Minnesota Orchestra lockout ends after 15 months as musicians approve 3-year contract


Minnesota Orchestra clarinetist Tim Zavadil speaks about the announcement of a contract agreement with the Minnesota Orchestra as fellow musicians Kevin Watkins, Doug Wright, Marcia Peck and Tony Ross look on Tuesday, Jan. 14 in Minneapolis, Minn. (Renee Jones Schneider/AP)

After 15 months of an acrimonious labor dispute that cost the Minnesota Orchestra an entire season and a host of musicians, including its music director, Osmo Vanska, the orchestra will resume concerts at Orchestra Hall in February.

Musicians and management announced Tuesday night the players had approved a new three-year contract, to take effect Feb. 1

With this, one of the saddest chapters in recent classical music history and the longest labor dispute in American classical music has finally ended.

The contract reduces the musicians’ pay by 15 percent from 2012 levels, a concession for the players but considerably better for them than the 30 percent to 40 percent that the orchestra’s management originally proposed. The orchestra will remain one of the 10 best-paid in the United States. “Keeping our salaries in the top 10 was a critical issue for us,” the cellist Marcia Peck, one of the musicians on the negotiating team, said in a news release.

Some positions will remain vacant. The orchestra has shrunk to 77 players because the lockout caused a number of its leading players to take jobs with other ensembles. The contract stipulates that seven of the vacant positions will be filled in the next three years, bringing the group to 84 players, approximately pre-strike levels. According to both sides, 95 is the optimum number.

Another point of contention — not only in Minnesota, but in orchestral contract negotiations around the country in recent years — has been the question of how non-concert activities are contractually mandated. Once, musicians who performed outreach activities and concerts got extra pay for their work. As such activities become increasingly part of orchestras’ mandates, contracts are being expanded to include them. The new contract includes changes to the payment and rules for outreach and chamber concerts, weekend rehearsals and overtime.

The contract represents something that was starting to seem impossible in the increasingly hostile environment: a genuine compromise from both sides.

However, it remains a question how long it will take to work through the scars of an often-toxic battle that raised the possibility that the orchestra might cease to exist in its current form, and which had seemed impossible to resolve without a wholesale change in the orchestra’s leadership.

Like many U.S. orchestras, the Minnesota Orchestra had increasingly been drawing on its endowment in order to make ends meet; it announced large deficits in 2011 and 2012. Unlike many orchestras, it still had a healthy endowment, as well as a $50 million fund for restoring Orchestra Hall — a possibly necessary but indubitably ill-timed project, given that management, led by the orchestra’s president and chief executive, Michael Henson, said labor costs had to be cut by about $5 million a year.

On Oct. 1, 2012, after the musicians and administration failed to reach an agreement, the orchestra locked out its players. Subsequent efforts at negotiation proved fruitless. At one point, former U.S. senator George J. Mitchell stepped in to guide discussions. He had been able to broker peace in Northern Ireland, but the Minnesota Orchestra situation proved tougher.

The lockout divided Minnesota’s leaders and its public. Some found the musicians’ salaries exorbitant (under the new contract, the minimum base salary will fall to $96,824 in the first year but rise to $102,284 by the third year). Others found it outrageous that management could treat its players as expendable. As “The Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra,” the players raised more than $600,000 during the lockout and began putting on concerts themselves — most recently, two under Hugh Wolff this past weekend, as well as two under Vanska last October, just after his resignation was announced.

Vanska will remain one of the greatest losses as the orchestra tries to rebuild. In his 10 years as music director, he kept the 111-year-old orchestra squarely on the radar of the classical music world with vital, engaging performances and a string of recordings (his CD of Sibelius’s First and Fourth Symphonies has been nominated for a Grammy). He resigned in October after the orchestra’s inability to reach a contract settlement meant the cancellation of its long-planned trip to Carnegie Hall. Having seen that the orchestra management was willing to let him go rather than budge on its position, he is unlikely to want to come back.

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra is likely to be cited in the coming days and weeks as a hopeful model. After a six-month strike in the 2010-11 season, that orchestra has managed to steer a positive course. Minnesota has a higher profile and has been through a far more bitter battle; one can only hope that relief that this long tragedy has ended will buoy musicians and audiences as they try to rebuild.

The orchestra will announce details of its 2014 season on its Web site soon. There is no word on whether its concerts will include the performances with Joshua Bell and Itzhak Perlman that the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra had scheduled for April and May.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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