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Orchestral musicians fight to maintain 'artistic excellence'

By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
updated 5:13 PM EDT, Mon October 22, 2012
Music Director Osmo Vanska leads the Minnesota Orchestra during a peformance in Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall.
Music Director Osmo Vanska leads the Minnesota Orchestra during a peformance in Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra locked out since October 1 in contract dispute
  • Disputes between musicians, management in several cities led to strikes, lockouts
  • Rifts underscore the evolving role of orchestras in America's cultural landscape
  • There is no crisis in classical music; it's a crisis of orchestra management, musician says

(CNN) -- What do orchestral musicians do when they can't find work in their hometown? Like other musicians, they look somewhere else.

Such a predicament has landed clarinetist Tim Zavadil in Ohio this week to fill in for a musician at the Cleveland Orchestra who is out sick. Last week, he was in Missouri doing the same thing at the St. Louis Symphony.

The 43-year-old married father of two says he is grateful for the work but he'd rather be in Minneapolis, where for the past five years he has played in the Minnesota Orchestra. Instead, he and his colleagues are scattered across the country grabbing up freelance gigs after being locked out of Orchestra Hall without pay or benefits since October 1, the day after their five-year contract expired without a new one in place.

The musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra worry that the lockout might leave them without jobs, driving them out of the city and diminishing the orchestral organization's reputation as a world-class ensemble. A destination orchestra is like a powerhouse sports team, Zavadil says. It draws top talent from around the world, brings entertainment to the community and boosts the economy by creating jobs within the orchestral organization and stimulating local businesses that benefit from concert traffic.

"What an orchestra brings to the community is a whole other dimension to the quality of life, another amenity," Zavadil said. "For musicians it's about sharing music with the community and providing an environment where people can escape the craziness of their lives to listen to beautiful music."

On Thursday night, many of Minnesota Orchestra musicians pooled their own resources so they could rent the Minneapolis Convention Center and stage their own concert as the "Locked Out Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra." An audience of 2,100 listeners turned up for what would have been the opening night of Minnesota Orchestra's 110th season in an evening that had "all the earmarks of an opening gala," Minnesota Star Tribune journalist Graydon Royce noted.

Fans responded enthusiastically on the musicians' Facebook page, which also contained goodwill messages from afar.

"It was a stunning concert. Thank you from the bottom of my heart," concertgoer Jean Elizabeth Anderson said.

Others left messages echoing the musicians' chief grievances in the dispute.

"It is really hard to think of not getting tickets for this season. Doesn't management realize that we come to hear the MUSICIANS? Good acoustics are nice, a comfy building is nice but not essential. Musicians are essential. We need you!" Sonja Langsjoen said.

More than anything, Zavadil wanted to be there, he said. But he has a family to take care of.

"I miss my family, and I really miss my orchestra," he said in a phone interview from Cleveland. "But the reality is I have no income coming in, and I have to think about my family."

While grateful for the freelance gigs, Zavadil is anxious to return to the supportive community he left behind.

When the community supports the orchestra, the orchestra gives back to the community through educational outreach and benefit concerts, he said. It also gives musicians a reason to stick around and become active members of the community.

"My family and I have put roots down in Minnesota. It's where we want to stay," Zavadil said. "When the community shows a desire to build up a world-class professional ensemble, the reciprocal effect is musicians want to stay."

The "push and pull" between art and resources

Lockouts are typically associated with football refs, hockey players and teachers, but many orchestral musicians are also union members. The situation in Minneapolis is part of a wider web of clashes this year between professional musicians and orchestra management nationwide as contracts came up for renewal this fall before the start of the 2012-2013 season.

The rifts underscore the evolving role of orchestras in America's cultural landscape, something orchestral organizations have been grappling with for years as new art forms compete for audiences. But even if labor disputes make headlines, the bigger picture among the country's 350 professional orchestras contains more success stories, said Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras.

"Great art costs money and resources, and how much any community can support it is a constant push and pull," he said.

"The pattern that we see when we look at the entire community of 350 organizations is that most of them solve those tensions and resolve them without work stoppages," he said. "There are lots of instances of seeing new audience development and marketing practices come into play and lots of creativity in programming designed to be appealing and attractive to audiences outside the typical pool."

Indeed, the question shouldn't be why are orchestras failing, but rather, why some are having difficulties when others of comparable sizes are succeeding, said Bruce Ridge, chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, which represents more than 4,000 musicians in the United States.

"There is no crisis in classical music, the crisis is on the part of management of orchestra organizations," said Ridge, a double-bassist with the North Carolina Symphony.

"Our field has a very strange way of both promoting and undermining itself at the same time."

A lockout against the backdrop of renovations

The Minnesota Orchestral Association canceled its fall season in September after talks fell apart prior to the contract's expiration. Other high-profile disputes in Chicago, Atlanta and Indianapolis have resulted in strikes and lockouts ending in varying degrees of satisfaction for musicians. But the Minnesota Orchestra's situation stands out because of its longstanding reputation as a "destination background" and the duration of the lockout. It's also the only lockout this year to play out against the backdrop of a $50 million renovation project.

While each organization has its own unique set of dynamics, at the heart of each dispute is the tension between maintaining artistic excellence and the financial struggles facing orchestras.

Similar to professional sports, or any competitive field for that matter, skilled players want to be on teams with other talented players that offer the best salary, benefits and work environment, said Christina Smith, principal flutist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which also experienced a month-long lockout before both sides reached an agreement in September.

"We are, first and foremost, artists and perfectionists, and we want to have the greatest orchestra in the world because that's who we are. We don't sit in a practice room for a zillion hours to be mediocre," she said.

Many people don't realize that being in the orchestra is a full-time job of performances and practices, and free time spent staying warm, she said.

Since negotiations began in March between Atlanta Symphony Orchestra players and management, five musicians have left for more competitive markets, she said. The rest signed a two-year contract at the end of September agreeing to a 17% pay cut in the first year and a 14% cut in the second year, she said. The cuts will be achieved by shortening the concert season and having musicians contribute to medical benefits for the first time.

"In one fell swoop, the status of this orchestra has been decimated. Yes, we make a fair living but we want to be able to keep the top talented players we have here and attract new ones."

The musicians' salary cuts, which leave them with a base salary of $73,876.63 that goes up with seniority, were the last places management went to cut corners, symphony President and CEO Stanley E. Romanstein said.

"We're entrepreneurial at our core. We've done a lot to improve on the revenue side to avoid what all orchestras are uniformly reluctant to do, which is make adjustments on the expense side," he said.

"Eventually, you have to talk about reducing expenditure for musicians, and that's where we are in Atlanta. If you don't tackle expenses related to orchestra you're going to be in trouble," he said. "if you look at the facts, they don't bear out the idea that we just need to do more fund raising."

But that's where deficiencies exist, Smith said, in reaching out to new audiences and educating the public on what she does. The Atlanta orchestra does a lot of outreach to schoolchildren, but she would like to see more programming aimed at young professionals.

"Just [creating] an awareness in that younger crowd so that when I meet them and socialize, they don't say, 'oh you play in the ASO? Is that a full-time job?"

The musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra rejected a proposed cut in their weekly base salary from $2,177 to $1,498, plus modifications to the terms for receiving seniority pay.

Read the proposed contract

Management rejected the musicians' proposals to enter into binding arbitration or to "play and talk," saying it had already cut corners on its side and that the time had come for musicians to make concessions.

A main point of contention for the musicians, who are members of the Twin Cities Musicians' Union, is that the lockout is playing out against the backdrop of a $50 million renovation of Orchestra Hall.

But donors knew what their money was going toward when they signed their checks, and now it's non-transferrable, Minnesota Orchestra President and CEO Michael Henson said. Plus, the money is not just being used to renovate the lobby, It's being put toward improvements on the performance space, including new stage and auditorium floors, new seating, acoustical tweaks, new lighting, a retrofitted electrical system and new practice and locker spaces for the musician.

"It's not just the lobby, it's about improving infrastructure on the hall," he said. "We've taken a hard and careful look at our finances in terms of how to create a long-term future for this organization," said Henson, who claimed to have taken a 7% pay cut since 2009.

Besides, since 2009, management and administration have taken salary reductions, wage freezes and cut the size of the administrative team by 20% since 2009 through layoffs, he said. It's time for the musicians to do their part.

"Great art remains central, but you can't continue to spend considerably more than you generate," he said. "The world is repositioning itself and the arts is no different. We are now asking the musicians' assistance in terms of being part of that solution."

Do you think there's still a place for classical music in the community? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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