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The players of the Minnesota Orchestra, who are in lock-out over their contract, held a concert the Minneapolis Convention Center on October 18.

Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

For a world-class orchestra, we must find our voice

  • Article by: PETER HUTCHINSON
  • November 4, 2012 - 7:22 PM

I was there the night they came to play. They've been called the best in the world. And they showed us why. There they all were -- Manny, Burt, Tony, Stan and all the rest. They were as good as they have ever been. Stan led the gang in his version of "The Star-Spangled Banner." There wasn't a dry eye in the house full of supportive fans. Tony was leadoff, with Stan calling the plays. We weren't sure what we would get from Tony, what with him being both player and negotiator. We needn't have worried. Tony hit a home run that sent the fans into a frenzy. That level of play continued all night. By the time it was over, we all knew the difference between good enough and world-class -- and we wanted world-class.

And then the players went back to being locked out.

This wasn't any team. And this wasn't a game. This was our own Minnesota Orchestra. To be more specific, this was the musicians of the orchestra bringing us a concert in lieu of the regularly scheduled opening night. The musicians and the orchestra board are in a fight. The musicians are locked out. The season has been cut short. Thankfully, the musicians still have their instruments and their passion for music. Thankfully, they are professionals who practice and keep themselves in shape. Thankfully they are still world-class.

The board says that we cannot afford the orchestra we have. We need a new model that costs less. They say we can still be world-class by either paying these musicians less or hiring replacements who cost less from the large pool of talent coming out of our music schools. The musicians say that won't work. Sure, there are plenty of musicians graduating from music schools, they say, and many are good enough. But only a few are world-class. To attract and keep them requires going the extra mile. Seems kind of like baseball or football. There are literally millions of kids playing these sports and thousands doing so in college, but only a few are world-class, and they get paid -- well.

But the orchestra is not the Vikings or the Twins. It doesn't have a revenue model that works (nor an exemption from the antitrust laws that gives sports teams the power to limit competition). The revenue model it has been using is draining its endowment, putting it on a path to annihilation. That can't and won't continue. The status quo is over. The real question is by what will it be replaced?

As reported in these pages, the board's major focus seems to be on costs. There no doubt will be changes in the approach to costs, and the players will have to be part of that. But we don't want an orchestra that is only good enough and cheap. We want world-class. To stay world-class, we must also focus on revenue -- on the selection and quality of the music, on its presentation and distribution, on its connection with audiences, on marketing and sales, and on philanthropy. We are neither a poor nor a cheap place. We are willing to pay for quality. Our community should be able to generate the revenue required to sustain world-class quality. Other communities have, including Cleveland, Cincinnati, Boston and Chicago.

To do that here, we also need to focus on the connection between this world-class institution and our community. We are a community filled with passionate, hardworking, creative people who have consistently found ways over, around and through tough challenges. Those people were at that concert the other night. They are hurt by the lockout and by what it means about the breakdown among the board, management and the musicians. They are equally hurt by what it means about the problem-solving reputation of our community. The board and musicians are at an impasse. There may be two sides in this dispute, but we are one community. Our community has not yet found its voice or its way to influence the outcome. I believe it must. I believe it will. It always has.

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Peter Hutchinson is a former president of the Bush Foundation, commissioner of finance for Minnesota and superintendent of the Minneapolis public schools. He was the 2006 Independence Party candidate for governor.

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