So, management at the Minnesota Orchestra has decided not to pay its musicians and to cancel concerts through Nov. 25 because the musicians will not accept a rather drastic reduction in pay, from an average of $135,000 down to $89,000—this while $50 million is going toward a redesign of Orchestra Hall and Peavey Plaza. Meanwhile, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra is playing under protest as it battles its own bean-counters, who want to reduce average musician’s pay by 15 percent, down to $62,500, and cut the total number of salaried players from 34 to 28—this while the Ordway Arts Partnership is gearing up for a $35 million transformation of the McKnight theater into a new home for the SPCO.
First, let me admit that I do not have the answers to this mess. I do not know how to get more people interested in classical music. I do not know all of the details involved in the negotiations between the Minnesota Orchestra and its management, or the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and theirs. And I do not know how, exactly, it came to pass that both of our world-class orchestras are suddenly in peril because the math doesn’t add up. Math is not my thing. But music is, so let’s talk about that for a second.
An orchestra is more like a fine wine than a football team. It takes years of tinkering with the chemistry of an orchestra’s players to get the musical blend just right, and once that magical blend has been achieved, it takes constant vigilance and nurturing to maintain the music’s quality and character. Both the Minnesota Orchestra and SPCO have distinctive textures and nuances that make their music unique. And to get that unique quality, the players themselves have to be carefully vetted and selected, and over many years those chosen few must learn how to play with each other in a special way, the way that produces those ineffable moments when the music blooms, the audience is enraptured, and something called “art” is created. Yes, musicians come and go, older players retire, and younger ones are hired. But playing music is not like typing; one doesn’t just plunk out the notes on the page in the proper sequence and call it a day. So when the players of the SPCO and Minnesota Orchestra complain that ceding to management’s demands will erode the quality of the music and threaten the long-term viability of the organization, what they are saying is that the wine is in danger of turning into vinegar. Or at least cheaper wine. Which may taste okay to the uneducated palette, but, you know, it’s just not the same.
But so what? Does it really matter if the Minnesota Orchestra’s famous pianissimo is slightly less exquisite? Or if the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s articulation in the Brandenburg concertos is a little less precise?
Yes and no.
In terms of its value to the “community,” music—particularly well-played classical music—is what’s known as a “cultural asset.” For most people, a cultural asset is something they rarely take advantage of, but they like knowing it’s there nonetheless, just in case they crave a dose of it someday. Our professional sports teams may suck, but Twin Citians take great pride in knowing that both the Minnesota Orchestra and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra are world-class ensembles. Only a small percentage of the metro population ever ventures out to see either of these organizations play, however, and fewer still can tell the difference between mediocre Beethoven and the kind played by Osmo Vänskä and his band. Still, when our orchestras perform in Europe or at Carnegie Hall, we all like to hear how good other people think they are. It appeals to our sense of above-averageness—our sense, as a community, that we don’t suffer the slings and arrows of Twin Cities life for nothing. Awesome music happens here, and the fact that it does is part of what distinguishes the Twin Cities from other, lesser cities, where residents must endure the indignity of listening to not-quite-so-awesome music.
So no, the quality of the music doesn’t matter if you’re not there to hear it or don’t care. But the perception of its quality, by critics and aficionados who are supposed to know these things—does matter. Like it or not, listen to it or not, the quality of a city’s orchestra is a measure of that city’s quality of life. And companies such as General Mills, Cargill, 3M, and Target don’t convince good people to work in the Twin Cities by bragging about the crispness of the January air. They sell people on our extraordinary cultural institutions—the Minnesota Orchestra and SPCO among them—and try to convince potential employees (who are also potential property owners, taxpayers, audience members, neighbors, and donors) that winter isn’t as bad as everyone says. Because hey, how bad can it be with a world-class orchestra down the street?
How valuable is the reputation of Minnesota Orchestra and SPCO to the state of Minnesota? That’s hard to say. But I’m willing to bet if there was a way to calculate the true benefit of these institutions to the corporations and organizations that use them as a selling point—or, to put a finer point on it, the companies that use the orchestra’s reputation to help them hire better people and make higher profits—the current haggling over a few million dollars would magically disappear.
Consider: There are only four companies in the Twin Cities—General Mills, United Health Group, U.S. Bank, and Target—who donate more than $100,000 per year to the Minnesota Orchestra. And there are only five other companies—Ameriprise Financial, 3M, Wells Fargo, Medtronic, and Cargill—that donate more than $50,000. The rest—including Best Buy, Carlson Companies, TCF Bank, Piper Jaffrey, and dozens of others—donate less than $50,000.
It’s hard to believe that a company like Best Buy gets less than $50,000 of value per year from being headquartered in the same metropolitan area as the MN Orchestra. I can’t prove it, of course, but my guess is that most companies in the Twin Cities grossly underestimate the value of having world-class arts institutions available to their employees. And, since they aren’t obligated to contribute to these organizations, they pay as little as they can get away with, preferring instead to piggyback their business success on the efforts of artists who provide what their accountants might call “added value” to the proposition of toiling in the Twin Cities.
Again, math is not my thing, but I’m fairly certain neither the SPCO or Minnesota Orchestra would be having financial problems if businesses in the Twin Cities recognized the true value of the world-class arts organizations in their midst, and in turn donated anything close to that value in cash to the organizations themselves.
(For all you freeloaders, the SPCO is putting on a free concert tonight (Tuesday, Oct. 2) at the Leonard Center Gymnasium on the Saint Paul campus of Macalaster College. For more info go to musiciansspco.org.)
And for an excellent breakdown of the actual math involved in the Minnesota Orchestra and SPCO labor disputes, here’s MPR’s analysis.