SPCO plays for time that may be running out

  • Article by: KRISTIN TILLOTSON and GRAYDON , ROYCE
  • Updated: October 16, 2012 - 9:33 PM

The chamber orchestra's musicians held a rally to garner public support in a contract dispute, but they fear a lockout is likely.

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Six-year-old Isabella Suarez, St. Paul, stopped to listen as SPCO musicians Michal Sobieski, Brenda Mickens, Fred Bretschger, Sarah Lewis, and Tamás Strasser played during a union rally in Rice Park Tuesday.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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At a noon rally in downtown St. Paul on Tuesday, musicians of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra sought to gain attention for their side of a dispute with management over pay, artistic control and other contractual details.

Hanging over the rally, dubbed "Don't Stop the Music," was the possibility that management could lock out the musicians, who have continued performing while negotiating to replace the contract that expired 3 1/2 months ago. That would put them in the unhappy company of Minnesota Orchestra members, who have been locked out for two weeks.

SPCO management must provide the musicians with notice if it intends to proceed with a lockout, said orchestra spokeswoman Jessica Etten.

"Management will likely make the next move, tomorrow, and we think it's lockout," said Robb Leer, a spokesman for the musicians.

"The music has already stopped in Minneapolis -- maybe it will hit home if it stops here, with the other shoe dropping," said Carole Mason-Smith, an SPCO musician and chair of the players' negotiating committee.

The musicians are playing under the terms of their old contract, which has a base annual salary of $78,223. Management has offered a base of $50,000 with a guarantee of $12,500 in overscale payments for a total of $62,500 a year. Musicians have proposed a $70,000 minimum. Management wants to reduce the size of the orchestra to 28 players, from 34, and proposed a special fund that donors would provide for early retirement. The union wants that money put into musicians' salaries instead.

'Talk and play'

The contract expired July 1, although the musicians agreed to "talk and play." That dynamic shifted in negotiations last week, when management said it "could not afford" to continue operating under the terms of the expired deal. Management gave the musicians two choices: agree to continue playing and bargaining under the terms of the board's most recent proposal, or accept a new offer that was not markedly different. Management set a deadline of Tuesday for the union to respond, but did not indicate what it would do if that deadline passed.

'Keep the Beat Alive'

Musicians offered to continue playing under the terms of their own latest proposal but management turned them down.

About eight musicians attended the lunchtime rally, with signs saying "Keep the Beat Alive" and "We Want to Play." They performed Bach's "Air on the G String" and Mozart's "Eine kleine Nachtmusik," among other familiar classical works.

Turnout was sparser than the musicians would have liked, said Leer, because "ironically, many of them are rehearsing right now" as fill-ins with locked-out members of the Minnesota Orchestra, who are holding a concert Thursday night at the Minneapolis Convention Center, on what would have been the start of their season.

In Rice Park, bystanders on their lunch breaks applauded the small band of musicians after each piece. Jim McRae, a research scientist for the University of Minnesota, said that the proposed salary reduction "seems like quite a cut."

"The Twin Cities should have first-class orchestras, and any money raised should go first to the musicians," he said.

Mason-Smith said that salary cuts aren't the musicians' only concern.

"We can't give artistic control to people with no background in the arts, or we'll turn into a regional orchestra," she said.

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, which had been on lockout, settled late Monday. There are 74 musicians in the ensemble, and they will take an immediate pay cut of 32 percent. The annual minimum will then rise over the five-year deal from $53,000 to $70,000. Season length was also shortened, to between 38 and 42 weeks, and the Indianapolis board committed to raising $5 million in new donations by February.

ktillotson@startribune.com • 612-673-7046 groyce@startribune.com • 612-673-7299

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