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Are City Orchestras a Dying Breed?

With lockouts, deficits, and dwindling audiences, classical ensembles fight for survival.

| Mon Feb. 4, 2013 12:46 PM EST

Principal cellist Tony Ross practices backstage before a concert with the locked-out musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra.

Update (March 19, 2013): Adding to the list of troubled orchestras, the San Francisco Symphony has canceled an East Coast tour following the breakdown of labor negotiations, according to the New York Times, and the musicians have gone on strike.

Last Friday, for the first time in months, the Minnesota Orchestra was back together again. Conductor Osmo Vänskä, a former principal clarinet who attends rehearsals in t-shirts and sometimes a Czech soccer jersey, his body swinging around vigorously from the knees, led his musicians in a rousing performance of Sibelius's 2nd and 5th symphonies. Vänskä is possibly the best conductor in the world when it comes to Sibelius. Alex Ross, a critic for the New Yorker, has called him a "genius" in that realm, and if the orchestra's Grammy nomination is any indication, the recording industry seems to agree.

Sibelius, the late Finnish composer, described his Symphony No. 2 as "a struggle between death and salvation." It starts off tepid and a little sweet, descends into turmoil, and then the horns carry out a proud resolution. The struggle element (though not the resolution) is fitting, given the orchestra's situation. After the concert, the musicians parted ways in the bitter Minnesota cold to return to an equally bitter lockout that began in October, a labor dispute complicated by the orchestra's dwindling endowment and the very troubling question of whether it manipulated its books to show a $6 million deficit as an excuse to give its players a 30 percent pay cut. Of late, the musicians have been performing each concert as though it's their last—maybe because they feel it might be.

The Minnesota Orchestra is far from alone: Symphonies in Detroit, Indianapolis, Atlanta, and Chicago have all experienced strikes and/or lockouts over the past two years,* and those in many smaller cities, including Miami, Honolulu, and Albuquerque, have folded altogether. In the spring of 2011, the Philadelphia Orchestra became the nation's first major orchestra to file for chapter 11 bankruptcy—it emerged from restructuring last July with 10 fewer musicians, and a 15 percent pay cut for the remaining players.

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A weak economy, compounding the longstanding challenge of a dwindling audience, have brought about a massive identity crisis in the classical music world. Orchestras have high overhead costs, and they simply aren't as popular as they once were. "We see them going, one after another, either into a wall, or to war," says classical music writer Norman Lebrecht (one of whose books is titled The Life and Death of Classical Music). Lebrecht blames many of the problems on poor management and the fact that "both sides are frightened of change."

Negotiations for a new contract began last April in the Twin Cities, but the two sides can't seem to reach any agreement. The management contends that it has cut costs by laying off administrative staff and reducing their pay, among other measures. "We've been very transparent with the musicians about these challenges for the last several years," said Minnesota Orchestra president and CEO Michael Henson. "To continue operating at these losses would not be sensible."

Musicians' salaries—which ate up nearly half of the orchestra's $32 million budget last year—are a huge part of the equation. The players make $135,000 on average, not including benefits that include insurance policies for their valuable instruments, plus up to 26 weeks paid sick leave (to protect injured players) and 10 weeks paid vacation leave.

"It is very difficult for many people in the community to believe that the Minnesota Orchestra is really in financial trouble when they're building a $52 million lobby on the front of the building," counters Tim Zavadil, a clarinetist and the orchestra's de facto spokesman, referring to renovations undertaken this year prior to and during the lockout. "And never in our wildest dreams did we imagine that they would ask for [a] 30 to 50 percent pay [cut]."

Zavadil and his fellow musicians believe that the management drew heavily from the orchestra's endowment in 2009 and 2010 to secure donations and state bonds, and then slowed down its withdrawals in 2011 so that it would head into contract negotiations showing a large deficit. Meeting minutes published by the Star Tribune confirm the finances, but the orchestra maintains that its actions had nothing to do with the labor negotiations.

The musicians haven't stopped playing. In October, they replaced their canceled season opener with a sold-out concert that they organized themselves, playing Dvorak's cello concerto and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5. MinnPost jeered that they chose Shostakovich because it was familiar to them "and because it carries a message: neener-neener, Stalin."

Conductors typically keep their distance from labor disputes, but Vänskä entered the fray in December with a heartbreaking letter to both sides, pleading for them to find common ground: "When the lockout is over," he lamented, "the Twin Cities may have a 'professional orchestra,' but inevitably not the same one, nor a highly regarded one."

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