In closing “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that we are “borne back ceaselessly into the past.” That is an ominous notion for another St. Paul icon — the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
To be borne back into the SPCO’s recent past would be to revisit quarreling and unhappiness — the stuff that results from a bitter, protracted labor dispute. As the season opens this week with Edo de Waart conducting Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the ensemble hopes to move past the past and embrace the future.
“It can only be better than last year,” said Ruggero Allifranchini, associate concertmaster. “That was a difficult time for everyone.”
It was, indeed. Musicians were locked out for six months after contract talks broke down. Hot accusations flew back and forth. When the dust settled, musicians swallowed hard on a deal that cut base salaries by about 20 percent. The only hopeful sign was that they returned for the season’s final concerts, softening the emotional impact of this season’s opener.
“This is nothing compared to what we did in [April],” said Allifranchini, in anticipation of the first full-band rehearsal this Tuesday. “I had no idea what to expect then, but people were happy to play music.”
The orchestra seems eager to shake off last year with a new leadership team. Two come from the musician ranks, and the president — Bruce Coppock — returns to restart a tenure that was halted in 2008 by illness. There will be a new concert hall at Ordway Center in spring 2015, and a growing presence in online streaming.
Certainly, not all musicians are gung-ho after losing six months of salary and then accepting double-digit cuts. Several declined to discuss their feelings about the past or the future. So did board chairman Dobson West, who was the point person in last year’s turmoil. There is a hope, though, in the words of Allifranchini and some others, that music will be the great healer.
“It’s obviously a very personal question of how much you can put the past behind you,” said Kyu-Young Kim, principal second violinist, who left for the New York Philharmonic during the lockout but returned to become the SPCO’s senior director of artistic planning. “Great music will buoy everyone’s spirits.”
Coppock says, simply: “We can’t change what happened.”
Player/managers blur the boundaries
Kim represents the most significant change in the SPCO. He returned to St. Paul before ever playing a note in New York. Coppock said he called him after the contract settlement and asked, “What would it take to keep you here?”
The result was a hybrid in which Kim will balance performing on nights and weekends and spending the week at a desk.
“The main thing is, I am happy doing it,” he said.
Kim’s presence, along with that of retired violinist Tom Kornacker, is intended to bring the musicians’ perspective to the administration. As special assistant to Coppock, Kornacker initially is charged with auditioning new players to fill nine vacancies — to bring the number of musicians up to 28. The vacancies resulted from a large number of retirements (including Kornacker’s) under a package negotiated in the new contract. It’s a task that will take several years; Coppock said the band “might hire three musicians this year.” (The SPCO routinely hires freelancers when certain pieces require more instruments.)
Kim and Kornacker say the right things about their connections to the musicians. Kim has daily conversations with players and Kornacker says he sees himself “as a new voice for my colleagues in the administration.” However, as in any industry, skepticism can exist whenever the guy who works next to you on the shop floor becomes foreman. Kim talks about the sensitivity of being both advocate and manager.
“I hope they approach me in a way that doesn’t force me to choose sides,” he said. “I don’t see it as ‘sides’ anymore. Differences can be healthy and can be discussed in a healthy way.”
The SPCO is no recent convert to the notion of diffuse leadership. Since 2004, a rotating group of artistic partners have taken the place of a single music director. In what Coppock calls “a participatory structure,” many decisions are made by committees that include musicians.
For example, the instruments committee comprises four musicians, Kim and two administrators. It will need to determine the future composition of the orchestra. Even though the SPCO currently needs to add players, the full-time complement was reduced in the contract to 28, from 34. That requires decisions on which positions will go dark. Will strings be reduced so that a chair in the wind section can be filled? And in what order will positions be added?
“It’s a very complicated puzzle,” said Hornacker.
Looking back and forward
Even though Coppock stepped down as president in 2008 and spent 2011 managing the Cleveland Orchestra’s Miami residency, he served on the SPCO board and lived in the Twin Cities. He decided to get back into the fray after the contract was settled.
“The musicians know my warts and strengths,” he said.
Occasionally, those can be one and the same. Coppock has pushed to reduce ticket prices. During negotiations, musicians and their supporters complained that such bargain prices (among the lowest in the country) diminished their value and the company’s income.
Coppock contends that attendance has grown, which helped to boost personal giving. Even though gross revenue has fallen, he said, net revenue has risen by $500,000 since the initiative began in 2003-04 because it costs less to sell a ticket.
“I’m not against reviewing pricing, but these are the facts,” he said.
The SPCO’s revenue difficulties, Coppock said, derive more from three sources: a drop in corporate and foundation funding for the arts; the market’s chilling effect on contributions to the endowment fund, and the loss of projected investment gains during the recession. The endowment is about $40 million — still $20 million less than the SPCO would like it to be.
Coppock walks a fine line in discussing the organization’s financial health, noting that there is no debt and that the annual fund is at 85 percent of its goal.
“Patrons have stayed with us because of our fiscal strength,” he said. “The organization is not in a financial crisis.”
So how does that square with a contract that cut the ensemble by six musicians and reduced salaries by 20 percent?
“The work stoppage was about making sure it didn’t go into crisis,” Coppock said. “This is a work ethic that’s been in place here since 1992.”
How do they change the model?
The SPCO is opening its season intentionally with familiar repertoire. There is Beethoven every week this month, along with Mozart, Schoenberg, Dvorak, Bach and Haydn.
“Repertoire is the single biggest driver of attendance,” said Coppock, who nonetheless believes “bricks and mortar” orchestras need to evolve and become more entrepreneurial. “It’s important not to confuse orchestras with classical music.”
For example, the SPCO’s digital website, which offers streaming audio, had 250,000 unique visitors since the 2011 launch, he said, compared with about 20,000 households that buy tickets annually. Another initiative he points to is the new-music Liquid Music Series, curated by Kate Nordstrum and presented in venues not common in the classical world — such as nightclubs and event centers. That season opens Sept. 22, with Zola Jesus, percussionist Ian Ding and cellist Ashley Bathgate at the Amsterdam Bar in downtown St. Paul.
The franchise, though, still exists on the big stage.
“I’m optimistic,” said bassoonist Chuck Ullery, who could have retired but decided to stay with the SPCO. “There are always people who think it can be better. I sit next to people with whom I disagree fundamentally about the business, but we play great together. It’s a very professional situation.”