Negotiations to find ground rules for a mediated settlement in the 11-month lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra are stumbling forward.

Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell made a proposal to soften the potential downside for musicians to engage in bargaining, according to the musicians' negotiating committee. Musicians agreed to the terms but management declined, according to a confidential letter that the musicians' team sent to board members Wednesday.

All sides stress that the process will continue with the involvement of Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader and a diplomat who brokered peace in Northern Ireland.

Mitchell is working with several key dates quickly approaching. The 2013-14 season would normally start in September. Music director Osmo Vänskä stated last spring he would resign Sept. 9 if no deal were reached.

According to the musicians' letter, Mitchell proposed a four-month interim agreement from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31. During the first two months, musicians would receive salaries based on their expired contract. If no formal pact was reached by Oct. 31, they would take a 6 percent pay cut for the remaining two months. If no deal was reached by year's end, the parties would "return to their respective positions."

Michael Henson, the orchestra's chief executive, would not comment on the proposal.

"I can confirm that we are in a confidential negotiating process," Henson said.

Last month, musicians rejected a management proposal — offered through Mitchell's office — that similarly would have provided a window for mediation. Musicians would receive their old salaries for two months. If no agreement were reached, a contract would have been imposed to cut pay by 25 percent.

While Mitchell is working with both sides, he is not technically mediating at this point. He is trying to establish a framework that both sides can agree to, before they sit down to negotiate terms.

The musicians' official position is that they will not negotiate so long as the lockout is in place. Management has said it will not lift the lockout because it then sacrifices leverage. Hence, Mitchell is trying to find a compromise that would allow the two sides to save face and work with him.

Also on Thursday, composers and supporters of the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute — including such luminaries as Philip Glass, John Corigliano and Kevin Puts — sent a letter to the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Gov. Mark Dayton, the orchestra board and musicians urging "all parties in this dispute … to be responsible cultural stewards and break through the yearlong logjam."

The program, launched more than a decade ago, nurtures young composers by giving them a chance to work with the orchestra and other music professionals. This year's program was a casualty of the lockout.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299