Eight weeks after the Minnesota Orchestra's managers locked out musicians, the increasingly bitter labor dispute has reached a critical point. Unless the sides begin talking soon, the impasse may do irreparable harm to the orchestra's hard-won excellence and international reputation. Clearly, one of Minneapolis-St. Paul's most treasured cultural assets is at risk.

That's why both sides should heed the recent call of music director Osmo Vänskä to "find a way, talk together, listen to each other and come to a resolution of this dreadful situation."

Those words came in a letter from the Finnish-born conductor to the players and board. Vänskä is an immensely talented man trapped in the middle -- somewhere between art and economics.

While acknowledging the ensemble's "deeply troubled" financial picture, he confessed that he's "desperately anxious about the risk posed to the quality and spirit of the orchestra for the future." Then he added a prophecy that he hopes never comes true: "When the lockout is over the Twin Cities may have a 'professional orchestra,' but inevitably not the same one, nor a highly regarded one."

Indeed, if the 109-year-old orchestra's recent achievements represent an artistic zenith, as the music critics suggest, then allowing this magic moment to slip away would be especially tragic. Time is running short, not only on Nicollet Mall but across the Mississippi River, where the board of the acclaimed St. Paul Chamber Orchestra is entangled in a similar dispute with musicians. The business models for classical music around the world are struggling against high costs, aging audiences and diminished endowments.

Rivals in the Minnesota Orchestra dispute seem especially dug in after management canceled concerts and declared that a 34 percent pay cut was its final offer.

Still, as this page suggested a month ago, it's now up to the players to make a counteroffer. Yes, the sides are far apart. But even if the musicians came back proposing a hefty pay raise, the basis for negotiating would be restored. Results of the orchestra's latest independent audit will be available on Dec. 6. That should put fresh numbers on the table and further reveal the financial straightjacket that encumbers both sides.

Reaching a deal will take bending. Musicians will have to get over the humiliation of somewhat lower compensation, but the board will have to work harder and smarter to expand the orchestra's audience and endowment.

Among the questions it might consider or reconsider: Are there openings elsewhere in the region to expand the Common Chords program or pursue other residencies, short seasons or partnerships in growing Midwest cities? Are there opportunities to expand the orchestra's reach and brand to fast-growing Sun Belt communities or to cities where symphonies have folded? And, perhaps most bravely, how long can our own city afford to support and operate two separate classical orchestras while maintaining the excellence of each?

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Correction: The original version of this editorial incorrectly stated that the Louisville Orchestra was no longer operating. The orchestra filed for bankruptcy protection in 2010 and later shut down temporarily because of a contract dispute, but it resumed operations in 2012.