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Minnesota Orchestra Hall
Minneapolis’s Orchestra Hall (Gerald Mertens)

Last October, Minneapolis had a newly renovated Orchestra Hall – and, for the second season, no music to fill it.

In 2012, the Minnesota Orchestra Association, claiming the orchestra faced crippling deficits, had proposed a contract slashing musicians’ salaries by 35 percent. The players, skeptical about the board’s financial claims, turned thumbs down. In response, the board locked out the musicians and axed the entire 2012-13 season.

When the musicians said no to 25 percent reductions in early October 2013, management also cancelled this season. Concerns deepened about the orchestra’s future.

With talks at an impasse, some of the musicians left town for other gigs. The remaining players, determined to keep classical music alive in Minneapolis, carried on with concerts at other locations, performing as Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra. They had even proposed a 10-concert series for this spring.

But in recent weeks, board members who hadn’t previously been involved in negotiations began quietly meeting with musicians’ representatives. Board member Doug Kelley said these informal discussions eventually led to formal talks that "felt like traditional labor negotiations."

The settlement will bring music back to Orchestra Hall in early February (2014). It calls for initial salary cuts of 15 percent. The players will also have to pay more of their medical insurance costs, but this will be partly offset by small raises in the next 2 years.

Both sides compromised in other ways.

The musicians agreed to changes in their work rules, but they earned the right to a greater say in artistic decisions. Some musicians, troubled by a growing trend toward more popular music concerts, got management to agree to 20 weeks’ worth of classical performances per season.

Management landed more flexibility in hiring musicians. They got salary concessions, though smaller ones than they’d originally sought. They also gave the nod to an extraordinary revenue sharing provision: the players will receive additional compensation if the orchestra’s endowment’s investments return at least 10% on average over the 3-year life of the contract.

Board chairman Jon Campbell will step down, but Michael Henson will remain president and CEO.

Despite the pay reductions, the agreement keeps the Minnesota Orchestra in the "top ten" salary tier. The musicians said that was crucial for attracting high-caliber colleagues.

Attracting talent is a problem the orchestra will face immediately. The new contract calls for an ensemble of 95. The orchestra is now 18 short of that number. Time will tell whether the US’s longest orchestra labor dispute ever will have lingering effects on hiring.

What’s more, management has committed to hiring only 7 more players over the 3-year contract term. For now, substitute musicians will fill the gaps. The agreement allows them to be paid less – 90% of the orchestra’s base salary.

The personnel issue that looms largest: the music director. Right now, the orchestra has none. It lost noted Finnish conductor Osmo Vanska in October. Vanska resigned in part because of the cancellation of the orchestra’s scheduled Carnegie Hall appearance. Now that the dispute is settled, will he return? If not, who will replace him?

Many other questions remain, including how (or whether) to fold the orchestra’s scheduled independent concerts into the official season.

One big question: how to rebuild the damaged relationships between the musicians and the Minnesota Orchestra Association. A musicians’ union representative mused, "You don’t lock out people from their jobs for this long without there at least being some lingering feeling." Board member Kelley acknowledged "a little scar tissue." Still, "There is a lot of love for this organization as a whole," said clarinetist Tim Zavadil. "We always knew we could get this done."


Further exploration:

Dispute is Over at MPR News

Orchestra Deal Ends Walkout at Minneapolis Star Tribune

Deconstructing Orchestra Debacle at Classical Voice North America

Letter to Our Friends and Community at Minnesota Orchestra Musicians

Musicians and Board Ratify New Contract at Minnesota Orchestra

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