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US orchs in crisis: Milwaukee has a lesson for Minnesota

The Milwaukee Symphony Ochestra has ended the year with a balanced budget, cleared its debt and appointed the principal trumpet player to be its next president and executive director.

You see, it can be done….

The new boss is Mark Niehaus, the music director is Edo de Waart – wasn’t he at Minnesota in the good old days? – and the future’s looking rosy.

Press release here.

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Comments

  1. Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    Yes, Edo de Waart was MD in Minnesota from 1986-1995, This news from Milwaukee is the scenario that many of us had hoped would happen elsewhere: a clean slate (no debt), an administrative leader drawn from the ranks of the musicians, a new, talented MD with an international reputation. Congrats to the Board. We shall be watching closely and hope for the best!

  2. This is what you get when intelligent growth, a terrific conductor (Delfs), and dedicated musicians build something together. There’s a reason Milwaukee concert tickets are not inexpensive. This is a product with very real value.
    THANK YOU for posting this Norman!

  3. Musicians of the Milwaukee Symphony took significant pay cuts in 2005 (pre-recession) and again in 2009. In addition, the number of weeks of employment was reduced, as was the number of musicians under contract.

    If the terms of the 2009 contract have not been amended, today’s base salary for Milwaukee Symphony musicians is $63,500 and the musicians are guaranteed only 39 weeks of employment. The Milwaukee Symphony’s current contingent of players is down to 83.

    By comparison, the Minnesota Orchestra has a contingent of 98 musicians, offers a base salary of $111,000, and employs its musicians for 52 weeks a year. The Minnesota Orchestra wants to reduce that base salary to $88,000.

    So what lessons does Milwaukee have for Minnesota? That salaries in Minnesota should have been cut pre-recession and again mid-recession? That the length of the season should have been curtailed years ago? That the number of musicians under contract should long ago have been reduced, and 52-week employment long ago abandoned?

    And Milwaukee represents “the scenario that many of us had hoped would happen elsewhere”? And Milwaukee represents “intelligent growth”?

    You gentlemen must detest orchestra musicians!

    In fact, Milwaukee represents an orchestra that has already significantly downsized and contracted—but nonetheless still hangs by a thread. If worldwide economic malaise continues much longer, further cuts and reductions in Milwaukee are inevitable. There is no sizable endowment to serve as a buffer—and, fatally, no meaningful borrowing ability.

    And raiding an already-small endowment to retire longstanding debt (in Milwaukee’s case, a debt of over $10 million, and over a decade old) represents anything but success. It represents, purely and simply, an inability to raise money.

    • Thank you for alerting people to reality.

      • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

        OMG, yes. We haters of orchestral musicians can’t thank you enough for this clarification. Even if everything you claim is true, there is at least a spark of hope in Milwaukee. In Indianapolis the musicians are at least speaking with management under the guidance of a Federal mediator, that’s progress. If Atlanta and Minnesota had faced reality (on both sides of the table) sooner, this sham would not be paying out as I write this.

        • Look, are you advocating for pay cuts and work reductions and endowment shrinking, or not? Let’s not pretend Milwaukee is in better shape today because of some magic dust that Minnesota can import from its neighbor. They cut, cut, cut over a long period of time.

          • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

            I’m advocating for each orchestra to find its own way in its own situation. If pay cuts, work reductions and endowment shrinking get them there, so be it. “We shall be watching closely and hope for the best!” was the last line of my original post. They have a tough row to hoe and have taken a bold approach. We all wish them well, don’t we? Let’s continue this chat in 5 years…

        • What, exactly, is the “sham”, Mr. Fitzpatrick, in the fact-challenged universe in which you operate?

          If you read what you wrote, you are effectively criticizing the Minnesota Orchestra for not cutting musicians’ pay sooner. Myself, I think the Minnesota Orchestra should be lauded, not criticized, for keeping musicians’ pay at high levels for five years into a serious business downturn.

          And do you have a clue how unsustainable is Milwaukee’s situation? Absent a remarkable turnaround in the economy, that orchestra is in danger of going under.

          • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

            Oh dear, I’m so confused. I live in a parallel universe. Milwaukee MUST be unsustainable otherwise they would have never selected a mere musician to run the show. Let’s hope for the best. Oh, PS: the sham is the misinformation generated by Atlanta and Minnesota management concerning their financial situation. Please read their financial statements (Form 990), neither is hardly in bad shape. Please keep whipping me with your criticism; as the famous Marquis once said, it feels so good.

    • thanks for that. always good to know the other side!

  4. Absent a remarkable turnaround in the economy, most orchestras are in danger of going under would be more correct.

    Stop comparing the size of your symphony orchestras, gentlemen. It does not behoove proper decorum to have a D#sing contest in the comment section of a blog about a matter as serious as this.

    The fact of the matter is that smart orchestra managers have downsized their operations instead of running deficits to the point where the only choice is between drastic downsizing and going out of business.

    If the Milwaukee Symphony had the sense to anticipate difficult times and adapt so they avoided deficits and serious labor conflicts, bully for them.

    It is nothing to brag about that an orchestra has managed to keep musicians’ salaries and the length of the season at an unrealistically high level longer than another when the end result are draconian salary cuts and a significantly shorter season, with bitter acrimony between management and musicians to boot.

    If the financial environment is unfavorable, what else can you do but cut? Do you expect management to squeeze juice out of a dry lemon? It’s easy enough to say “raise more money, find alternative funding sources.” but when such options realistically don’t exist then sensible cutbacks are the only answer. You don’t seriously think that orchestra development staff has pixie dust to sprinkle around which makes donors and money appear from nowhere.

    Milwaukee represents intelligent downsizing, something that is a well-entrenched concept among corporations during recessions. Sure, we don’t like people fired en masse, but what’s better: downsize or go completely out of business? Orchestras are businesses – those who anticipate the environmental challenges the best get through them with less pain than those who obtusely refuse to conform to reality. Shouting “Go out and raise more money” has not been a good anticipation of environmental challenges for some time now.

    • You miss my point entirely.

      My point is an obvious one: the Minnesota Orchestra has proposed ANYTHING BUT “draconian cuts”. A new base salary of $88,000 would keep Minneapolis musicians among the best-paid in America, with salaries higher only on both coasts and in Chicago. And yet people are carrying on as if the sky is falling.

      And for Milwaukee, of all orchestras, to be held up as a successful case study—as some sort of shining example—is preposterous.

      The Minnesota Orchestra is the success story. The Milwaukee Symphony is not.

      And I suspect that the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, if not you and Mr. Fitzpatrick, are pleased that their salaries were maintained longer than may have been advisable.

      There is something to be said for noblesse oblige.

      • Drew,

        Are you SERIOUSLY proposing that the Minnesota Orchestra should be happy that their base salaries are “only” being cut from $111,000 to $88,000?!?!?! Because that will still make them the best paid orchestra in the central plains? THAT is a success story in the US these days???

        That is just about the most ludicrous postulation I have heard in my life. “Sure we’ll go down $33,000 in our annual salaries and we’ll still be smiling when we play because it could have happened sooner” should thus be the Minnesota Orchestra’s new slogan based on your your insights?

        I’d certainly like to hear what a member of the MO has to say about what you have been writing here.

        God, I sure hope you’re not their union negotiator. Noblesse peut t’obliger, mais je vais répondre: risum teneatis, amici?

        • Perhaps you would be happier with the Milwaukee deal? And a policy of “Cut Early, Cut Often, Cut Everything”? Milwaukee is viewed here as a success, at least by some.

          And please check your basic arithmetic.

          • So I make typos – shoot me. At least my logic isn’t completely flaky.

            If I were a musician with a choice between the two, I’d prefer Milwaukee, which wouldn’t give me the feeling that I have no choice but to accept a major salary cut or see my workplace go to hell. Contrary to popular propaganda, not all musicians are able to just pick up and move on to another orchestra with better pay. Besides, there are fewer and fewer of those around anyway.

            The Milwaukee musicians seem to feel some hope and optimism. That is a bonus that can’t be measured in salary differences. What do you think the Minnesota ones are feeling right now?

            I think your attittude towards the Milwaukee Symphony tastes of very sour grapes. It’s extremely difficult to take your bedlamite views seriously.

          • Logic is not the first word that comes to mind when I read that you would prefer to play in Milwaukee than Minneapolis.

            Milwaukee players have significantly lower salaries, no 52-week contract and are employed by an organization that may not survive long-term. I suspect that the overwhelming bulk of Milwaukee Symphony musicians, given the option, would be delighted if they were fortunate enough to be able to serve under the terms of the Minnesota Orchestra musicians contract.

            Of course, I am only applying the “reasonable man” standard, a standard that—quite obviously—is not endorsed by all here.

            If your personal preference is for a much lower salary, greatly reduced benefits, fewer work weeks and an employer on shaky ground, that is, of course, your privilege.

      • Mark Powell says:

        Drew,
        In what orchestra do you perform?

  5. harold braun says:

    Should be a role model! Just by the way,Mark Niehaus is a heck of a trumpet player!

  6. Robert Levine says:

    It is true, as Drew suggests, that the Milwaukee Symphony has some serious problems yet to overcome. But, as a member of the orchestra, I am far more hopeful about the future than I was this time last year. Many good things happened this past season (including, of course, the balancing of the budget for the second year in a row in a very tough economic environment and a very successful and well-reviewed Carnegie concert), the orchestra is playing extremely well, Edo and the orchestra have remarkable chemistry, the Board has shown effective leadership, and a lot of groundwork has been laid for major fundraising in the next few years.

    It is also true that MSO musicians have taken pay cuts in recent years. That may be part of the reason we’re not looking at the kind of draconian proposals facing some of our colleague orchestras, and why I don’t expect that kind of negotiation when our contract does expire. Equally important is a long history of unusually good labor relations. No one was anxious to take pay cuts when we negotiated our last contract in 2009, but it was pretty clear that it was necessary to keep the orchestra going. And we are indeed still here, albeit with a few positions still unfilled, and with some good news to report.

    I don’t think Milwaukee is either a “success story” or a failure. It’s a a work very much in progress. But I do believe we’re on a positive trajectory, even if from a lower point than we would have liked.

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      Thanks for the reality check from inside the orchestra. I find it encouraging and perhaps your history of good labor relations and mutual trust is a foundation that other orchestras need to emulate. May you become “the band that made Milwaukee famous.”

  7. John Porter says:

    I guess the thing about all this I find a bit amusing, and perhaps it’s a bit of an elephant in the room, is that folks seem to be cheering the fact that the principal trumpet player has been appointed CEO. This appear to be some sort of labor versus management being played out in a new way, giving the sense that those who have been trained in management must surely be inept. Bring in the musician, who will show how things can really be run well. It’s along the lines of labor saying that management just doesn’t know how to raise money or market. It’s not the changing market, but the ineptitude of management.

    I did find it somewhat comical that the local news article bolstered Neihaus’s preparation for the job via working with the a cub scout troop.

    Whatever folks think of the future and the past, it might be wise to realize that past was paved by traditional management, meaning a balanced budget, recruitment of de Waart, etc.

    And, I do think Drew is correct. The MSO has been downsized over the course of many years. And their struggles predate the bad economy by many years. They are in many ways a shadow of what they once were season-wise and in terms of education/outreach. It just so happens their business model problems predated that of many other orchestras now in the soup now due to the economy.

    Maybe what’s been done in Milwaukee is what has to happen for others, meaning a significant downsizing and a return to the days before orchestras were really full-time organizations, meaning the early 60s. I dunno.

    Does anyone know why the Gleason resigned? If things were going so swimmingly, why did she resign?

    It seems to me that there’s quite a bit more to this whole story and I find it a bit sad that people are taking a bit of a tabloid approach to something that is actually quite complex and important.

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