Trying to make sense of the Minnesota Orchestra situation

I have been trying to figure out what the administration and board of the Minnesota Orchestra think they are are doing. The lockout of orchestra musicians has been going on for the better part of a year. For what it is worth, the Orchestra Association is being advised by the law firm that advised American Sugar in its lockout of workers up in Moorhead and advised the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in its lockout of musicians. The SPCO musicians finally settled. Their base pay has been cut 19% and the number of musicians in the orchestra has been reduced.

I knew the SPCO had financial problems, but the Minnesota Orchestra is doing a huge expansion of Orchestra Hall, partly funded by a state grant. To get the state grant, they had to show that their financials were solid.

Per the musicians' website, the administration wants pay cuts of 30-50%. Also per the website, the Minnesota Orchestra pay was in line with other major orchestras, and other major orchestras -- such as Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco and Pittsburgh -- have new contracts with flat pay or slight increases in pay.

This is by Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker:

In his latest piece, (Graydon) Royce alludes to a column I wrote in 2010, in which I said, "For the duration of the evening of March 1st, the Minnesota Orchestra sounded, to my ears, like the greatest orchestra in the world." … I stand by the statement, at least as far as the musicians themselves are concerned. As for the board and the management, I am tempted to apply a superlative of a quite different kind. I'll simply say this: do the board and management actually wish to destroy the Minnesota Orchestra? So far, their actions seem to be moving steadily toward that end.

It is quite amazing for a nonprofit with one mission -- maintenance of a classical orchestra -- to destroy that orchestra. I think it's flat out insane. Remember that Alex Ross thinks it may be the greatest classical orchestra in the world. That's a heck of a thing to destroy. Not something a sane person would do. Remember that the orchestra administration was able to convince the state of Minnesota that the orchestra was in good financial shape, so the problem does not seem to be money. If the problem is money, in spite of their representations to the state, then they need to open their financial records to the union and the public and plead for help.

In an attempt to make the actions of the board and administration appear rational, I came up with two theories. Remember these are only theories.

(1)The administration and board decided to save money while the new Orchestra Hall lobby was under construction by shutting out the musicians. Why pay musicians when the Hall was barely -- if at all -- useable? Why worry about finding other venues? Simply lock the musicians out. In addition, I imagine, they hoped to break the union and thus be able to pay much less, when construction was done and they rehired the orchestra. If they lost the current musicians, it wouldn't matter because they could hire recent music school graduates. Anyone can play classical music. They haven't managed to break the union, and they don't know what to do next. They are stuck with a bad plan.

(2)They decided to eliminate the Minnesota Orchestra, because it's too expensive, and replace it with a pops orchestra, which will -- they hope -- cost less and bring in more subscribers. Or have no orchestra and rent the Hall out for special events -- rock concerts or weddings.

Patrick says it would be a lot easier to just have recorded music. But they'd better remember to pay ASCAP and BMI.

  • As an arts participator and aficionado, I lean towards the position in his article that MN Orch management does want to destroy this world renowned orchestra, and this is as close to a criminal activity as any civic organization can do, but its legal. I think this commodification of arts creativity might be the sign of more to come in other art endeavors. I think ALL ARTS ORGANIZATIONS SHOULD COME TOGETHER AND PROTEST THIS ACTION BY MN ORCHESTRA MANAGEMENT! WE CANNOT SIT BACK AND NOT LET THIS HAPPEN! - by Bob Roscoe on Thu, 08/22/2013 - 6:27am
  • Please note that as of November 2011 the MOA Mission statement no longer contains the words Classical or Orchestra. You are to be forgiven for assuming it did, because it should. http://saveoursymphonymn.wordpress.com/2013/08/22/the-changing-mission-of-the-moa/ - by David Assemany on Thu, 08/22/2013 - 5:21pm
  • When I wrote my novel, "Death and Transfiguration," I thought everyone would assume it was fiction. It seems the MOA has used it as a manual! - by Gerald Elias on Sun, 09/01/2013 - 5:23pm
  • Also, the MOA had some sort of consultant tell them how to draw down the endowment in 2008 and 2009 (I believe) for a balanced budget so that they would be approved for the state grants, and then start showing a deficit in following years and cry poverty as negotiations approached. It was all very scripted. - by Sarah Nagle on Thu, 08/22/2013 - 6:44pm