Ground Zero for the Payless model

Every negotiation cycle seems to have one negotiation that symbolizes the trends underlying what happens in that cycle. I had thought that last season’s epic battle in Detroit would serve that role for this round. But I think I was wrong; it’s looking as if Minnesota will define the era. And the Minnesota negotiation is all about money and power.

(Some remarkable coverage of events in the Twin Cities has been provided by Emily Hogstad, a young writer and violinist living in Eau Claire, about 90 minutes east of the Twin Cities on I-90. Her blog Song of the Lark is by far the most thorough reporting and collection of links on the subject I’ve seen.)

It appears clear that this lockout was quite carefully constructed. It hardly seems an accident that the Minnesota contract expired right before a season which would take place almost entirely outside of their concert hall. I have no idea how ticket sales were for concerts in the replacement venue (the Minneapolis Convention Center). But the venue itself appears to be a dog; a “world-class, 3,433-fixed-seat auditorium capable of handling a variety of functions from business meetings to large production events” is not likely to be the kind of place one would want to hear an orchestra, and I suspect it’s not cheap either. It’s strangely convenient that Minnesota Orchestra management won’t actually have to field an orchestra for a while and have to try to convince people to come to concerts in such a barn. If the figure of 3,900 tickets sold for the opening triple is any indication, it wasn’t proving an easy sell.

What I find most emblematic of the new climate are two things. The first is the fact that management’s financial proposal appears not to have changed at all since negotiations began in April. The second is management’s forthrightness about this being a lockout – not to mention moving so quickly to cancel concerts through the end of November.

This would have been inconceivable twenty years ago. Back in the 90s, managements of orchestras in far worse shape than Minnesota would go to almost any lengths to avoid  giving the appearance of locking out the musicians and taking responsibility for shutting down concerts. ( They would also try to look as if they were negotiating in good faith; another practice Minnesota management seems to have abandoned as too last-century.) It simply wasn’t done, and it wasn’t done for a reason – managements feared a public backlash. Even in Detroit, management tried to avoid the appearance of a lockout, although the practical (and, I believe, intended) effect of their last, best and final offer before the scheduled start of their season was to force the musicians to strike.

But Minnesota management seems quite unconcerned about any negative PR associated either with the lockout or their refusal to entertain the musicians’ offer to work while continuing to negotiate.

I spent eight years at the beginning of my career with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. We would all look longingly across the river at the Minnesota Orchestra, not because we wanted to play there, but because it was such a strong and successful institution, and ours wasn’t. The idea that their board would ever demand the kinds of massive cuts now on the table would have been as believable as the idea of Minnesota bachelor farmers all marrying each other. That such cuts could be demanded after the kind of national and international praise the orchestra has gotten in the past few years, and done with so little regard for any negative public reaction, is so profoundly un-Minnesotan that it’s impossible to convey to anyone who hasn’t lived there.

But then I never would have believed that a major bridge on I-35 in Minneapolis would have collapsed on a beautiful summer day for no apparent cause and killed a bunch of Minnesotans going about their lives and trusting that things were being run by people who knew what they were doing and cared about the public welfare. I guess the place really has changed. Our business certainly has.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.


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