Musicians and buildings


I went to the Minnesota Opera last Sunday: a performance of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. It was good. Going there, I noticed the construction next to the Ordway Theater. A note in the program said this was going to be a new 1,100 concert hall, that would be the home of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Previously the orchestra played in the existing concert hall, the one I was watching the opera in.

In addition, the note said, “The (new) Concert Hall will make new programming initiatives possible for the Ordway and serve as a venue to many outstanding local ensembles.”

This construction reminded me for the huge new lobby at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. Both the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra locked out their musicians at the same time that they were involved in large capital campaigns and major expansions of their concert halls.

(The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra did not go it alone in building onto the Ordway and in creating a new endowment. Rather, per my program, it is working within an Arts Partnership, which includes the orchestra, the Ordway, the Schubert Club and the Minnesota Opera.)

The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra musicians settled with their administration, taking a 20% pay cut and a reduction in the size of the orchestra. The Minnesota Orchestra musicians are still locked out.

What I am noticing is that the management of both orchestras seem more interested in building up assets — buildings and endowments — than in paying their workers, the musicians. They seem to be shifting from being orchestras to being the owners of real estate.

In point of fact, this stage of American and European capitalism has moved from production to the acquisition of (and often the stripping of) assets. FIRE (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate) dominates the American economy, and the economy has seen one asset bubble after another. The real estate boom is the most famous, leading to the financial crash of 2008, but the stock market has provided a number of bubbles, the technology boom of the late 1990s being one; and the people I read say the stock market is looking like a bubble right now. In case you are interested, bubbles always burst. There is always a crash.

Companies that actually make things have become secondary. Many of them — General Motors and General Electric are examples — make much of their money from finance, not production.

Orchestras are labor intensive. More than anything else, they require the time and labor of highly skilled professionals. But administrators and boards don’t seem to get this. They seem to think everyone (except themselves) can be replaced and at a lower cost. American factory workers have been replaced with cheap workers in Asia. Tenure track professors have been replaced with adjunct faculty. Highly trained and experienced musicians can be replaced with young music school grads…

I may be reading too much into the lockouts and the construction, but I have a sense that the rich and much of the upper middle class, the people I think of as the upper servants of the rich, believe they can float free of the rest of society, that most of us aren’t necessary. They don’t need working people anymore. They will survive just fine without us or with us in a state of abject poverty. They can make it with their assets — buildings, money and modern technology.