Labor standoffs silence orchestras in Minn., Indy
Minnesota Orchestra musicians - locked out in contract dispute - rally In Minneapolis, Monday Oct. 1, 2012. Over half of the orchestra showed up for the 1 p.m. protest. (AP Photo/The Star Tribune,Richard Sennott) MANDATORY CREDIT; ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS OUT; MAGS OUT; TWIN CITIES TV OUT
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Orchestra was called the world's greatest not long ago, welcome recognition for musicians outside a top cultural center. Now its members are locked out of Orchestra Hall, stuck in the same kind of labor-management battle recently afflicting teachers and football referees.
Across the country, symphony and chamber orchestra executives have cited flat ticket sales and slumping private support as they seek major pay concessions from musicians, who warn about a loss of talent and reputation. In Minneapolis, the Minnesota Orchestra has already cancelled concerts through Nov. 25 as negotiators argue over a proposal to trim the average musicians' salary by $46,000 a year.
A similar standoff is underway across the Mississippi River at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra has canceled the first month of its season in a labor impasse, and labor troubles are also rumbling at orchestras in Richmond, Va., Jacksonville, Fla., and San Antonio, Texas.
"It breaks my heart," said Christal Steele, a violinist and assistant concertmaster in Indianapolis, where she and fellow musicians have gone without pay and benefits for almost a month. "This is my 40th season, and in that time, I have seen nothing but this orchestra rise in quality and in stature. Now in one fell swoop, they're trying to erase the last 30 years."
Last week, musicians and management at the symphony orchestras in both Chicago and Atlanta reached new contracts after contentious negotiations. Atlanta's musicians went without pay for a month before accepting $5.2 million in compensation cuts over two years, plus reductions in their ranks. The Chicago deal came after a two-day strike that forced the cancellations of the season's first Saturday night show, with musicians wrangling salary increases but agreeing to pay higher health care costs.
"It's shaking up a lot of organizations right now," said Drew McManus, a Chicago-based consultant to orchestras and other arts organizations. "This world of orchestras is one that's always been defined by well-established strata — the best orchestras in the country, the second tier and so on — and that is very much in flux at the moment."
The Minnesota Orchestra has seen its reputation grow in recent years under conductor Osmo Vanska. The Finnish-born Vanska has become something of a celebrity in a state that treasures its Scandinavian heritage, and he's won international acclaim for pushing the orchestra to new heights.
After seeing the Minnesota Orchestra play at Carnegie Hall in 2010, The New Yorker's classical music critic Alex Ross wrote that they "sounded, to my ears, like the greatest orchestra in the world."
But the orchestra's leaders have said even as its reputation grows they've seen flat attendance, declining corporate and individual support, and poor results from investments. Meanwhile, salaries grew by 3 to 4 percent annually under the previous contract.
"You couple that with one of the worst financial markets of the last 100 years, and obviously you have to reset our orchestra and our organization in terms of looking to a future that's sustainable," said Michael Henson, the orchestra's president. He said the orchestra has been forced to draw too deeply from its endowment to stay in the black.