Tim Zavadil normally plays clarinet with the Minnesota Orchestra. This week, he will pull out his saxophone and join the Minnesota Opera orchestra for a production of “Hamlet” at Ordway Center in St. Paul.
It’s a welcome chance for Zavadil to play at home after chasing gigs across the country since he was locked out at the Minnesota Orchestra on Oct. 1.
He is one of about 120 out-of-work Twin Cities musicians caught up in unprecedented labor disputes dragging into their fifth month. For the first time in their professional lives, they are patching together a living from unemployment compensation, union welfare benefits, friendly donors and freelance work.
Musicians at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra have been locked out since Oct. 21. Like their Minneapolis colleagues, they are watching expenses and racking up frequent-flier miles.
“One week I moved three times,” said Rebecca Albers, a violist at the Minnesota Orchestra, describing how she relies on friends in other cities for lodging. “The travel can be expensive, but I’m extremely grateful for the work.”
The two major Twin Cities orchestras, with combined annual budgets of about $40 million, sell about 380,000 tickets annually.
While orchestras elsewhere in the country have had labor disputes recently, few have lasted as long as the ones here, and the Twin Cities is the only metro area to have experienced two lockouts at the same time.
In St. Paul, bargaining continues in hopes of reaching agreement. Salary and artistic control remain thorny points of contention. The Minnesota Orchestra situation — where management has proposed base salary cuts of 32 percent and musicians have refused to make a counteroffer — is more polarized. Concerts are canceled through April 7, and no negotiations are scheduled.
The lockout is also having an impact on the 1,300 union-represented musicians in the Twin Cities.
“Anyone who is locked out is going to be looking for employment anywhere,” said Brad Eggen, president of Local 30-73 of the American Federation of Musicians. “There is a domino effect on the whole arts scene.”
Hustling for work
While Albers and Zavadil (who estimated he’s worked about 11 weeks since Oct. 1) have been fortunate, others have struggled.
Asked about his experience, bass player William Schrickel said, “My story won’t be a long one.”
He played one week last October in Milwaukee. Schrickel, who has played with the Minnesota Orchestra since 1976, said he has sent out résumés and let his colleagues in other cities know he’s eager to play.
“I’ve had to really, really tighten my belt, and that’s a challenge I never thought I would have to confront playing in the orchestra here,” he said. “I was never unemployed for a day in my life, and it’s a very sobering experience.”
Based on an annual average of $135,000, Minnesota Orchestra musicians have lost an estimated $56,000 in salary each, a figure certain to rise as the lockout drags on.
“It is quite difficult to ever regain lost income except in very short [work stoppages],” said John Budd, a labor relations expert at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “I think union leaders realize that it’s very difficult to recover, and thus work stoppages are about much more than money, such as establishing or defending a principle.”
Maiya Papach, acting principal violist with the SPCO, was downcast for another reason last week. Violinist Kyu-Young Kim had just announced that he was leaving the SPCO for the New York Philharmonic. Kim cited the labor turmoil in the Twin Cities as a motivator, although even in the best of times, New York is a prestigious opportunity. Uncertain is whether Kim’s wife, Pitnarry Shin, a Minnesota Orchestra cellist, would leave for New York also.
“I believe in the Twin Cities and the musicians and everything that’s here,” Papach said. “I pray we don’t lose any more.”
Julia Bogorad-Kogan, principal flute with the SPCO, just returned from five weeks of work with the National Symphony, including a tour to Europe and Oman. Bogorad-Kogan, who is married to Minnesota Orchestra timpanist Peter Kogan, said, “I was very fortunate to get this. It’s been difficult, and we’ve cut back expenditures.”
Unemployment and union benefits can fluctuate from week to week, with Zavadil estimating those figures might amount to anywhere from a quarter to one-third of a musician’s usual pay.
“People are all over the spectrum,” he said. “We have a welfare fund called Working Partnerships that is handled anonymously.”
Albers — who has traveled to New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Atlanta — was in San Francisco on Thursday.
“San Francisco just started calling our musicians” she said. “They don’t want to take work away from their local people.”
Impact on freelancers
That issue is an important one for freelance musicians, who often work as substitutes for orchestras. When the Minnesota musicians played a concert on Feb. 1, subs made up about 25 percent of the ensemble.
In the Twin Cities, there are more bodies vying for positions in a tightening market.
Steve Lund, a union orchestra contractor who hires players for theater shows and special events, estimated that opportunities are less than 10 percent of what they were in the mid-1990s.
“Broadway touring was huge then, with more than 30 weeks of live performance,” Lund said. “Now a lot of those tours bring their own orchestras. And ballet has almost completely gone away.”
Cellist Rebecca Arons plays with Four Voices String Quartet, the Minnesota Opera orchestra, and also produces records. She said there was a large orchestra hired at the Orpheum Theatre for a production called “The Legend of Zelda” last fall that included many Minnesota Orchestra musicians. She felt those jobs would normally have been filled by freelancers.
“It’s difficult because we all support each other,” Arons said.
The answer for musicians, Arons believes, is entrepreneurship. Four Voices struck a deal with restaurateur Vincent Francoual to play an evening in his restaurant, a haunt for musicians and patrons just across the Nicollet Mall from Orchestra Hall. It was successful enough that the group is doing it again on May 5.
“That freelance mentality is that you make things happen,” she said. “This is the beginning of a shifting landscape for musicians, and you have to look to the future and think about reinventing yourself. That’s the silver lining, here. Otherwise, it’s too depressing.”