Minnesota Orchestra: A season of silence

- 9 May 2013

Seasonal Affective Disorder: The Minnesota Orchestra will not have played a note in its 2012/13 season thanks to employment relations disputes.
Photo: Greg Helgeson

The Minnesota Orchestra’s long-running troubles have deepened with the announcement that the remaining two weeks of its current season have been cancelled. The decision means that the 110-year-old orchestra will not have played a note of music in public during the whole of its 2012/13 season.

The impasse between management and players over new contractual proposals sees the Minnesota ensemble becoming the second US orchestra in recent years to lose an entire season following the Louisville Symphony’s absence from performing live in 2011/12.

Talks about new contracts, in which orchestra managers proposed a 32% reduction in musicians’ salaries, began in April last year and have consistently failed to reach agreement. In October Minnesota president Michael Henson (a former chief executive of the Bournemouth Symphony and Ulster Orchestra) locked out the orchestra’s musicians from its Orchestra Hall home (currently undergoing a $50m refurbishment) in Minneapolis and players have refused to restart negotiations until that decision is reversed.

Management and players’ representatives have met only once ‒ in January ‒ since last autumn, although dates for fresh negotiations have been proposed for late May.

A statement on the orchestra’s website says that payments to musicians account for 48% of total costs, with the average salary at $135,000 (£87,000) in addition to $35,000 worth of other benefits. Failure to resolve the current dispute after a decade of ‘flat or declining’ income streams, it warns, will see the orchestra’s endowment funds wholly depleted by 2018.

In early May musicians placed a full-page ad in a local newspaper calling for the replacement of key management figures and warned of possible departures by leading players, including concertmaster Erin Keefe. It also mentioned a letter to the orchestra’s board from principal conductor Osmo Vänskä outlining his intention to resign if the current impasse is not resolved by 9 September this year.

In a statement, Tim Zavadil, the chair of the musicians’ negotiating committee, said: ‘Last week, Osmo confirmed what musicians have been warning for months. The world-class status of the Minnesota Orchestra is in serious jeopardy.’

In a surprise move, orchestra management has revealed plans for a three-week summer season including six concerts in July and August, although those are unlikely to happen if negotiations continue to fail. The orchestra’s players have also announced details of two free concerts scheduled for mid-May.

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