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Managements not part of the reality-based community

4 Robert Levine

The musicians of the locked-out Minnesota Orchestra and the locked-out Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra got some helpful press today from Minnesota Public Radio:

Locked-out musicians at the Minnesota and St. Paul Chamber Orchestras have been warning of a dangerous decline in artistic quality if they accept new contracts sought by management.

They say the severe cuts in salary and benefits will force many musicians to seek employment elsewhere. We hear from two of them who have already made that decision.

Gary Bordner, who has been principal trumpet player for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra for the last 32 years, recently decided it was time for a career change…

The organization the SPCO has become is not what it was when he joined in 1980, Bordner said. The orchestra used to do extensive touring of both coasts and the Midwest, and played one-stop concerts around the region. It used to go into the studio every year to record, and those projects paid musicians pretty well.

“That’s all gone,” Bordner said. “We don’t do that anymore…”

“Then you see that you’re losing say in the organization, you see the model changing,” he said. “You see the earth underneath you as being much more shaky. You have to consider other options.”

In Bordner’s view, the dramatic salary reductions SPCO management is demanding will ultimately drive musicians away. It’s especially true, he said, given what musicians must invest in education and training to become virtuosos, and the debt loads younger artists are shouldering when they graduate from conservatories and music schools.

“If you can’t make a decent living playing, I think people will have to do what they need to do, hopefully, to realize their dreams,” said Bordner. “And I’m not convinced it’s staying here.”

But interim SPCO President Dobson West said under the contract he’s proposing, the SPCO will still be a desirable place for a musician. For example, he said, the SPCO’s season is only between 30 and 40 weeks long, which leaves time for musicians to pursue other artistic pursuits.

“I think that is an important aspect why many of the musicians want to be here,” he said.

[Interim SPCO President Dobson] West said he isn’t worried that salary reductions will deplete the orchestra of its talent, because the SPCO negotiates each musician’s contract individually and will still have the capacity to meet the salary demands of its most important players.

“We will have the ability to pay what we will need to pay to attract and retain the very best musicians for a chamber orchestra,” he said.

I know Gary from my days in St. Paul, and his departure will be a loss for the orchestra. Experience with trumpet players has taught me that those with Gary’s aptitude for fitting into a chamber orchestra are few and far between.

But most disturbing was the quote from West. In an orchestra of 34 players (much less the orchestra of 28 that he’s proposing), there are precious few positions that aren’t “important.” Playing in a chamber orchestra is not a fungible skill, and it doesn’t take much to make a mess of a performance. And a quick perusal of their most recent Form 990 doesn’t give me much faith in that management’s ability to figure out who’s worth what, even if they had more power than they already do to compensate the “most important players.”

To add to the fun, Leonard Slatkin has decided that audiences other than his captive one in Detroit are frantic for his insights into the way the orchestral world works:

Although SPCO and Minnesota Orchestra musicians’ salaries will take a big hit in the contracts sought by management, a lot of other orchestras’ salaries are going down as well, said Leonard Slatkin, music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Slatkin wonders whether Twin Cities musicians will find opportunities available at orchestras of comparable quality, where the turnover is very low.

“There aren’t that many jobs in the top-tier orchestras,” he said.

Slatkin questions whether some veteran musicians will be able to muster the energy and will to get back into “tryout” mode.

“Think about it,” he said. “Good, long-experienced musicians, all of a sudden in a position to audition for a job again, when they may not have auditioned for 20, 25 years. It’s not so easy.”

Certainly not as easy as inserting himself into other orchestra’s labor disputes, saying stupid things about them, and thus pissing off orchestra musicians from coast to coast. Does he really think that we’re all going to forget how “helpful” he was to our colleagues in Detroit and the Twin Cities?

But we’re not done with powerful people saying dumb things yet. The article continues:

It wasn’t easy for violinist Peter McGuire, acting first associate concertmaster for the Minnesota Orchestra. But he’s decided to leave.

McGuire, who’s 35 and from Mankato, has deep roots in Minnesota. Ever since he was a young student at the Mankato Suzuki School, his dream was to play violin for the Minnesota Orchestra.

He got there, but after 10 years, he’s accepted a position across an ocean and thousands of miles away, at the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich — Switzerland’s flagship orchestra.

McGuire said he started to feel uneasy long before the orchestra made its first contract offer this past spring.

“There was this kind of ‘the bully’s going to meet you at lunchtime’ feeling for at least a year and a half,” he said.

When Minnesota Orchestra management proposed deep cuts in musicians’ salaries, McGuire took it personally.

“You say I’m much less valuable than I have been, and what choice do I have but to prove that’s not the case?” he said. “A 42 percent cut … would you not look for work the next day?”…
McGuire said he doesn’t want to stay with an orchestra he feels is moving in the wrong direction.

“Show me an example where somebody has cut their way to catapault forward later,” he said. “It makes sense that that should have happened, but I don’t know where it has.”

Michael Henson, president of the Minnesota Orchestra, said he doesn’t want to lose any musicians, but he can’t stop them if they go. He wants players who want to be here.

“So loyalty comes in, and then it’s ultimately about personal choice,” he said.

Even though management is seeking reductions in musicians’ salaries, Henson said the Twin Cities will always have great appeal as a place to have an orchestral career…

Henson’s line about how “loyalty comes in” is truly priceless. Just how much loyalty is owed to an employer that is raising $50 million for a venue renovation while demanding massive pay cuts and putting its employees on the street without health insurance for not agreeing to them?

He’s wrong if he thinks that Minnesota Orchestra will “always have great appeal as a place to have an orchestral career.” I’m sure they’ll always get musicians to audition for positions. But everyone now knows that the Minnesota Orchestra is not a trustworthy employer, even in an industry full of employers who are having trouble making ends meet. It matters to musicians considering going there that their chosen course of action, in the face of supposed financial problems, was 1) complete lack of transparency; and 2) a refusal to bargain in good faith with its musicians. I think the Minnesota Orchestra’s reputation has been wrecked for years amongst musicians by recent events, especially amongst the musicians who they would most want to recruit – those at the top of their game.

 

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4 comments feed top ↑

  1. Pingback by What Michael Henson Doesn’t Want You To Read | Song of the Lark
    March 4, 2013 at 12:58 PM

    […] [Henson's] wrong if he thinks that Minnesota Orchestra will “always have great appeal as a place to have an orchestral career”… I think the Minnesota Orchestra’s reputation has been wrecked for years amongst musicians by recent events, especially amongst the musicians who they would most want to recruit – those at the top of their game. – Robert Levine, principal viola, Milwaukee Symphony, board member of League of American Orchestras, Polyphonic blog, 9 November 2012 […]

  2. Pingback by Rebuttal to Mr. Henson’s Testimony, Part 2/2 | Song of the Lark
    January 26, 2013 at 11:34 AM

    […] From Robert Levine, member of the board of directors of the League of American Orchestras, on November 9: I think the Minnesota Orchestra’s reputation has been wrecked for years amongst musicians by recent events, especially amongst the musicians who they would most want to recruit – those at the top of their game. […]

  3. Pingback by Richard Davis Debates Richard Davis | Song of the Lark
    November 24, 2012 at 4:31 PM

    […] He’s [Henson's] wrong if he thinks that Minnesota Orchestra will “always have great appeal as a place to have an orchestral career.” I’m sure they’ll always get musicians to audition for positions. But everyone now knows that the Minnesota Orchestra is not a trustworthy employer, even in an industry full of employers who are having trouble making ends meet. It matters to musicians going there that their chosen course of action, in the face of supposed financial problems, was 1) complete lack of transparency, and 2) a refusal to bargain in good faith with its musicians. I think the Minnesota Orchestra’s reputation has been wrecked for years amongst musicians by recent events, especially amongst the musicians who they would most want to recruit – those at the top of their game. – Robert Levine, Polyphonic blog, 9 November 2012 […]

  4. Pingback by A Michael Henson Retrospective | Song of the Lark
    November 23, 2012 at 11:08 AM

    […] world-class players? (Especially if – sigh; when – Osmo leaves in 2015?) I say no. (Robert Levine, a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras, also says no.) (Arts consultant Drew McManus has also expressed doubts.) I maintain that no matter what Mr. […]