Monday, December 23, 2013

Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra - You Deserve Better

Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was artistic director of a small theatre contained within a larger community organization. Not quite a community theatre but not quite ready to make the leap to professional, it kinda sat in the middle of that non-profit land...paying professional staff, not paying actors, and setting some ridiculously high bars in performance expectation. There was talk of making the leap into LORT, but before anything could happen, I had the daunting task of taking the company out of the red and into the black.

Without going into the gory details, I succeeded in eradicating the debt. My joy was short lived because right after that I found out about how organizations with foundations and endowments and all sorts of other not-for-profit loopholes deal with money. It was a hard education and I eventually left the field, disgusted with the brinksmanship, gamesmanship...and the toll it took on artists. Yes, I was young and naïve…

So I have followed the lock-outs of both the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (to which I am rather partial) and the Minnesota Orchestra with great interest. To its credit, SPCO settled its differences but not without many of the most senior artists exiting the stage, including our dear friend Tamas Strasser, former co-principle violist. Still, the SPCO is up, running and rebuilding. 

Orchestra Hall over in Minneapolis, however, remains eerily silent more than a year since the lockout began.

The Minnesota Orchestra Association (hence called MOA) made some pretty dodgy decisions over the last few years. Emily Hogstad's analysis of the orchestra’s fiscal management published in MINNPOST (May 31, 2013) is a great overview and definitely worth the read. It’s enough to make your hair stand on end and your blood boil over and not just if you’re an arts person.

In response to the lockout, with a dogged determination not to be silenced, a rather remarkable new entity has heroically emerged: The Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra. They have a season and an enthusiastic audience. Read their Community Report. It's astounding.

Separated from the MOA, there is no endowment, so salaries, no benefits aside from that which the union can provide. Other orchestras, especially the Chicago Symphony, have stepped in to hire musicians. Those unable to leave the area are cobbling together a living. Support for the new orchestra comes directly from ticket sales but that’s really is not enough on which to survive.

Sadly, conductor Osmo Vänskä  has now officially resigned, but not without paying homage to the orchestra he loves.
On October 4 and 5, Vänskä conducted three final concerts with the locked-out orchestra at the University of Minnesota's Ted Mann Concert Hall… As an encore, Vänskä conducted Sibelius's Valse Triste, which he described as a dance of death. At his request, the audience withheld applause afterward; many reportedly left in tears.  
“Departing Director Conducts Locked-Out Minnesota Orchestra”
 James R. Oestreich,
October 5th, 2013  The New York Times

I keep asking myself why the MOA would do this to the thing that makes them what they are? Without an orchestra, can they call themselves the Minnesota Orchestra Association?  How are they going to generate income or are they planning on gutting the endowment again? How are they going to pay for the $40million in renovations to the building..........

Follow the money. 

If MOA separates from the orchestra but retains the rights to managing the building as a glorified booking agency, they get all the benefits without the liability - no staffing budget, no artistic staff.  They can populate a season with the new MoMO, or even SPCO, or job in well known symphony orchestras along with other classical acts. Big names will always sell seats. And everyone is happy, right?

No. Everyone is not happy, nor should they be.

The concept of orchestra is not new. It started in ancient Egypt with professional musicians banding together, but the modern symphony orchestra really begins in the 18th century when noblemen began to keep musicians on staff to play with their composer du jour. Only in the 20th century did arts boards appear and committees take over.

Government support of arts is negligible these days. The motives of the various boards are too often mysterious and devoid of arts understanding. Are they focused on maximizing the public’s interaction with the art form…or is it about maximization of profit in a not-for-profit environment?

Ah, there is it. Maximize profit.

Look at it this way: the senior son is a working musician. Not a symphony guy, a bluesman. That doesn’t come with benefits or even a living wage. He cobbles together a day job with a lot of gigs and tries to make a living. I think this is what MOA is asking their musicians to do. While they’re busy explaining what an honor it is to play with this world-class orchestra, the MOA doesn’t want to pay them a world-class salary.
So what’s the message?

The real message the MOA is sending isn’t too complex: musicians aren’t worth paying because:
1. Musicians are not productive members of society in that they don’t produce anything tangible, therefore they should not be paid as if they do.
2.    Musicians should be willing to play for the sake of art, not money
3.  Musicians should be able to supplement their income with teaching and other odd jobs since playing in the orchestra is not a real day job.
So,I have a message for MOA: a building is just a building. It has no heart, no soul, no life. Based on your actions of the past year, I’m not sure you deserve much more.

To The Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra: survive as an orchestra. Find a home base somewhere  away from Orchestra Hall. You deserve better.

The Wifely Person's Tip o'the Week
Baby, it's seriously cold outside. 
If you're going out anyway, cover all your extremities.


  1. Here here!

    Even asshole musicians are allowed to make a living.

    NO MORE FREE GIGS! If you want my skills, PAY ME LIKE ANYBODY ELSE.

  2. Thank you, Mr. Benson, for your support. Please feel free to leave comments any time!

  3. Thank you for this wonderful piece. You describe the Minnesota Orchestra situation so well in a very condensed form. I invite everyone who is concerned about the systematic destruction of culture and the attempted murder of the Minnesota, in particular, to also check out SOSMN (Save Our Symphony Minnesota), The Mask of the Flower Prince blog, and Song of the Lark blog. There is a year's worth of extensive research and brilliant analysis.