The Orchestra carries on

Musicians forming new nonprofit to produce concerts while labor dispute continues

Credit: Photo by Courtney Perry

As the 15-month Minnesota Orchestra lockout wears on, contract talks are starting up again.

The talks are between small parties, and they’re informal. But they’re something.

“We’re still working hard to try to get a settlement and try to get the organization back together,” said Tony Ross, a Minnesota Orchestra cellist who is part of the talks.

The Orchestra musicians are forming a new nonprofit, and they’re independently producing at least 10 concerts this winter and spring. They’re landing guest artists who traditionally book up two or three years in advance. Former conductor Osmo Vänskä will join them to reopen Northrop Auditorium in May and celebrate the Orchestra’s new Grammy nominations in March.

The musicians’ independent schedule looks a bit different than some of the concerts they were originally scheduled to play in the 2013-14 season.

Guest artists included the bluegrass band Trampled by Turtles, Glee star Matthew Morrison, saxophonist Kenny G, the Christian rock artist Michael W. Smith, and songwriter Ben Folds. Other shows featured the music from the video game Final Fantasy, West Side Story, Pixar, Handel’s Messiah, and the Sibelius symphonies that earned Grammy nominations.

The Orchestra is altering its mix of concerts to reduce the number of classical shows. Orchestra Public Relations Director Gwen Pappas said pops concerts aren’t increasing, but there would be fewer weeks of core classical subscription concerts than in prior years (two to four weeks fewer, depending on the year).

She said modern concerts like Video Games Live are part of a shift underway for the past seven years.

“The idea has been to redefine and update popular music concerts to engage new audiences, and it has been successful,” Pappas said in an email. “It doesn’t mean that we are offering more pops performances than ever before (actually, we probably offer less today than we did in the 1990s) — but we are altering the mix of the concerts to reach new people.”

The new mix doesn’t sit well with some musicians. Orchestra cellist Marcia Peck said some pops arrangements are great, such as arrangements by Henry Mancini and others featuring Doc Severinsen. But as more pops creep into the lineup, it detracts from much-needed classical rehearsal time, she said.

“There is more than one way to attract an audience,” she said. “Audiences respond to excellence. … The Orchestra has had such successes here.”

She mentioned performances at the BBC Proms and Carnegie Hall,Vänskä’s 2005 honor as conductor of the year by MusicalAmerica, and the Orchestra’s repeat Grammy nominations.

“So much of our success has been kept a secret here,” she said.

Ross said the balance between pops and classical is a key issue.

“The community needs a more steady diet of classical music, in our opinion,” Ross said. “It’s what major orchestras do.”

Great orchestras play almost weekly, Ross added, more than the Minnesota schedule allows. 

The financial picture

The Orchestra can’t afford to perform more shows, according to its Board of Directors.

Even if the Board did succeed in reducing musician expenses by 30 percent, the financial difficulties ahead are significant, according to an AKA Strategy analysis commissioned by the Orchestra.

The musicians’ 2008-12 contract featured initial salary increases of 26 percent (a total of $2.3 million), according to the report. The subsequent Great Recession swiftly reduced the Orchestra endowment’s market value by 30 percent and caused contributed revenue to drop 17 percent. As a result, the Orchestra drew down its endowment from $106 million to $59 million from 2007-12. The Orchestra’s invested assets have been tracking more than $80 million lower than 2007 projections.

“Complicating the situation was continuing flat ticket revenue in part because of reduced interest in and attendance at classical music concerts, a problem endemic to virtually all major symphony Orchestras,” stated the AKA Strategy report.

National classical music attendance has declined from 13 percent of adults to 9 percent between 1982 and 2008, according to the Board.

The Board decided renovation of Orchestra Hall would be vital to boost interest in the Orchestra. The AKA report said it’s too early to tell whether the renovation will ultimately yield positive outcomes, however.

“The Orchestra has had a history of overestimating its ability to generate revenue, particularly contributed revenue, hoping that it would be able to close the ever-growing gap in the operating budget through fundraising,” stated the report. “But the combination of adverse economic circumstances and limits on donor capacity and interest have hindered the Orchestra’s efforts to reliably bridge the gap in more recent years.”

In order to survive, the Orchestra Board maintains that a new business model is necessary. This new model would be based on major expense reductions, a new number of concerts to align supply and demand, and new performance formats and content in the expanded Orchestra Hall.

Board members are heavily invested in the Orchestra as well — the Board of Directors plans to increase its donations by 20 percent, according to a Star Tribune editorial by retiring Board member Jo Ellen Saylor.

“Our board of directors and the corporations they represent contributed $60 million over the past five years,” she wrote.

She said 20 percent of the Orchestra’s full-time staff have been cut, remaining staff’s pay has been reduced or frozen, and pension and medical insurance benefits have been reduced.

Board chair Jon Campbell was reelected in December, and he agreed to serve as chair through the duration of the labor dispute. Pappas said the Board will elect a new chair when a settlement is reached.

“The Board determined that continuity of leadership was important for the contract negotiations,” she said.

Meanwhile, community members impatiently wait for resolution. Boom Island Brewing Co. is selling LoMoMo Palooza brew in support of the musicians. National media are closely following the story, and Google’s first hit in a search for “Minnesota Orchestra” now yields the Orchestra’s Contract Talks page. State legislators are floating an idea for community ownership of the Orchestra, calling it the “Green Bay Packer model.”

As for the current contract talks, musicians are cautious in their comments.

“I’m trying not to get my hopes up,” said Peck, who is involved in the talks. “We’re hoping they lead somewhere.”