Classical music: SPCO tunes up to play again

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 31, 2013 - 8:10 PM

After a season largely lost to conflict, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra hopes music’s “healing power” will bring a happier future.

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The SPCO’s new leadership team, from left, president Bruce Coppock and musicians Tom Kornacker and Kyu-Young Kim, held a planning meeting Tuesday at the SPCO office in St. Paul. All are eager to move on after a year of strife.

Photo: JOEL KOYAMA, Star Tribune

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In closing “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that we are “borne back ceaselessly into the past.” That is an ominous notion for another St. Paul icon — the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

To be borne back into the SPCO’s recent past would be to revisit quarreling and unhappiness — the stuff that results from a bitter, protracted labor dispute. As the season opens this week with Edo de Waart conducting Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the ensemble hopes to move past the past and embrace the future.

“It can only be better than last year,” said Ruggero Allifranchini, associate concertmaster. “That was a difficult time for everyone.”

It was, indeed. Musicians were locked out for six months after contract talks broke down. Hot accusations flew back and forth. When the dust settled, musicians swallowed hard on a deal that cut base salaries by about 20 percent. The only hopeful sign was that they returned for the season’s final concerts, softening the emotional impact of this season’s opener.

“This is nothing compared to what we did in [April],” said Allifranchini, in anticipation of the first full-band rehearsal this Tuesday. “I had no idea what to expect then, but people were happy to play music.”

The orchestra seems eager to shake off last year with a new leadership team. Two come from the musician ranks, and the president — Bruce Coppock — returns to restart a tenure that was halted in 2008 by illness. There will be a new concert hall at Ordway Center in spring 2015, and a growing presence in online streaming.

Certainly, not all musicians are gung-ho after losing six months of salary and then accepting double-digit cuts. Several declined to discuss their feelings about the past or the future. So did board chairman Dobson West, who was the point person in last year’s turmoil. There is a hope, though, in the words of Allifranchini and some others, that music will be the great healer.

“It’s obviously a very personal question of how much you can put the past behind you,” said Kyu-Young Kim, principal second violinist, who left for the New York Philharmonic during the lockout but returned to become the SPCO’s senior director of artistic planning. “Great music will buoy everyone’s spirits.”

Coppock says, simply: “We can’t change what happened.”

Player/managers blur the boundaries

Kim represents the most significant change in the SPCO. He returned to St. Paul before ever playing a note in New York. Coppock said he called him after the contract settlement and asked, “What would it take to keep you here?”

The result was a hybrid in which Kim will balance performing on nights and weekends and spending the week at a desk.

“The main thing is, I am happy doing it,” he said.

Kim’s presence, along with that of retired violinist Tom Kornacker, is intended to bring the musicians’ perspective to the administration. As special assistant to Coppock, Kornacker initially is charged with auditioning new players to fill nine vacancies — to bring the number of musicians up to 28. The vacancies resulted from a large number of retirements (including Kornacker’s) under a package negotiated in the new contract. It’s a task that will take several years; Coppock said the band “might hire three musicians this year.” (The SPCO routinely hires freelancers when certain pieces require more instruments.)

Kim and Kornacker say the right things about their connections to the musicians. Kim has daily conversations with players and Kornacker says he sees himself “as a new voice for my colleagues in the administration.” However, as in any industry, skepticism can exist whenever the guy who works next to you on the shop floor becomes foreman. Kim talks about the sensitivity of being both advocate and manager.

“I hope they approach me in a way that doesn’t force me to choose sides,” he said. “I don’t see it as ‘sides’ anymore. Differences can be healthy and can be discussed in a healthy way.”

The SPCO is no recent convert to the notion of diffuse leadership. Since 2004, a rotating group of artistic partners have taken the place of a single music director. In what Coppock calls “a participatory structure,” many decisions are made by committees that include musicians.

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  • spCO’s OPENING WEEKEND

    Thursday: 7 p.m. free concert in St. Paul’s Mears Park, featuring Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, conducted by Edo de Waart, as part of the Concrete & Grass Festival. www.concreteandgrass.com.

    Friday-Sunday: Season-opening concerts with de Waart conducting Beethoven’s 5th, Bach’s Orchestra Suite No. 4 and Mozart’s Haffner Serenade. $10-$40. 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., Ordway Center, 345 Washington St., St. Paul. 2 p.m. Sun., Ted Mann Concert Hall, 2128 S. 4th St., Mpls.

    Info: 651-291-1144 or www.thespco.org.

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