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Christmas is cancelled in Minnesota as musical misery deepens

The hockey team is locked out and the orchestra has thrown its musicians onto the street, but while the sports people are still talking the orchestra board has refused further negotiations with the players. All concerts have been called off through the holiday season. An orchestra board member wants the musicians to take the financial initiative, threatening to end his subscription until they show more responsibility.

Edo de Waart is flying in to support the stricken Minneapolis musicians, Pinchas Zukerman is rallying their smitten brethren in St Paul. Michael Henson, the Minnesota manager, keeps his door shut tight.

It just gets worse and worse and worse.

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  1. Surely the board member has a point?

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      The musicians have been locked out, they are NOT on strike. A typical response is a proposal to continue to play under the old contract and to continue to talk. The musicians have asked for a current, independently audited analysis of the MO financials. Surely management has closed the books on last season and can provide such audited documents. The current publicly available 990 tax form for MO (which reflects the situation from FY2010) shows an organization in rather fiscal good health, albeit with an endowment too small in relation to the operating budget. Please remind me what the board member’s point is…

      Michael Henson’s salary in FY2010 was $360K and Osmo Vanka earned over $1M (double the salary of Robert Spano in Atlanta). I think i understand why Vanska is keeing silent.

      • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

        If you are skeptical, please go to and create a personal account (it’s free). Then log in and search for Minnesota Orchestral Association. Click on the 2011 Form 990 and you will see a PDF of their tax form which is a matter of public record. All non-profits in the USA are required to file this form annually for the most recent fiscal year. The problem is that this creates a gap of 1 or 2 years in relation to the current situation.

        • Rhonda Frascotti says:

          The hockey team is not on strike–they have been locked out by the owners!

          • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

            The board member seems as concerned about hockey as about the orchestra. There are probably individual hockey players who make as much as the entire first violin section including the concertmaster. Lockout is the new management strategy in many professions.

    • Start here…useful narrative of this whole story:

  2. Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    On September 9, I said in this blog: I have a very dark thought here coming from innermost evil soul. The Hall won’t be ready until September 2013. They are renting space for 2012-2013. Every concert cancelled ultimately saves a load of money. Are they trying to position themselves for “a brave new world” when the renovated Orchestra Hall opens? With work rule changes they will have greater flexibility to manage future budgets. But then, I’m just a cynic at heart. I hope I’m wrong.

    It seems now that there is a reasonable chance that there will not be a 2012-2013 season for the Minnesota Orchestra. I still want to see Vanska and the musical leadership from St. Paul take a public stand on these issues even at the risk of losing their current posts. De Waart and Zukerman can certainly help and are probably assuring that they will never again be engaged by current management in the Twin Cities. What are the politicians doing? The Mayors, the Governor?

    • Terry Carlson says:

      It’s even worse than that. The words “symphony orchestra” do not appear in the new Mission Statement adopted by the board of directors. Brave new world, indeed. One that does not include the Minnesota Orchestra as we have known it, unfortunately.

    • Osmo Vanska is in a difficult position and is wise to stay silent. The elected officials aren’t doing a whole lot (certainly less than they did with various stadium proposals).

      Both orchestra managements – headed by a bunch of lawyers and bankers – want to fundamentally change the orchestras, to the detriment of audiences and the music. They don’t appear to care that they are destroying the orchestras in order to supposedly “save” them.

      It’s sickening.

  3. an orchestra musician says:

    It is very obvious, without a doubt, MO management has figured out that it is better to manufacture a budget crisis to force wage concessions from musicians then having to rent an alternative venue and settling on a fair wage agreement. In other word, they would rather loose an entire season if they can’t squeeze the musicians to accept a completely unfair wage cuts. This tells a lot about how much those who are in charge the board and management value the artistic excellence. Shame on Jon Compell and Michael Henson.

  4. Am I the only person wondering if there is some sort of script in play? It is almost as though there is some sort of long-term hidden agenda that they are following, where the players are not equal partners but simply pawns. Even worse, this agenda could be the result of agreement between managements of different orchestras. I hope I am mistaken.

    • Mark Gresham says:

      If there is collusion taking place among orchestra managements, or even a herd mentality, I would be interested in being pointed to a verifiable evidence of the smoking gun barrel. I’m not suggesting there isn’t one, but smelling smoke and seeing smoke aren’t quite enough if you want to make a real case. If you can make a case and show me the smoking gun, here is one music journalist who would be quite open to seeing it. There is what seems to be a national narrative going on, but hand me the proof, individually or collectively, of malice aforethought. Yes, I have Flanagan’s “The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras” and a few of his earlier papers. Yes, I have Kaiser’s “The Art of the Turnaround.” I even have Darrell Huff’s classic “How to Lie with Statistics.” Yes, I have communications with interested peer labor/management economists. But show me the smoking gun. Give me verifiable numbers and documentation. Put the credible evidence in my hands. Make the case.

    • There definitely is with the SPCO. I don’t know about collusion, but it’s entirely possible – especially given that both boards are run by lawyers and bankers.

      And neither the musicians nor the audience members have any significant place in these plans.

  5. Ghillie Forrest says:

    The hockey team — like all NHL teams — is also locked out, not on strike. The difference is, none of the hockey players seem to be the least bit financially troubled by what will now be at least a half-season without play (or, presumably, pay). A salutary reminder of the danger the arts are in compared to sport. One NHL team is actively negotiating with a specialised fundraiser to hit the ground running the moment a settlement is reached in order to offer patrons incentives and sweeteners to re-subscribe. Something certain orchestras of my acquaintance should be thinking about, whether they are currently on strike, locked out, or simply seeing a dwindling patron base.

  6. Chris H. Smith says:

    If management is proposing that the musicians take such salary cuts, that is one thing. How much of a salary cut is management taking? HOW MUCH OF A SALARY CUT IS MANAGEMENT TAKING?

  7. For the sake of playing devil’s advocate here… these orchestras are all not for profit organisations. So why would management want to knock down musicians salaries unless they felt it was necessary?

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      Because they see them as overpaid and underworked and because they don’t fit in with the new corporate model which involves casting non-profits as businesses with the same ethics as for-profit enterprises. Of course management feels it’s necessary because, as others have already said here, the Minnesota Orchestra as we have know it, is not their primary concern. Management is in the entertainment business.

    • Surely there must be more to it than that though. Orchestral wages have risen immensely in the Top20 orchestras since the 80s. Times were good then…. but not anymore, so perhaps some adjustment is required in some orchestras? I’m not suggesting all managements are behaving honourably, clearly some of them are not, but surely the realities of the situation are a little more nuanced than what some people suggest.

      • Terry Carlson says:

        Part of the unique situation at the Minnesota Orchestra is that $50 million was just raised to renovate the lobby at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. The lobby! Then comes the new contract negotiations and suddenly there’s no money to pay musicians’ salaries. Donors feel betrayed; would they have given money for the lobby if it meant the musicians would be locked-out in a labor dispute to balance the budget?

      • Nope. No nuance here, just plain old scorched earth.

      • William Safford says:

        Playing Devil’s Advocate is a worthy endeavor. Let’s address your points.

        Well, let’s look at recent events in orchestra contract-land from just this season.

        Examples of lockouts include: Minnesota, St. Paul, Indianapolis, Atlanta.

        Example of a strike? Chicago.

        Examples of imposed “final/best offer” contracts: Richmond comes immediately to mind; there are others.

        Example of a strike in response to an imposed “final/best offer”: Spokane.

        What do they have in common? These are all examples of hardball negotiating techniques by orchestras against their musicians. They’re trying to pass the buck to the musicians, when it’s their failures that have caused the crises. They are not willing to open their books.

        Note that these attacks on musicians (that is, labor) by the orchestras (that is, management) are all happening now, on the heels of Detroit and, especially, the attempt at union busting in Louisville last year. Coincidence? Maybe.

        How about an example of an orchestra that has a true, demonstrated financial crisis? Delaware.


        • Above I posted the following: Orchestral wages have risen immensely in the Top20 orchestras since the 80s. Times were good then…. but not anymore.

          So do you disagree with this? Is it incorrect to say that wages are currently inflated, even if cuts that are proposed may be more than necessary?

          • Oh, for pity’s sake, Luciano, you can play devil’s advocate all you want. We now understand that you simply don’t agree that elite professional musicians at the top of their field should be paid accordingly. If the MO can raise $50 million for a new lobby, then the money is there to pay musicians’ salaries. Other agendas are at work here, such as union-busting, even if it means the destruction of the orchestra the board is supposedly there to safeguard. Very odd behavior, until you realize that the board is made up of bankers and corporate executives. They are not the smartest guys in the room when it comes to the arts.

          • If I recall, in the late 70′s, scale was about 18K.

          • William Safford says:

            I disagree with your premises. I assume you disagree with them as well, if they’re Devil’s Advocate positions.

            Why is it that orchestras and other similar institutions generally seem to be able to raise money for buildings, but often fall short for the ensembles that occupy them? In the case of Minnesota, for example, why did they succeed at raising the money to build a new lobby for the hall, then stiff the people who perform in it?

            I don’t go to a concert hall to sit in it in silence; I go to it to hear live music.

            Times are still very good for the 1% who are the primary donors of large sums to orchestras. Their incomes remain high, and their investments have largely rebounded since the lows of 2008.

            Recent years have been rocky for investment portfolios. How did orchestras manage their investments? It would be helpful to learn more about this, to help assess the financial conditions of orchestras, how well they have been run, and possibly help them improve their finances.

            Almost none of them want to open their books.

            Times are tough on many of the 99% of us who are the hoi-polloi, who can’t afford to attend orchestra concerts, or who sit in the inexpensive seats, or who scrape together the money to sit in nicer seats from time to time or who forego other things to do so.

            Recognize that even the highest paid orchestra members (except maybe a few concertmasters) are members of the 99% (absent outside income or wealth).

            The orchestras we are discussing are the elite institutions of their kind in the U.S. If you want the elite, you pay for the elite. The Minnesota Orchestra has been in really fine form in recent years. Will this still be true when this lockout ends?

            One aspect of orchestra life hasn’t been discussed much on this blog (or I’ve missed it): the low job satisfaction for orchestra musicians. It can be a creatively stifling life for many. Even when playing under a supportive conductor and with sympathetic colleagues, string players subsume much of their musical individuality to a string section when they join an orchestra. Orchestras life rarely is that ideal. It is a little bit easier for those of us who occupy solo wind, brass, or percussion chairs, but still applies to us.

            Part of the tradeoff of choosing an orchestral career with a regular paycheck instead of a solo or chamber music career is, well, receiving a regular paycheck. Locked out musicians are not even getting that right now.

            So, to go back to your original question: “So why would management want to knock down musicians salaries unless they felt it was necessary?”

            One likely answer: raising less money takes less work and effort than raising more money. Making scapegoats of the musicians redirects blame for fiscal problems away from those truly responsible for it.

            Another likely answer: it’s how they treat their employees in their own businesses.

          • When Orchestra Hall was built, all the money was spent on the auditorium, encased in a permanent double shell. The auditorium, designed to be long-lasting, was first-class in every way, but the rest of the structure was specifically designed to be obsolescent within fifteen years—and to be replaced no later than 1990.

            The original building was not ADA-compliant, and had a longstanding—and very serious—mold problem. The orchestra had little choice, for legal reasons alone, but to begin planning to do what should have been done in the late 1980s.

            Plans for totally refurbishing the auditorium, top to bottom, and replacing everything else, were put into place more than six years ago, when fundraising began. If I am not mistaken (and I would be happy to be corrected), it took more than four years for the orchestra to raise the necessary $100 million, at which point firm plans for a reconstruction schedule were announced.

          • Ok, here’s what I really think. The proposals put forward by both boards are draconian and should be fought. Having said that, I think it is realistic that orchestras who have six figure starting salaries and are not in the so called ‘Top 5′ may well have to take some form of reduction, but hopefully not as drastic as proposed. I realise Minnesota is arguably Top 5 on playing standards, but is not there in terms of resources. Twin cities is not Chicago, NY or LA. It’s not a case of the musicians not deserving to be well paid, it’s a question of what society is willing to pay for their services. Society does not owe any of us a living. Over the last thirty years salaries have gone up drastically, whilst audiences are in decline. It’s hard to see how that is sustainable. And yes, of course management should be taking the same cuts as the players, and the days of seven figure Music Director salaries should be left behind as well. Also remember, that it’s much easier to raise money for something physical like a building than it is for raising money that goes in to general revenue or even the endowment. Raising money for a lobby will always be easier than raising money to pay musicians. Sad but true.

          • William Safford says:

            Minneapolis and St. Paul have a world-class orchestra and a very fine chamber orchestra, respectively. It is theirs to lose.

            They are doing a good job at losing them.

            Are they willing to make the relatively modest investment — modest in comparison with many other civic projects, as well as expenditures already made on the infrastructure for the orchestra — to sustain what they already have? It’s their choice.

            They need to choose soon. A choice delayed eventually becomes a choice made.

  8. Orchestra Musician says:

    I applaud Edo de Waart and Pinchas Zukerman for having the Balls to support the Symphony Musicians.

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      Agreed and I would give Osmo Vanska a standing-O if he said even two words supporting the musicians.

  9. James Brinton says:

    Surely there is more than one hall available in Minneapolis. The orchestra could reorganize itself as an artists’ cooperative and give concerts in an alternate venue, take in the proceeds, and tell management to pound sand. If they need scores, there are conservatories all over the country that would provide them.

  10. Osmo Vänskä seems to already have set up an alternative business, namely a limousine and charter bus operation in Eastern Finland:

  11. Stuart Green says:

    We in Bournemouth had our pensions final salary scheme removed by Michael Henson. He is the person who should go. Good luck to you all.

  12. Mary Schaefle, guest-blogging on Song of the Lark, has posted the second part of her scrutiny of MO finances.

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