Management of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra said Wednesday that it has delivered a "voting offer" to its musicians in search of a resolution of their contract dispute. If the union does not accept the terms by 6 p.m. Sunday, management said it will lock out the musicians and cancel concerts through Nov. 4.

The union issued a statement deploring the move. "It fails to preserve the orchestra's artistic excellence, and it destroys this ensemble now and into the future," said Carole Mason-Smith, a bassoonist and chair of the musicians' negotiating committee.

She said the musicians probably will announce Thursday whether they will meet this weekend to consider the offer. Because there are no concerts scheduled this week, some musicians had planned to be out of town, she said, making a gathering difficult.

If they reject the offer, both major orchestras in the Twin Cities will be locked out for the first time in history. The Minnesota Orchestra, which had been scheduled to open its season Thursday, canceled its first six weeks of concerts Oct. 1 after the two sides failed to reach agreement.

The Twin Cities contract disputes are part of a national trend. Both the Atlanta and Indianapolis symphony orchestras locked out musicians in September. Both have settled, with the unions making sizable concessions.

St. Paul's contract expired June 30, although a clause provided for most terms to extend for 90 days. Negotiations in September failed to produce a deal, and the two sides met twice last week. At that time, management proposed something largely along the same financial lines as it had earlier, but extended the terms for a fourth year with a $2,000 bonus. Musicians let pass a Tuesday deadline to respond.

Just how severely management's proposal would cut annual compensation from the current minimum of $78,223 is disputed. Management says its offer is for least $62,500, consisting of base plus guaranteed overscale. The union says a $50,000 base is the proper corollary.

In a memo, SPCO president Dobson West said the orchestra "can no longer continue to 'play and talk' under the terms of the current contract."

The latest offer is basically the same as last week's proposal. It covers 32 weeks of performances; pension contributions of at least 7.63 percent of compensation; a retirement package of as much as $200,000 for musicians older than 55, and a reduction in the size of the orchestra from 34 positions to 28.

In all, West has said that the orchestra, which expects a deficit of $1 million for this fiscal year, is looking for $1.5 million in annual savings from its musicians.

In her statement Wednesday, union chair Mason-Smith said "a lockout is the last thing we want, but, with so much at stake, we cannot make an irresponsible decision. We're asking management to once again look at the many concessionary offers we've made."

Also on Wednesday, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman released a letter that he wrote to West and Brad Eggen, president of the Twin Cities Musicians Union, offering to help settle the dispute. A spokesman said the mayor has not received a formal response.

Musicians stage own 'opener'

In lieu of a season opener, Minnesota Orchestra musicians are playing their own show Thursday night at the Minneapolis Convention Center. The players financed the concert from their own sources and the help of a few large donors. Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, the orchestra's music director from 1960 to 1979, will conduct.

In an interview Tuesday, Skrowaczewski said he was happy to be asked to participate.

"I am terrified," he said, "that the effort of the musicians, the conductors, the management and public was to build a great orchestra. Finally they have it, and suddenly it will be destroyed."

The Minnesota musicians voted unanimously Sept. 29 to reject an offer that would cut $5 million in musician costs and lower the average annual salary from $135,000 to $89,000.

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra announced a deal Monday that cut salaries 32 percent but would partially restore them over five years to a point where the base will be 10 percent lower than currently. In total, Indianapolis hopes to realize $11.5 million in savings, said an orchestra spokesperson. Atlanta cut $2.4 million in annual compensation.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299