Crucial year for Minn. Orchestra

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 13, 2012 - 1:45 PM

As it plays in exile, the state's largest arts group faces a big deficit and enters crucial labor talks with musicians.

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The Minnesota Orchestra, led by Osmo Vänskä, practiced Tuesday at Orchestra Hall, which will soon close for renovations.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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In concert, the band has rarely sounded better. Backstage, the Minnesota Orchestra faces a year of living dangerously.

Last December, the organization reported its biggest annual deficit ever. In June, the band evacuates Orchestra Hall for a yearlong face-lift of its iconic home on Nicollet Mall. A shortened 2012-13 season opens in October in the acoustically challenged Minneapolis Convention Center.

The greatest challenge comes even sooner.

On Thursday, high-stakes negotiations begin on the musicians' contract, which expires in September. Management says it must resolve "unsustainable fiscal practices" by cutting costs. Musicians hear that and wonder how the organization can spend $50 million on the building project and continue touring and recording plans. Musicians' salaries account for 48 percent of the orchestra's $32 million budget for fiscal 2012.

"The full extent of where we are will not work itself out for five years," said orchestra president Michael Henson. "Change is always difficult."

Minnesota is one of eight orchestras, including the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, negotiating new contracts against a national backdrop colored by bankruptcy at the renowned Philadelphia Orchestra, a bitter strike in Detroit, declines in attendance and fundraising, and economic recession.

Nationally, civility among representatives of unions and managements has eroded, and bloggers have tossed gasoline on the fire. Musicians bristle when management says that these times require "a new model"; the union believes these are cyclical -- not structural -- issues. The difficulties also may test the arts loyalty of the Twin Cities philanthropic community.

Minnesota musicians struck for two weeks in 1994. Musicians consider this round of pay talks serious enough that they have hired Bruce Simon, a New York labor lawyer with a national reputation for working with musicians in tough situations -- including the Cleveland and New York Philharmonic orchestras.

"Both sides are having difficulty realizing that they need each other desperately," said Mark Clague, director of the American Music Institute. "The larger battle is the orchestra as a whole and finding a place within the culture."

A new era?

Henson arrived in Minnesota three months after a landmark labor deal was struck in 2007. It would have raised minimum pay by 26 percent through the five years of the contract, elevating Minnesota's rank in the national pecking order. The board felt it could pay for the contract by drawing from its endowment fund. The 2008 market collapse shattered that assumption, and management projects a draw in 2012 that is $4.6 million below an estimate made back in 2007 (significantly, the orchestra is hiring a new investment adviser).

In 2009, the union agreed to $4.2 million in concessions, which means top annual minimums are currently $109,304 -- up 19.2 percent from 2007.

Henson will not discuss contract specifics other than to say, "There is a need for change to ensure that we have a vital orchestra going into the future."

Tim Zavadil, a bass clarinetist who will lead the musicians' negotiating team, is similarly reticent.

"We've been recognized for our high level of achievement and we want to maintain that level," Zavadil said. "We trust the management and board are going to share that vision."

Implicit in Zavadil's comment is the importance an orchestra attaches to retaining players and the fluidity of the industry's labor market.

On average, Minnesota Orchestra musicians earned $135,000 in 2011, according to the organization's numbers. In that year, the band played 147 concerts in Orchestra Hall and approximately 20 outside that venue. Musicians are scheduled for up to 20 hours a week of services, but that does not include home rehearsal time, which can be substantial.

Boston's deal last fall raises minimums 9 percent over three years, reaching $140,088 in 2014. Dallas, in contrast, has been flat for two years and promises a 1 percent raise in 2013, to $90,800. Los Angeles, which operates the Hollywood Bowl and benefits from the media celebrity of conductor Gustavo Dudamel, raised salaries 17 percent between 2008 and 2013, reaching minimums of $148,720. At the SPCO, players have made a number of concessions in the past five years.

Of course, the League of American Orchestras holds up Detroit and Philadelphia as cautionary examples of the looming crisis. Philadelphia sought to quickly restructure pension costs and got caught in an unexpectedly long bankruptcy that turned into a public-relations nightmare. Detroit musicians went on strike but still took a 21 percent cut over four years and a shorter season.

A new hall

Beyond money issues, the Minnesota Orchestra is holding its breath during the coming truncated season at the convention center. Management cites occupancy costs that force efficiency in the number of dates, but beyond this next season, the trend has been to reduce the number of classical subscription concerts -- from 68 in 1998 to 60 in the current season. Next year, the number drops to 48.

Henson has spoken about the need to reduce supply to match demand. But he disputes rumors that the orchestra will become less serious.

"The number of pops concerts the orchestra plays will not increase substantially," he said.

What will increase, Henson says, is the number of special presentations and rental events in the remodeled Orchestra Hall.

Ultimately, two things could decide Minnesota's outcome: the community's commitment to a 109-year-old institution that is the state's largest arts organization; and the willingness and trust inherent between board and players to find a moderate center.

"Everyone focuses on money and weeks played," said Drew McManus, a Chicago-based arts consultant on orchestral issues. "But Minnesota can't compete with Chicago, so why wouldn't you want to create an internal culture that is so good people want to stay?"

  • $135,000: Average salary for musicians in the Minnesota Orchestra in 2011.

    147: Concerts the orchestra played at Orchestra Hall in 2011, along with approximately 20 in other venues.

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