Calling the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra “the most important cultural institution in St. Paul,” Mayor Chris Coleman on Wednesday praised musicians and management for coming to a tentative deal to end a six-month labor dispute.

Coleman, who helped broker the agreement in the past two weeks, told a news conference at the Ordway Center that the financial circumstances for orchestras forced both sides to forge a deal that cuts salaries by 18 percent and reduces the size of the orchestra.

“It’s not necessarily palatable to them,” the mayor said of the musicians, “but I believe it is necessary.”

Coleman was joined by SPCO board Chairman Dobson West and Ordway CEO Patricia Mitchell. A representative from the musicians’ negotiating committee was unable to attend because of illness.

West thanked the musicians for agreeing to a deal that he said keeps the SPCO “fiscally sustainable and artistically vibrant.” However, he said, “it would be unreasonable to expect that the musicians would be jumping for joy.”

A musicians’ spokesman said they would not comment until a ratification vote is taken.

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.

Dramatic moment

West said that Tuesday’s board meeting, which began with an assumption that there was no deal with musicians, had a grim mood. Then, 20 minutes into the session, an aide ran in with West’s laptop computer. Musician negotiators had e-mailed a note indicating they would accept the terms.

“It was an unscripted moment that changed the tenor of the conversation,” West said.

The SPCO still must negotiate terms of an electronic media agreement with the national American Federation of Musicians. Upon completion, the local deal will be submitted for ratification vote by players.

West gave no timetable to figure out the logistics that would get musicians back on stage. Concerts are canceled through April 21.

“Our goal will be to put on concerts, but they are not going to look like the programs that have been scheduled,” he said.

Details to address

The availability of musicians — some of whom have commitments with other orchestras — and music selection must be considered.

Coleman and arts adviser Joe Spencer became involved about a month ago after negotiations stalled. Musicians were locked out Oct. 21.

Technically, this is a “work-and-play” agreement, and the two sides can continue to address small issues until June 30. If there are no other changes, however, this deal will continue through the 2015-16 season.

Mitchell was on hand because the Ordway is undertaking a building project on its site that will result in a new 1,100-seat concert hall for the orchestra.

The agreement, she said, “is enormously important for that project and for downtown St. Paul.”