Mayor Chris Coleman spoke at a press conference Wednesday at the Ordway Center, flanked by SPCO board chairman Dobson West and Ordway President Patricia Mitchell./Photo by Glen Stubbe
When the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra board of directors met Tuesday afternoon, their agenda was grim. Lacking a contract agreement with musicians, the board would be discussing whether to cancel the rest of the season, perhaps delay the start of the next season and consider the future viability of the organization.
Twenty minutes into the meeting, though, an aide ran in with chairman Dobson West’s laptop computer. He had an email from the musicians negotiating committee that said they would accept terms for a tentative agreement.
“It was an unscripted moment that changed the tenor of the conversation,” West said Wednesday, following a press conference in Ordway Center.
He said the SPCO is now negotiating terms of an electronic media agreement with the national American Federation of Musicians. Once that is complete, the agreement reached Tuesday night can go to a vote of the orchestra.
Logistics still need to be worked out to get musicians back on stage and West gave no timetable.
“Our goal will be to put on concerts, but they are not going to look like the programs that have been published,” he said.
The availability of musicians – some of whom have commitments with other orchestras – and music will determine the programs, West said.
West was joined at the podium by Mayor Chris Coleman, who essentially brokered the deal, and Ordway President Patricia Mitchell. Lynn Erickson, a co-leader of the musicians’ team, was scheduled to appear but said she was ill.
Coleman called the SPCO the “most important cultural institution in St. Paul” and said both sides had to come a long way in their bargaining positions. The financial circumstances nationally for orchestras have changed “fundamentally and dramatically,” Coleman said, as he acknowledged that the musicians took a substantial hit.
“It’s not necessarily palatable to them, but I believe it is necessary,” the mayor said.
Mitchell said the future of the SPCO is critical to the Ordway, where preliminary work has started on a project to build an 1,100-seat concert hall for the orchestra. The contract deal, she said, “is enormously important for that project and for downtown St. Paul.”
In his remarks, West thanked the musicians for working toward a deal that he said keeps the SPCO fiscally sustainable and artistically vibrant.
The key elements of the tentative agreement will cut annual guaranteed salaries to $60,000, reduce to 28 from 34 the roster of the orchestra, institute an enhanced retirement program and allow management to cut overscale payments by up to 20 percent.
West said he had a good conversation Tuesday night with Carole Mason Smith, one of the co-leaders of the musicians’ team.
“It would be unreasonable to expect that the musicians would be jumping for joy,” West said. “But I think they are excited to get back to playing music.”
Coleman and arts adviser Joe Spencer got involved about a month ago after the negotiations had stalled out. He conducted a shuttle diplomacy that was able to hammer out a deal.
Technically, this is a “work and play” agreement and the two sides can continue to nail down small issues until June 30. If there are no other changes, however, this deal will continue through the 2015-16 season.