The Minnesota Orchestra's management and musicians — now in the 11th month of a bitter labor lockout — are quietly talking again behind the scenes.

Multiple sources close to the dispute say representatives of the two sides met with an independent mediator this week to see whether ground rules can be set for formal bargaining. The mediator idea arose from private conversations with Gov. Mark Dayton, these sources say.

No agreement has been reached, and significant hurdles remain for negotiators who have staked out positions with scorching public rhetoric. Both sides will decide within the next week to 10 days whether they can work with the mediator.

A shift in tone became apparent on Wednesday, when the orchestra canceled six summer concerts. Absent was the spin and blame that has characterized the public-relations battle between management and the musicians, who have refused to come to the bargaining table unless the lockout is ended. A mildly worded management news release provoked no sharp union response.

"I think you can read between the lines," said a spokesperson for the musicians.

Much hangs in the balance as the dispute nears the one-year mark.

The imperiled 2013-14 season includes a high-profile engagement at Carnegie Hall and the opening of a remodeled Orchestra Hall. Also looming is music director Osmo Vänskä's threat to resign if an agreement is not reached by Sept. 9 — a date he said would allow him sufficient time to rehearse with the players ahead of the Carnegie concert in early November.

If another season collapses or Vänskä leaves, and the public-relations machinery spews more denunciations and blame, some see danger to management and musicians in one of the longest labor battles ever for a U.S. orchestra.

"Both sides would lose, because the public would not want to bother with the nitty-gritty details of whose fault it is," said John Budd, labor expert at the Carlson School of Management. "The public wants people to settle their business."

Public-relations war

Although there have been informal and sporadic attempts to open back-channel negotiations in the orchestra dispute, there has been only one formal meeting between full committees since last October.

Announced as a "fresh start" in January, that endeavor soon soured. Rather than bargain, the locked-out musicians and, to a lesser extent, management, have taken their message to reporters and the public in hopes of winning hearts and minds.

"If they are talking to you, then they are not talking to each other and that's the problem," said Mark Stryker, who covered a six-month strike at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. "That has been the problem in Minnesota since the very beginning. As difficult as things got here, a month never went by when the two sides didn't at least talk to each other."

The union has called for the ouster of CEO Michael Henson, has accused the board of financial malfeasance and trumpeted the departure of key musicians as evidence that management is destroying the orchestra. The board has hectored musicians to come to the bargaining table and make an economic proposal. When the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra settled its dispute in April, Minnesota management asked publicly why those musicians could negotiate and make a deal, but the Minnesota Orchestra players could not.

"The opposite sides are trying to demoralize the enemy," said New York-based arts consultant Adrian Ellis. "It's a game of chicken, ultimately, but the longer it goes on, the more the whole rationale gets undermined."

Getting to the table

A mediated settlement faces major obstacles. Musicians continue to insist that the lockout must be lifted before they will return to bargaining. Management has refused that demand. The question arises whether those closest to the bargaining can overcome their personal feelings and enmity for opponents they have spent the better part of a year vilifying.

"Extra baggage makes negotiations more difficult," said Budd. "At some point, the parties have to put those emotions aside and figure out what's going to work out economically."

Stryker, classical music critic for the Detroit Free Press, has watched the Minnesota dispute with keen interest. The Detroit Symphony had been the poster child for orchestral labor strife, with the strike and the subsequent deal that cut base salaries by roughly 20 percent. Minnesota is certain to displace Detroit in that unenviable position and Stryker is puzzled by how bitter and protracted the dispute has become.

"The public-relations game happens in all labor disputes," he said. "What is atypical is that 10 months into it, it's still happening. In every case I can think of, the gamesmanship stops and the negotiating begins."

Still, the mediation effort that has been started does not guarantee success.

"If one side or the other is so entrenched, then a mediator will not be successful," said Budd. "If certain segments on each side believe enough is enough, then a mediator can be helpful. But they're not magicians."

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299