MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Orchestra was called the world's greatest not long ago, welcome recognition for musicians based outside a top cultural center. Now its members are locked out of Orchestra Hall, stuck in the same kind of labor-management battle recently afflicting teachers and football referees.
Across the country, symphony and chamber orchestra executives have cited flat ticket sales and slumping private support as they seek major pay concessions from musicians, who warn of a loss of talent and reputation. In Minneapolis, the Minnesota Orchestra has already cancelled concerts through Nov. 25 as negotiators argue over a proposal to trim the performers' average salary by $46,000 a year.
A similar standoff is under way across the Mississippi River at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra has canceled the first month of its season due to a labor impasse, and similar troubles are rumbling at orchestras in Richmond, Va., Jacksonville, Fla., and San Antonio, Texas.
"It breaks my heart," said Christal Steele, a violinist and assistant concertmaster in Indianapolis, where she and fellow musicians have gone without pay and benefits for almost a month. "This is my 40th season, and in that time I have seen nothing but this orchestra rise in quality and in stature. Now, in one fell swoop, they're trying to erase the last 30 years."
Last week, musicians and management at the symphony orchestras in Chicago and Atlanta reached new contracts after contentious negotiations. Atlanta's musicians went without pay for a month before accepting $5.2 million in compensation cuts over two years, plus reductions in their ranks. The Chicago deal came after a two-day strike that forced the cancellations of the season's first Saturday night show, with musicians wrangling salary increases but agreeing to pay higher health care costs.
"It's shaking up a lot of organizations right now," said Drew McManus, a Chicago-based consultant to orchestras and other arts organizations. "This world of orchestras is one that's always been defined by well-established strata — the best orchestras in the country, the second tier and so on — and that is very much in flux at the moment."
The Minnesota Orchestra has seen its reputation grow in recent years under conductor Osmo Vanska. The Finnish-born Vanska has become something of a celebrity in a state that treasures its Scandinavian heritage, and he's won international acclaim for pushing the orchestra to new heights.
After seeing the Minnesota Orchestra play at Carnegie Hall in 2010, The New Yorker's classical music critic Alex Ross wrote that they "sounded, to my ears, like the greatest orchestra in the world."
But the orchestra's leaders have said even as its reputation grows they've seen flat attendance, declining corporate and individual support, and poor results from investments. Meanwhile, salaries grew by 3 to 4 percent annually under the previous contract.
"You couple that with one of the worst financial markets of the last 100 years, and obviously you have to reset our orchestra and our organization in terms of looking to a future that's sustainable," said Michael Henson, the orchestra's president. He said the orchestra has been forced to draw too deeply from its endowment to stay in the black.
"A very significant part of our expenses are musicians' salaries, and that's a logical area for us to address to find a solution for long-term stability," Henson said. Management's proposal would trim average annual salaries for orchestra members from $135,000 to $89,000.
Doug Wright, the Minnesota Orchestra's principal trombonist and a member of the musicians' negotiating team, said the wages reflect the skill involved in reaching the top level and that big salary cuts would result in a loss of talent.
"The musicians of a major American symphony orchestra live in a global marketplace," Wright said. "And if we're going to continue to attract and retain the best of the best, our competition is not, you know, the local marching band. Our competition is Boston, Chicago, L.A., San Francisco."
McManus, the arts consultant, said the Detroit Symphony Orchestra took a big blow to its reputation after a six-month musicians' strike in 2010, during which many performers quit.
Musicians have demanded an open audit of the orchestras' finances, complaining about an ongoing $50 million renovation of Orchestra Hall's lobby. Henson said renovation funds come from dedicated donations and are needed to keep drawing audiences and big donors.
Jesse Rosen, president and chief executive officer of the League of American Orchestras, which doesn't take sides in labor-management disputes, said orchestras are struggling with the economy like many other businesses that depend on discretionary spending.
"These are big cultural trends that are affecting the movie business, and professional sports, and the way our culture operates now," he said. "So it's not surprising that we're likely to see a period of visible experimentation in American orchestras and the way they operate."