Labor strife is playing out at orchestras all across the country

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 10, 2012 - 1:47 PM

Minnesota Orchestra joins others in economic upheaval.

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Management’s lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra resulted in six weeks of canceled concerts.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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The Twin Cities rejoiced when New Yorker critic Alex Ross planted a wet kiss on the Minnesota Orchestra following a 2010 concert at Carnegie Hall.

The ensemble again is the center of attention among the nation's cultural cognoscenti, on far less cheery terms. Minnesota has become a lightning rod in the economic upheaval faced by numerous American orchestras recently.

Bankruptcy in Philadelphia. Strikes in Chicago and Detroit. Unresolved contract talks in St. Paul. Canceled concerts in Atlanta and Indianapolis. American concert halls have echoed with more dissonance than harmony.

Nowhere is this more apparent than Minnesota, where the outcome of a player lockout that has canceled six weeks of concerts could have the same defining effect as the bitter six-month strike in Detroit in 2011. Management cites a familiar refrain: Shrinking endowments, diminished donations and rising deficits have made it difficult to match expenses.

Musicians point to offers such as the one in Minnesota -- which would cut their average annual salaries by $46,000 -- as impossible choices.

"It's kind of a perfect storm," said Greg Sandow, a critic and composer who writes on the future of classical music.

Similarly, Peter Dobrin, music critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote last week that taken together, "problems at orchestras ranging in size from Jacksonville to New York are more severe than ever before."

Bruce Ridge, chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, is less pessimistic.

"It's easy to point to a handful of bankruptcies and paint this mosaic of failure, when in reality those are a handful of situations," Ridge said. "The field hasn't learned to market positive messages that people will be drawn to."

Weather or climate change?

Orchestras, symbols of civic pride and artistic sophistication, have not been economically sustainable since the early 20th century, and we have reached a point where stormy weather has been replaced by actual climate change. That's the view of Robert Flanagan, a labor economics professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, who analyzed the orchestra business in "The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras," released this year.

Musicians have attacked what has become known as "The Flanagan Book" for encouraging orchestra managements to slash contracts. Ridge, a bassist in the North Carolina Symphony, suggested Flanagan's data are flawed and that the book "is just another in a long line of studies that do harm to the field unnecessarily."

Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras, said Flanagan is besides the point. "They don't need Flanagan to tell them what they can see on their own books," he said of orchestra managers.

What the Minnesota Orchestra sees are both short-term and long-term issues.

In 2007, musicians achieved a five-year contract that would have raised their salaries by 26 percent by this year. Endowment projections collapsed with the 2008 market crash and lagged in the subsequent recovery. By 2009, musician concessions reduced the five-year gain to 19.6 percent.

A long view shows the business model in Minnesota relying more heavily on investment income. In 1962, ticket revenue accounted for 57 percent of expenses. Contributions figured for 39 percent and withdrawals from reserves covered 3 percent. In fiscal 2011, ticket sales made up 22 percent of expenses; contributions were 30 percent and withdrawals from investments covered 39 percent.

Management has said that its endowment will disappear by 2018 at these rates. Musicians have requested an independent financial analysis to verify that assertion. Rosen and Ridge agree that orchestra issues are essentially local, and that making comparisons even between markets of similar size is difficult.

Indianapolis, which demographically resembles the Twin Cities, has a symphony that spends $26.6 million annually. Minnesota is at $31 million, and the Cleveland Orchestra has a budget of about $47 million. Lofty artistic ambitions, however, come at a price.

"It's like small-market teams in baseball," said Sandow. "Cleveland said years ago that, 'We have a big-city budget in a city that is no longer that big and it's unsustainable.'"

Trading on a long-standing reputation as one of the "Big Five" American orchestras, Cleveland has used annual residencies in Miami, New York, Switzerland and Vienna to supplement its revenue.

Surviving into the future

Orchestras are amazingly fragile and yet resilient.

In Detroit, where musicians took a 23 percent pay cut and had their ranks reduced to 81 after a six-month strike, deep wounds remain. Yet, Detroit Free Press critic Mark Stryker recently wrote that fundraising is up and the ensemble has filled nine vacancies since the end of the strike. Stryker calls the hiring of concertmaster Yoonshin Song, who came from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, an "artistic coup."

Atlanta musicians took the stage Thursday for the first time after a three-week lockout and annual concessions of $2.4 million.

"Musicians were clearly still emotionally reeling from the outcome of labor negotiations," wrote critic Mark Gresham in his review on ArtsATL.com. "Yet the music continues, and it is music itself which has the greatest power to heal."

Musicians do not always defect just on monetary terms. Fifteen Minneapolis Symphony players took a hike in 1967 over complaints about music director Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. In the end, the maestro continued, and the musicians were replaced.

Ridge points to success stories in Nashville and in San Diego, where the budget has balanced for 14 years. San Diego, however, demonstrates just how slippery success and failure are in the orchestra world. Bankruptcy silenced the orchestra from 1996 to 1998. It emerged leaner. Then in 2002, San Diego received a gift of $120 million -- the largest donation ever to a symphony orchestra. Still, the annual base salary for musicians there is $59,700 -- about $19,000 less than the concessionary base pay on the table in Minnesota.

Rosen tries to put the issues in a less temporal context.

"The conversation needs to move up and out of how much money are we going to pay people," he said, "to the challenge of how the whole field becomes part of American life in the 21st century."

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299 • On Twitter: @GraydonRoyce

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