Minnesota Orchestra returns for concerts this weekend

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February 4, 2014
By: Michelle Bruch
Photo by Courtney Perry
Michelle Bruch

Three weeks after its long-awaited contract agreement, the Minnesota Orchestra is back for concerts at Orchestra Hall.

The first concerts run Feb. 7-8 and over Valentine's weekend. Guest conductors will direct Gustav Holst's "The Planets" and Bach’s D-minor Toccata and Fugue, the piece that opened the first Orchestra Hall show in 1974. Doors open four hours early so non-ticket holders can check out the rehabbed Orchestra Hall.

Two days after tickets went on sale to the general public, Orchestra staff said the inaugural show was nearly sold out and the other opening shows were more than half sold.

"The phones have been quite busy," said Karen Koepp, the Orchestra's publications editor. "They have sold like hotcakes, no question."

The question of conductor Osmo Vänskä's return wasn't settled at press time, however. Vänskä will direct a handful of concerts this spring; guest conductors lead many of the shows.

"This is the best Christmas present, a month late," said Vincent Francoual, chef of the nearby Vincent A Restaurant on Nicollet Mall.

Francoual said the lockout caused his weekend business to drop 40 percent. He started hiring the Four Voices String Quartet to give patrons a taste of the silenced Orchestra.

"It's been a bit of a burden ... we're very relieved," he said.

Half of orchestra patrons dine out on concert nights, and city officials estimate that local restaurants could have lost $1.7 million if the entire 2013-14 season had been suspended. Area ramps would have lost an estimated $414,000 in parking revenue.

The collective bargaining agreement reduces musicians' salaries 15 percent, less than the original 30 percent sought by the board. The agreement keeps the salaries among the "Top Ten" in the nation according to pay scale, an issue musicians said was critical to attract and retain talent. Musicians will pay a "significantly greater" portion of health care costs, however.

"Meeting the ‘Top Ten’ metric means the organization will need to seek bridge funding to help address financial issues in future years," said outgoing Board Chair Jon Campbell in a statement. "Now more than ever, we will need members of our community who voiced strong support for world-class orchestral music in our state to help us achieve long-term fiscal health through increased concert attendance and financial support."

An Orchestra-commissioned financial analysis by AKA Strategy states that even with reductions in musician expenses, long-term obstacles remain. The budget has no cushion for unforeseen difficulties, the benefit plan is underfunded, and $9 million in bonds are due in 2015. Bond payments and benefit "catch-up" payments are slated to come from the Orchestra's endowment — large endowment withdrawals partially led to the Orchestra's current financial state.

The new three-year contract places minimum base salaries at $96,824 in year one, rising to $102,284 in year three. The 77-member Orchestra would add seven additional members over the course of three years, with an understanding that the optimal size would be 95 members (the size the Orchestra had maintained for the past 50 years). The contract allows for revenue sharing, based on the performance of the Orchestra's endowment.

The musicians and Board also agreed on a classical music focus for the group. Pops concerts represented a larger proportion of concerts originally proposed for 2013-14, part of a strategy to align "supply and demand" for classical music. The new agreement keeps the classical performance threshold at the current level of 20 weeks.

This season, Vänskä will conduct the Grammy-nominated Sibelius symphonies and pieces including Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. The Minnesota Orchestra will perform the music to West Side Story while the film rolls with original vocals and dialogue. Other concerts feature Carmina Burana and Mozart's three final symphonies.

During the lockout, the Orchestral Association's contingency plan to fill the Hall featured corporate events, wedding receptions, school concerts, comedian Bill Cosby and the VocalEssence chorus.

The schedule became a source of scrutiny for the city of Minneapolis. Orchestra Hall's service as a "performing arts center" was a requirement of the state's $14 million grant for the renovation of the Hall. If the city found the Orchestral Association was not in compliance, and the Association did not fix the issue, the city could have sold the Hall's lease or found a new operator.

News outlets from around the world have followed the lockout progress. The Detroit Free Press, which watched its own Detroit Symphony Orchestra engage in a bitter labor dispute and six-month strike in 2010-11, mentioned the Minnesota resolution in a January column.

"The length and rancor in Minnesota are widely seen as having set a new low for labor relations in American orchestras, a title that previously belonged to the DSO," wrote Mark Stryker.

Minnesota Orchestra musicians expressed thanks for the resolution on their web page.

"For months now, we have all been hearing that this was a dispute that might never be resolved, that might actually end the Minnesota Orchestra," read the musicians' statement. "Despite our differences, both sides ultimately collaborated on an agreement that would allow us to move forward. Now we are at the beginning of a new era, and we look forward to continuing our work together with the board that supported us as we reached the height of our achievements in 2012."