For five decades, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra has touted itself as the only full-time chamber orchestra in the United States -- a prestigious ensemble noted for its international touring, recordings and Grammy Awards.

But in tough labor talks that seek $1.5 million in annual savings, the SPCO is reconsidering whether it can keep its musicians at full-time.

Details of the negotiations, which began in April, have dribbled out and reveal far-reaching proposals to trim the SPCO's annual expenses, which totaled $10.9 million last year. The board's initial proposal called for reducing guaranteed workweeks for most musicians to 20 weeks per year, and in some cases to 15 weeks per year.

Facing declining revenue and flat attendance, the Minnesota Orchestra is going through similar negotiations with its musicians this summer. That organization reported a $2.9 million deficit last fiscal year and is embarking on a $50 million building project.

"I think this is semantics," Dobson West, SPCO board chair and interim president, said about the prospect of a part-time orchestra. "We view our proposal as not changing our commitment to the community as far as putting on 100 to 120 concerts a year. And we would expect that under any proposal, the audience should expect to see the same musicians."

The union rejected the initial offer, and West said he anticipates making a new proposal when the two sides reconvene in July.

"The SPCO is unlike any other orchestra in the United States," said Brad Eggen, president of the Twin Cities Musicians' Union, who has been involved in the labor talks. "To keep it operating at this level and retain the level of talent, there can't be any significant compromise in how these folks are treated."

West said the board, in response to musicians' concerns over guaranteed weeks, planned to present a revised plan that raises those figures but keeps the overall savings the same.

Reductions made

The SPCO has cut expenses by $1.5 million since 2008, but officials said they anticipate a deficit between $750,000 and $1 million this year.

Founded in 1959, the SPCO is the only full-time chamber orchestra in the United States. Past music directors included Pinchas Zukerman, Dennis Russell Davies and Hugh Wolff. The orchestra has toured extensively internationally, and its recordings have been regarded highly. Locally, annual attendance is about 95,000, and the orchestra has been credited for its flexibility in bringing concerts to locations outside its Ordway Center home. A key strategy is to keep ticket prices low to develop patron loyalty and encourage donations.

Contract expires this year

The current contract, which expires this year, pays all 34 SPCO musicians for the entire year, including for weeks they do not work. Management's initial proposal suggested that 27 musicians be guaranteed 20 weeks and that seven would be guaranteed only 15 weeks. In addition, individual musicians could be contracted beyond those guarantees, which means some players could be working for the entire 35-week season.

When musicians signed a five-year deal in June 2007, they were promised that minimum annual salaries would increase to $78,223 by now. Recessionary pressure, reductions in contributed income and foundation money forced concessions that reduced those numbers significantly. According to the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, the SPCO minimum was $66,700 for a 37-week season.

Under the current management offer, a comparable figure would be about $56,000 -- based on 35 weeks at a $1,600 weekly minimum. A significant part of the discrepancy results from a management proposal to eliminate pay during the off-season.

Will musicians stay?

Eggen said he fears "the exit door will become extremely wide" if deep cuts are made at the SPCO. West said that retention is always a concern, citing the recent case of Yoonshin Song, who left to become concertmaster at the Detroit Symphony.

"They have opportunities, but what we're trying to do is balance maintenance of artistic quality and fiscal responsibility," West said.

Musicians have offered wage freezes for two years and proposed an increase in ticket prices. Management rejected both, saying the wage proposal "is simply not sufficient in light of the $1.5 million in annual savings needed," and that price increases would likely result in sales declines.

Although the musicians' contract expires June 30, a clause provides for most terms to automatically extend for 90 days. Bargaining sessions have been scheduled into August and the musicians have hired a public-relations firm to get their message out. Carole Mason Smith, a bassoonist who heads the musicians' committee, said it is too early to be talking about strike authorization.

"We've never done this before," Smith said. "We're still hoping it doesn't get to that point."

West said the board has not had any significant discussions about a work stoppage.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299