Harmony at last: SPCO musicians approve new contract

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 30, 2013 - 6:04 AM

St. Paul Chamber Orchestra members voted to accept a three-year deal that cuts base pay by nearly 19 percent.

The longest work stoppage in St. Paul Chamber Orchestra history is over.

After a 191-day lockout, SPCO musicians ratified a three-year contract Monday that cuts base salaries and the size of the ensemble but allows them to resume their season May 9. That leaves one thorny dispute to settle: The Minnesota Orchestra lockout begins its eighth month Wednesday with no talks in sight.

“There’s a sense of relief that we can play again,” said Carole Mason Smith, who led the St. Paul musicians’ negotiating team. “But it’s going to be challenging going forward.”

The two Minnesota lockouts are one of several at U.S. orchestras pinched by finances. Atlanta and Indianapolis reached agreements last fall that trimmed salaries significantly.

The SPCO agreement cuts base salary by 18.6 percent to $60,000 for a 32-week season. Overscale pay — additional compensation for special skills or leadership — was reduced by up to 20 percent. The size of the ensemble was cut to 28 full-timers from 34, although more players can be added as needed. An enhanced retirement package was approved for musicians 55 and older.

Now musicians and management face the task of healing raw feelings, rebuilding their audience and hiring a new SPCO president.

Both sides felt pressure to salvage the remaining 14 concerts of the season after the cancellation of approximately 80 concerts.

“We knew that if we didn’t get back on stage this spring, the consequences next season and further down the road would be so much more destructive,” Mason Smith said.

Dobson West, the SPCO’s board chairman and interim president, acknowledged that “it’s been a very difficult period for everyone.

“I am really pleased we have gotten over this hurdle.”

Regarding two of the challenges ahead, West expressed confidence in audience loyalty and said he believes musicians will still find the SPCO an attractive opportunity. “We think this is a wonderful job artistically,” he said.

Change coming at the top

In a news release announcing the ratification, musicians called for an immediate search for a new SPCO president. “We have a common goal in that regard,” said West, who assumed the presidency after Sarah Lutman resigned in 2011.

Musicians and management reached a tentative agreement April 9, following several weeks of intense negotiations brokered by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. Ratification, however, had to wait until a separate deal on digital recordings was struck between management and the national American Federation of Musicians, which oversees electronic media. Union negotiators conducted the vote by mail and ballots were opened Monday afternoon.

Management said the cuts were necessary for an organization that posted a deficit of $895,000 on expenses of $11 million in fiscal 2012. West said management did not achieve its goal of cutting $1.5 million in yearly expenses. The savings will probably be somewhere between $1.1 million and $1.3 million. He said the board has plans to increase endowment funding from donors.

Mason Smith expressed concern about maintaining the SPCO’s artistic quality. “We don’t think this is a cost issue,” she said. “It’s a revenue issue.”

Concerts ahead

Because of logistics, this weekend’s concerts with violinist Thomas Zehetmair and violist Ruth Killius had to be canceled, making them the final casualties of the lockout. Zehetmair will lead the three concerts May 9-11 that feature cellist Steven Isserlis in Schumann’s Cello Concerto.

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  • In the offices of the Twin Cities Musicians Union Monday afternoon, Lynn Erickson, left, handed Leslie Shank a document to sign after they had counted the ballots and learned that the SPCO musicians had approved the contract proposal. In the center was Carole Mason Smith. All three are SPCO musicians and members of the negotiation committee and Mason Smith was its chair.

  • Breakdown of the deal

    Annual base salary: Cut by 18.6 percent, to $60,000.


    Smaller orchestra: Cut to 28 full-time musicians, from 34.


    Music lost: 80 concerts during the 191-day lockout.


    First concert back: May 9 in Apple Valley (details at spco.org).

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