Orchestra Board has vision (and clarity)

  • Article by: NICKY CARPENTER
  • Updated: November 14, 2013 - 5:54 PM

Like the musicians, we aspire to greatness. We just have to fit our strategies to financial realities.

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Photo: Chris Ware • Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT,

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Imagine you are an orchestra musician. You meet with your music director and management representatives to discuss artistic vision for the future, and they map out a series of impressive initiatives to boost your orchestra’s visibility on the world stage.

They’re set to launch your orchestra’s first-ever residency at Carnegie Hall — and to make yours the first American orchestra to hold a residency at London’s famed BBC Proms. They present recording and broadcasting plans that would be the envy of most orchestras across the country. They unveil an exciting guest artist residency project, plans for new concert formats and — oh, yes — a magnificent celebration for the opening of your renovated concert hall that is designed to draw the new audiences your art form urgently needs.

Imagine, too, that your board of directors will personally invest to make these high-profile, high-cost projects a reality. You have reason to have confidence in your board, because it has already enabled you to perform artistic projects of this world-class caliber many times over for the last five years and more.

As a musician in this orchestra, how would you respond? Would you decry a lack of vision on the part of this board, management and music director, or would you race to engage in what may become the most glorious artistic period in your organization’s history?

None of this is fantasy. The initiatives outlined above are the fruit of the artistic vision presented in the Minnesota Orchestra’s strategic plan. It was designed to land the orchestra on the world’s greatest stages, to give the orchestra access to the broadest possible audiences, and to deliver Minnesota audiences with riveting programming and compelling guest artists — in a beautifully renovated facility that many symphonic organizations around the world would covet.

Contrary to what the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra have recently claimed on these pages (“Musicians ... seek a shared vision,” Nov. 11), it is not a lack of vision that has stopped these initiatives. The barrier, pure and simple, is the lack of an economic contract settlement. The board is seeking a concessionary contract now to preserve the future viability of the orchestra in the face of large and growing deficits; the musicians are seeking to preserve 2012 salary levels, citing concerns they will not be able to compete with other Top 10 orchestras. This is the true nature of our contract dispute.

Recently, we held small-group talks with the musicians to try to navigate a new way forward. In our second meeting — which turned out to be our last, since the musicians called off the talks — the players acknowledged that “artistic vision” for them equates directly with the board’s ability to pay musician salaries that are commensurate with those of the nation’s top-paid orchestras.

We wish we could pay those salaries. If our community could match the salaries of the Los Angeles Philharmonic or the San Francisco Symphony, this dispute would end today. There would be no dissent over artistry or lack of a common vision. The Minnesota Orchestra would be performing again immediately.

Make no mistake: Our community is generous toward the orchestra. Our fundraising brings in $12 million annually, the most for any arts organization in the region. And in a recent race against the clock to issue a new contract offer to musicians before our music director resigned, we received additional one-time funding from Minnesota foundations that made it possible to offer a $20,000 signing bonus for musicians.

But even with levels of generosity this high, we are millions of dollars shy of matching Los Angeles salaries. If our community cannot afford to live by the economic standards set by L.A. or New York — and numerous reviews of Minnesota Orchestra finances have proved this to be true — what options remain for us? Must we continue to cleave the organization apart? Or settle for “second rate”?

Absolutely not. Throughout its history, this extraordinary organization has always found inventive ways to compete with the best, as Minnesotans pride themselves on doing. In its earliest days, when my grandfather-in-law served as a founding leader, the Minneapolis Symphony forged a mighty reputation by becoming the most traveled orchestra in the nation, “the Orchestra on Wheels.” In the 1920s, it gained further prominence as a pioneer in broadcasting. And midcentury, the Minneapolis Symphony shone as brightly as “the Big Five” orchestras, selling over a million copies of the 1812 Overture.

Most recently, smartly targeted international touring, recording and broadcasting led to a new boost in the reputation of our Midwestern orchestra on the world stage. The Minnesota Orchestra can, and will, compete magnificently against the best orchestras in the world — but first we need to resolve the economics of this contract, and we cannot do that without musician cooperation.

It is useless to debate who is “most essential” or “most responsible” for the orchestra’s achievements. Together we all are responsible: musicians, music director, board, management, donors and audience. We cannot give up on holding negotiating talks. We must find a way to a compromise settlement. And then — when all components of the organization rejoin — the Minnesota Orchestra will find glory again, pulling together, moving forward.

 

Nicky Carpenter is a Minnesota Orchestra life director, former board chair and member of the negotiating committee.

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