator Bruce Simon to Paul Zech, counsel for the orchestra board’s bargaining team. I guess the insinuation is that management is massaging numbers upward to make things look better when they want to fundraise and polish their resumes, and then massaging them downward again when they want sharp concessions from musicians. According to the Star Tribune, management said in a statement, “We’ve answered these questions many times in our negotiations sessions, so we have no specific comment today.” It’s not clear from the article which questions management is referring to, although I’m assuming they concern the state of the endowment. I can’t find the full text of the statement myself, so, um, feel free to speculate as to context. It does strike me as strange that something discussed in negotiation sessions is regarded as something the public doesn’t need to see. I thought we were in a brave new world of transparency in our negotiations? If one side is justified in going public with a proposed contract without telling the other, why would an audit on an endowment be considered unreasonable? Am I missing something very big and very obvious? All I found on management’s website about the endowment was a shiny superficial annual report and strategic plan that says very little, if anything, about what is actually in it. If anyone else knows what, if any, information about the endowment has been made public, let me know. What would the downsides of an independent audit be, besides the expense? It’s not exactly a secret that nobody at the table trusts, respects, or particularly likes each other. So wouldn’t it be a good idea to bring in an independent party to get everyone on the same page? Or am I just hopelessly naive?

There’s also some disheartening news about working conditions (remember that phrase from yesterday?) that no one but MPR is covering. “The orchestra proposes reducing the musicians’ average salary from $135,000 a year to $89,000. It also would reduce the amount of paid medical leave available to them. The players receive up to 26 weeks of fully paid medical leave because of the physical stresses of the job. Under the proposed contract, that pay would be cut in half after 13 weeks of medical leave.”

I need to take a deep breath after that sentence. It hits home more than anything else that has been discussed so far. I’m a freelance violinist and violist. I’m also disabled with a variety of illnesses that leave me in perpetual chronic pain. I’ve had to give up many jobs over the years because of injuries. I understand the physical, mental, emotional agony of a musician unable to play, and I understand it intimately. And so I say with authority: this is not a reduction to be made lightly. If you are not a professional performing musician, you do not understand the potential implications of this reduction. Period. No exceptions. I’d like to know 1) how many people in the orchestra have needed more than 13 weeks of medical leave in, say, the last ten seasons, 2) how many weeks of fully paid medical leave peer orchestras offer, and 3) how much money this measure would save. (Although, on second thought, I don’t trust anyone’s numbers at this point, so maybe point 3 is irrelevant…) If I was in the Minnesota Orchestra, this provision alone very well could be the breaking point that would encourage me to retire or seek more flexible work elsewhere. If it becomes a financial necessity for players to perform through pain and injury, their very careers could be at stake. The consequences of this proposal really cannot be overstated. Something like this makes the salary stuff seem like a side-story.

I got a Minnesota Orchestra season brochure in the mail yesterday. I laughed bitterly when I saw it. Given what has transpired over the last few days, I have the feeling that I might just as well tear out the first few pages of that brochure and put them through the shredder. Maybe I will, if only to experience some kind of weird twisted catharsis.

7 September 2012, 4:30 PM

Remember oh, I don’t know, maybe about 24 hours ago, when I mentioned that there might be a mass exodus of musicians from the Twin Cities? Exhibit A: the principal clarinetist of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, who has been with the group since 1977, has submitted his letter of resignation. Dear managements: How many players will have to leave before you admit your plans may be having an adverse effect on retaining and attracting world-class musicians? I’d like two hard numbers, please: the number of musicians you think will leave by the end of the 2012-13 season, and the number you think would indicate we have a problem. That would be awesome. Thanks.


I continue my blogging on this entry. So feel free to hop over there.


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