September 2012

Minnesota Orchestra and SPCO Negotiations: Summary of Week -3

September 14, 2012 14:01

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


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

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

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

Since then, nothing more has come out, and so I can only assume that the musicians are still waiting on management to draft and share that contract. In the meantime, time is ticking, and their current contract expires in sixteen days. So, um, no pressure or anything...feel free to take your time,'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.

4 replies

Minnesota Orchestra and SPCO Negotiations: Summary of Week -4

September 8, 2012 10:22

The Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s musicians’ contracts both expire at the end of September, and a lot of things have been happening lately in the discussions. My blog entry chronicling the goings-on this past week is 7000+ words, so if you haven’t been keeping up, here’s a Reader’s Digest version. If you want more perspectives, more links, more questions, and more subtlety, I invite you to visit my orchestra negotiation Tumblr, which I’ve been updating at least once a day this last week. (Keep in mind the Tumblr features some adult language and unhealthy levels of sarcasm. So if that’s not your thing, stay away.)

Here’s a brief overview of where we’re at as of this weekend, at least from my perspective as a patron…


The opening shot was fired on 25 August when assistant principal violist Evelina Chao wrote an editorial in the St. Paul Pioneer Press titled “Fearing for ‘our orchestra as we know it.’” That editorial claimed that management’s proposals would reduce musicians’ wages by 57% and 67%. On 28 August, the musicians of the SPCO released a PDF summary of the negotiations so far, and on 1 September they released a collection of charts discussing numbers. On 31 August, SPCO Interim CEO Dobson West spoke to MinnPost, saying, “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”…therefore making it clear that at least one side is lying, or at best, being disingenuous. West did not release any numbers to MinnPost. In retrospect, it seems likely that that he was waiting for The Day of the Dump, when managements at both the Minnesota Orchestra and SPCO released dozens and dozens of pages of documents, leading me to muse aloud if managements are coordinating in some capacity. The SPCO management made the information public in a link in an email to patrons: The papers released there are very dense and haven’t been fully analyzed yet, but you’re welcome to take a stab at them yourself. After widespread protest from the musicians and the public, SPCO management offered a new contract that they say includes a 15% cut and a reduction in the size of the ensemble, among other things. Musicians are still reviewing the document, but judging by their response on Facebook, they’re not terribly impressed. Yesterday we also had the terribly sad news that principal clarinetist Timothy Paradise, who has been with the orchestra since 1977, is resigning…presumably because of the turmoil. Unfortunately, I’d steel yourself for many more resignations in the weeks to come.

Minnesota Orchestra

In late August the orchestra’s blog Inside the Classics was “temporarily” shut down; its authors were not given much, if any, warning. On 30 and 31 August the Minnesota Orchestra musicians continued their meetings with management. But we heard nothing out of Minneapolis until 5 September, when a big shiny pro-management website was launched on the Minnesota Orchestra’s website. That pro-management website actually included the contract currently under negotiation, much to the musicians’ annoyance. Things took a turn for the Twilight Zone the next day when musicians dropped the bombshell that they hadn’t been told that management was going public with the contract, and that the terms management had released weren’t necessarily what they were talking about in private. Journalists’ heads then exploded. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that management’s proposals included dropping the musicians’ average base salary from $109,000 to $78,000. I pointed out that despite the headlines, the big story here is not necessarily the salary, but rather the proposed changes in working conditions, which, among many many many other things, include a reduction in fully paid medical leave from 26 weeks a year to 13; after that, musicians’ pay would be halved. The musicians fired back yesterday with a request for an independent audit of the orchestra’s endowment, saying they’re hearing different numbers from different people. Management claims they’ve done this already, implying the musicians’ request is a PR/stalling tactic.

In short, it’s been a week full of ugly, ugly acrimony: a tennis match of spin and sadness. And it will probably only get worse from here. I’m guessing that come October, neither the SPCO nor Minnesota Orchestra are going to be playing. Are we looking at two Detroit-style meltdowns in the same metro area at the same time? I don’t really want to think about that question, much less answer it.

In any case, as I said on my blog, “I don’t even drink and I want to get drunk. Badly.”

If you’re a praying person, some prayers wouldn’t go amiss here. Otherwise, send us all your positive thoughts. We need them.

More updates next weekend. If you want more in the interim, like I said, follow my Tumblr.

5 replies

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