When Osmo Vänskä arrived as music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, he told players he wanted them to be the top U.S. orchestra and one of the best in the world.

Doug Wright, principal trombone, recalled the meeting last week as he reflected on a contract proposal from orchestra management that would cut average musician salaries by 34 percent.

"You've seen the press from all over the world," Wright said last week. "We've achieved a level of notoriety and skill that's made us world-renowned. And now we feel we're being penalized for achieving worldwide recognition."

The breadth and depth of the contract proposal stunned the union side. Wright, a veteran negotiator who is on this year's committee, said the board has proposed more than 250 changes to the contract, erasing "40 years of accrued working conditions and rules." And then there is the economic offer that would cut average pay by $45,000. Wright said that, in some cases, salary cuts could reach 50 percent.

While Wright and other musicians are confused and angry, management has said that desperate times require desperate measures. "Our musicians must play their part" in the financial recovery, management said on its website.

The unprecedented public airing of details of the Minnesota Orchestra's contract proposal last week triggered another round of debate in the symphonic world about the affordability of excellence.

"We're threading the needle," said Richard Davis, the former board chairman who heads the management negotiating team. "This is going to be very challenging, to find a way to protect the artistic integrity of this world-class orchestra and not lose the players that have made it that way."

Trouble all over

Musicians at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, who will receive a second management offer this week, are similarly caught in the vise. An earlier proposal would have cut salaries by nearly 70 percent.

On the same day the Minnesota negotiations went public came news from the Atlanta Symphony that musicians were being locked out because their offer of $4 million in givebacks was deemed insufficient.

A strike last year in Detroit and bankruptcy in Philadelphia are the most visible signs of distress in an industry that has been battling financial deficits for 40 years. Unquestionably, the trend has hastened in the past several years, with orchestras in smaller metropolitan areas folding or severely truncating their seasons.

The Minnesota Orchestra has been balancing its budget by drawing from its endowment, a situation that Davis said is not sustainable. It is a mantra that he and Orchestra President Michael Henson have been repeating to donors and musicians alike for three years.

Wright said musicians are sensitive to the troubles. The union made $4.2 million in concessions during the 2009 recession, and, according to the musicians' website, the board "rejected outright" an offer two years ago of an additional $1.5 million in reductions.

Extra money?

Further stoking musician angst is the Orchestra Hall remodeling project.

"For them to talk about the deep deficits and the disappearing endowments and then put $52 million into an enhanced lobby is confusing," Wright said. "I'm not suggesting we don't need to renovate the lobby, but to then turn around and gut the thing that the building was made for [the orchestra] doesn't make sense."

Henson has said those funds were raised specifically for the remodeling project.

Final contracts at the Minnesota Orchestra and the SPCO likely will not include the draconian numbers in the initial trial balloons. The severity of those proposals, however, seems to have changed the dynamic between board and musicians. While West emphasized in an interview that "we value our musicians," the numbers speak for themselves.

Davis said there are two kinds of American orchestras: those that have gone through painful restructuring, and those that are going to go through it. Exceptions might be Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Chicago -- organizations with greater endowments or income streams. But the question of excellence and retaining top-tier talent strikes directly at the Minnesota talks.

"These are real people with real lives, and they have to protect their own financial circumstances and artistic integrity," Davis said, referring to the musicians. "There's a risk that they find their way to another place, and those who can leave will. It's going to be a personal decision where they want to perform."

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299 On Twitter: @graydonroyce