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Emily Hogstad

Minnesota Orchestra and SPCO Negotiations: Summary of Week -3

September 14, 2012 at 9:01 PM

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

SPCO

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

Happily, the musicians didn't reject the terms of the proposed contract outright, and in fact they almost seemed vaguely hopeful about them. "The musicians of the SPCO are encouraged, and we think our supporters should be, too, to learn the SPCO management has found money to spend. However, we are puzzled by how they intend to invest these funds. We hope to learn more in our upcoming negotiations scheduled for next Monday and Tuesday."

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

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

Minnesota Orchestra

Developments in Minneapolis were a lot more depressing this week.

If you'll remember from last week, after management released their proposed contract without the musicians' say or knowledge via website, the musicians fought back by requesting an independent audit of the orchestra's finances, alleging that different people have been given different numbers at different times. Management responded thus: "Every year the Minnesota Orchestra performs a thorough, independent audit process by one of the nation's top accounting firms. We have shared all of our recent audited results with the Union and answered these questions many times in our negotiation sessions over the last five months." This doesn't address the musicians' allegation, so feel free to speculate. (I've used the phrase "feel free to speculate" so often on my blog lately I feel inclined to trademark it...)

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

"The number of highly trained musicians that this country is producing every year is really quite remarkable. If you just take the top echelon of music schools in the U.S., they produce almost 3,000 performing artists a year. So couple what's happening in the marketplace with a large supply - not to dismiss the fact that we don't want to lose any of our wonderful musicians - but there may be some changes."

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

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

"These are real people with real lives, and they have to protect their own financial circumstances and artistic integrity. There's a risk that they find their way to another place, and those who can leave will. It's going to be a personal decision where they want to perform."

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

More next weekend.


From Scott Cole
Posted on September 15, 2012 at 4:11 PM
"The number of highly trained musicians that this country is producing every year is really quite remarkable. If you just take the top echelon of music schools in the U.S., they produce almost 3,000 performing artists a year. So couple what's happening in the marketplace with a large supply - not to dismiss the fact that we don't want to lose any of our wonderful musicians - but there may be some changes."

Just to play the devil's advocate: Campbell's words could really apply to any industry or job, whether one works in an Apple retail store or a symphony orchestra. It's the simple reality, sometimes unspoken, and sometimes blatantly articulated, of the reality of the market. After all, what else would one expect from a banker?

The fact is, that yearly tsunami of highly-trained classical musicians is what should make one cringe. Why DO so many conservatories exist?
The country has Juilliard, Curtis, Indiana, and San Francisco. Can someone explain why then we need Rice, Coburn, or Longy? Why on earth does Bard feel justified in having a conservatory? Does Ohio really need Cincinnati AND CIM? Practically every flagship state university has an aspiring conservatory, all with masters and most with doctoral programs. Why?

Exactly the same situation exists with law schools (but not veterinary schools, curiously): too many schools recruiting too many students and making too many promises, and then leaving them in deep debt with few opportunities.

The demand for live classical music may have "matured," but that didn't mean by definition that its practitioners had to be on unemployment. Instead, the opposite has happened: as the jobs peaked or disappeared, production of new musicians only increased.

The blame at this point is mostly with an academic system which places the interests of deans and professors first, and which rewards those who produce the most graduates. It's twisted in exactly the same way the mortgage crisis rewarded those who produced the most loans with no thought beyond self-interest.

Campbell, unfortunately, is right.

From Emily Hogstad
Posted on September 16, 2012 at 4:13 AM
I agree with you to a certain extent, especially about the college part, but do you really believe an orchestra the caliber of Minnesota can deal with a large exodus within a short period of time and still retain their cohesiveness and artistic excellence? I'm unconvinced, and a lot of other people who are intimately familiar with the Twin Cities music scene are, too. And not only that, but Campbell also supports a document that says that management will be able to heighten artistry (look at the Strategic Business plan on the Minnesota Orchestra pro-management website). The insinuation? One can have high turnover AND demoralization AND many musicians seeking work elsewhere AND heighten artistry. It's one thing to say there will be high turnover. It's another to say high turnover won't affect our ability to heighten the orchestra's standard of playing. I feel like management is trying to have its cake and eat it, too.

I wrote about this issue as how it applies specifically to the current Minnesota situation here.

I'd love to be proven wrong and see an orchestra with possibly up to as many as 30% subs and severe demoralization playing at a higher level than the same orchestra with 100% full-time players who are intimately familiar with one another and feel respected and valued. But such a leap seems unlikely to me, and it strikes me as risky (naive?) to assume we can count on artistry being heightened, given management's current proposals. This is what I want to point out. The comments wouldn't bother me nearly as much if Campbell had coupled them with the acknowledgment that Minnesota simply can't afford their best players anymore, and that we will sadly likely have to see them go, and that there's a very real possibility artistic standards will suffer as a result.

How badly, though, I don't know. Nobody does yet. But I'm not really keen on finding out. The artistry and chemistry of the Minnesota musicians is so amazing right now that to change a big chunk of personnel in a short period of time seems very very risky.

(edited slightly on 9/16 to clarify a couple points)

From Paul Deck
Posted on September 17, 2012 at 4:37 PM
"Do you really believe an orchestra the caliber of Minnesota can deal with a large exodus within a short period of time and still retain their cohesiveness and artistic excellence...?"

Perhaps not, but it's not so clear to me whether that will actually happen if salaries are lowered by 15%. I agree with Scott on the point that the business of orchestral music-making is subject to the same market forces as many other areas of professional employment. There is a tendency to believe that one's own field of employment is somehow "chosen" or "special" and that it should "rise above" the grim coldness of market forces. But it's only wishful thinking. Water-cooler talk often goes like this: "If they don't pay us what we ask, we'll all leave, and then they'll be screwed." The presumption is that all those gathered would have places to go, and these days, for classical musicians that's presuming a lot. You may say, "Surely the best ones will leave." The response is one of the oldest chestnuts of business management: "Nobody is irreplaceable." I bet a lot of orchestras are offering lower pay to new members. If so, then the grass is not going to be greener elsewhere. Those who are teaching on the side would need to build up new studios, and those who are playing wedding gigs on the side have developed reputations -- you can be assured that management is keenly aware of just how difficult it would be to replicate those parts of one's professional life in a new locality, especially if one has reached a "certain age" where one's first concern is likely to be one's spouse and family.

Coming back to the original question, it's not clear to me that the desirable qualities of the symphony cannot be reclaimed relatively quickly after hiring in a lot of new people. Sorry to be challenging your premise (and doing so with no experience aside from community orchestra), but if you hire in 30 of the best and brightest from the top conservatories (and there will be no shortage of applicants), my guess is that you can find people with quite a bit of chamber and orchestral experience from their conservatory training who will become cohesive soon enough. The clever music director will ease them in with some lighter fare. Maybe I'm just completely wrong about that, but I bet this is what management is hoping. Yes, management operates sometimes by wishful thinking too. Negotiation is a chess game, and when you play chess, you have to try to guess what your opponent is thinking.

On the other hand I don't agree necessarily with Scott about this all being the conservatories' fault. They're providing educations and training on demand. Is job placement really their responsibility? I think one has to examine that underlying demand for studentships and ask why there are so many who want to pursue this kind of career when it's so hard. I only hold the conservatories liable if they are making promises to applicants that they know are unlikely to come true.

From Emily Hogstad
Posted on September 18, 2012 at 4:07 PM
Paul, I don't claim to speak for any other orchestra besides Minnesota and SPCO, and I only speak for *them* as a fan, but...

"Perhaps not"... But management is saying that it will be possible for artistic standards *to rise* if they do this. It's in the literature on their website (which, btw, is full of misleading facts and figures and half-truths). I wouldn't have (as much of) a problem if they were honest and said "chances are, artistic standards will either plateau or decrease." But no, they're embarking on a full-fledged PR campaign to convince audiences high turnover = heightened standards of artistry. Lame.

"it's not so clear to me whether that will actually happen if salaries are lowered by 15%" Actually the SPCO musicians are arguing that it's not a 15% number, and is more like a 30% number. Minnesota musicians are saying the 28% cut that management is floating is actually up to a 50% cut for certain players. Read into that what you will; both sides are undoubtedly BS'ing a bit for PR. BUT, that being said, this is NOT primarily a salary issue; that's just the issue the media has fixed on. Salaries are semi-important, yes, but (IMHO) the more important issues here are working conditions and artistic direction, which, combined with the salary cuts, WILL cause people to leave the SPCO and Minnesota Orchestra. In fact, they already have. Look at this entry.

"The presumption is that all those gathered would have places to go, and these days, for classical musicians that's presuming a lot"... Once you get to a certain level, not really. Many of the musicians in Minnesota are so good they *could* go just about anywhere they want. That's why we love them so, for staying here when they could be anywhere in the world! Just recently, an SPCO player left to become concertmaster of Detroit - the assistant concertmaster of Minnesota left with her husband (also a Minnesota violinist) to become the concertmaster of Oregon Symphony (he won a job there, too) - a violist got into the San Francisco Symphony - another violist became assistant principal in Los Angeles. If I'm remembering right, Burt Hara of Minnesota was recently asked to sit in for a concert with the New York Philharmonic when they were looking for clarinetists, and the New York Times loved him. These are only the examples I can think of off the top of my head, and they all happened just within the last couple of seasons, before the new contract was made public. Based on past history, I don't think it's unreasonable to posit that a number of other musicians will be able to find other jobs elsewhere quite easily and quite quickly, especially once they know for sure what's happening and can start looking in earnest. The relationship between management and musicians has deteriorated so badly that many people are clearly willing to leave everything they have and start over in a new city. That's how bad it is.

"but if you hire in 30 of the best and brightest from the top conservatories (and there will be no shortage of applicants)..." But it will take literally years to hire 30 people. Literally. I don't mean to be rude, but I'm not sure if you're aware how much effort goes into a major symphony audition? It would take years to be able to plan 30 separate auditions, and it's not unheard of for auditions to pass with the audition panel realizing nobody is actually up for the job. We'd be stuck with subs in the meantime as they auditioned people. Not that subs are bad, but of necessity they don't have the cohesiveness that an orchestra the caliber of Minnesota has. And to heighten its sky-high level of artistry, Minnesota has to have every ounce of cohesiveness they can get, just because they're so damn good already. So management is trying to have its cake and eat it, too.

"The clever music director will ease them in with some lighter fare." Unfortunately, this is not an option; Minnesota is embarking on a recording of the Sibelius cycle. They can't back out of that. Many people from all over the world are watching.

"Negotiation is a chess game, and when you play chess, you have to try to guess what your opponent is thinking." True, but also there's a standard of basic conduct in chess. I'm guessing it wouldn't be considered very nice to pee in your opponent's eye to distract him.

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