What do the Minnesota Orchestra musicians want? A shared vision

  • Article by: MARCIA PECK, TONY ROSS and TIM ZAVADIL
  • Updated: November 10, 2013 - 6:19 PM

It existed once and brought excellence. We can choose to have it again.

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The question “What do the musicians want?” was recently posed in these pages (Short Takes, Nov. 5). We are pleased to be able to answer unequivocally: The musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra want a first-class orchestra for our first-class community. We want the orchestra’s board and management to join us in embracing that vision. We want to be part of an organization where board, administration and artists work together toward a common goal: maintaining a world-class, world-renowned orchestra to serve the most important constituent — our community.

In order to accomplish this, we need first to agree that this is, indeed, our unified goal. For decades, it was never in doubt — together we traveled a path to greatness, and we saw that greatness confirmed by audiences and reviewers both here at home and around the world. It has been heartbreaking to realize that the Minnesota Orchestral Association leadership and the majority of the board now believe that the orchestra’s musicians are easily replaceable, that its maestro can be easily let go, and that recordings and residencies such as Carnegie and BBC Proms are acceptable to lose. This points toward a profound lack of understanding of and belief in our product — the orchestra itself.

We understand the board’s concern over the endowment following the 2008 economic downturn. However, the MOA has chosen to protect one-third of our organization’s income at the extreme expense of the other two-thirds. While most other orchestras have recovered to (or have exceeded) prerecession levels of income in terms of annual giving and ticket sales, our income has continued to falter due to a flawed economic business plan that calls for fewer concerts and a diminished presence within our own community.

For more than 13 months, the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra have been locked out by management. The public has been locked out as well, except for the concerts that we ourselves have produced. In 2011, while laying off staff members and planning to cut musician salaries by 30 to 50 percent, the orchestra’s CEO received more than $200,000 in bonuses. During the last fiscal year, the management and board spent more than $13 million while locking out the musicians and producing not a single concert.

By contrast, the musicians have produced 26 sold-out concerts. Through our own start-up season, we have seen and shouldered the financial risks associated with running an arts organization. We have also seen firsthand the financial and artistic rewards that have outweighed those risks. As our audience has grown, so has our donor base. We have implemented a number of initiatives, all within the parameters of our previously negotiated contract, to engage our audience and community — from performing in north Minneapolis at a new education program based on the successful El Sistema program to increasing our education outreach at area schools; from engaging world-renowned, household-named artists to perform with us to simply greeting folks after a concert. Our audience members have ranged in age from 9 to 90 and have shown us that the classical music audience in the Twin Cities is far from dead. Our added concert with Osmo Vänskä sold out in 30 minutes, while the box office website went on to receive more than 40,000 hits from fans in pursuit of tickets.

We have an opportunity to convert the immense amount of negative attention this organization has received into a positive way forward that preserves and grows the product rather than diminishes it — one that is inclusive of all constituencies rather than secretive and divisive. The path toward greatness is less risky than the well-worn path toward mediocrity. The “good enough” orchestra excites no one. The “great” orchestra inspires buy-in and pride.

There is a way out of this disaster that relies on growth, not destruction. It requires learning from successful models around the country. It requires that both sides understand each other’s perspectives and become inspired to work together. We need shared ownership throughout the organization with musicians more deeply involved in our future financial viability. We need leadership that cares deeply about the orchestra on all levels, not just the bottom line.

None of this will be possible until we, once again, have a shared vision of the mission of this 110-year old institution that we all can support. Together, we have accomplished great things. Together, we can do so again.

Marcia Peck, Tony Ross and Tim Zavadil are musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra.

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