It's easy to sympathize with how it must feel to be a player in the Minnesota Orchestra. One day the New York and London critics are hailing you as among the world's best; the next day your bosses are locking the doors and telling you not to come back until you accept a 34 percent pay cut.

"It feels like a kick in the stomach," said Doug Wright, the orchestra's principal trombonist.

But classical music worldwide is confronting an unfortunate truth: It's not just an art form, it's a business -- and its business model is badly broken. The mighty Philadelphia Orchestra has slipped into bankruptcy. Cleveland is playing without a contract. Musicians in Detroit, Atlanta, Baltimore and Pittsburgh have taken pay cuts of 15 to 28 percent. Symphonies in many smaller markets (Louisville, Honolulu) have simply called it quits. Struggling to keep its full-time status, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra is in "talk and play" mode as it tries to reorganize.

Still, despite years of warnings and months of tense negotiation, last week's lockout on Nicollet Mall and the canceling of the fall season seemed an abrupt move by a Minnesota Orchestra management that seems finally to have decided that drastic changes are required to keep the band afloat.

"If we don't do this now, we'll fall off a cliff in a few years, and no one wants that," said Wells Fargo executive Jon Campbell, chair of the orchestra's board, on which sit many business and community leaders, including Star Tribune publisher Mike Klingensmith.

It feels like a watershed moment in the orchestra's 109-year history, not only for its celebrated maestro and musicians but for its adoring followers, who understandably worry about the orchestra's capacity to retain its world-class sound and reputation while teetering on the edge of a financial cliff.

Even if you're not a fan, you have a stake in this sober game. As a vital contributor to Minnesota's much-heralded quality of life, the orchestra is one of the Twin Cities' top competitive assets and a source of enormous community pride.

Clarinetist Tim Zavadil said he's especially disturbed when he looks at the $50 million renovation of Orchestra Hall now underway as part of a larger $110 million campaign to help secure the orchestra's future. "People gave all that money expecting a world-class orchestra, but that's not what they're going to get. This is a sophisticated audience. They'll notice the difference."

Let's hope it doesn't come to that. Yes, there's a risk of talent defections when steep pay cuts loom. But that's not the only risk.

"It's our job to protect this institution for the long term, even if it makes the short term difficult," Campbell said.

The hall's renovation (more flexibility, fewer seats, dynamic pricing) is part of a strategy to broaden the orchestra's appeal (more pops and jazz) while reversing worrisome declines in attendance and donations, a trend exacerbated by the recession but also part of a global shift away from classical music. But to fit the emerging market, CEO Michael Henson says the orchestra must also be resized from a $32-million-a-year operation to something costing about $26 million.

Hindsight is easy, but it's clear now that orchestra management made at least three miscalculations over the last decade. First, it allowed well-earned artistic accolades to obscure the harsh structural realities confronting big orchestras and the classical market. Second, it agreed to an overly generous contract with musicians in 2007 (a 25 percent raise over five years, scaled back to 19.2 percent). Finally, its investment managers failed to maximize gains as the financial markets recovered from their collapse in 2008-09.

Endowment funds expected to reach $232 million by this year instead stand at $138 million. Of those funds, the board controls slightly more than $60 million. By continuing to draw imprudently on that fund to operate the orchestra and pay salaries, the fund will be depleted by 2018, and a community treasure will be running on fumes.

In that sense, musicians suffer the same fate as workers in other sectors who brace against the forces of globalization, technology, demographic change, market fragmentation and a relentless push for productivity. What began on the factory floor has spread to media and the arts.

Like any other product, live classical performance is worth only what someone is willing to pay, and customer/donor growth isn't matching the cost of operating big orchestras. It still takes 90 musicians to play a major symphonic piece, so something has to give.

What should give way now in Minneapolis is the posturing that accompanies any labor dispute. Resolution would serve everyone's interest. Management should provide the complete independent financial analysis that the musicians seek. The "trust, but verify" approach works in diplomacy; it should work here. In return, the musicians should make the formal counteroffer that management expects.

Perhaps the toughest question of all is whether the nation's 15th largest market can continue to field a Top 10 symphony orchestra. At some point, aspirations collide with harsh realities of size and comparative wealth. Still, our hope is that the Twin Cities can continue to demonstrate its extraordinary appetite for arts and culture, and that the Minnesota Orchestra can continue to embody something we cherish -- our desire to overachieve.


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