One Wow and One Uh-Oh

This letter appeared in Saturday’s Minneapolis StarTribune:

As former music directors of the Minnesota Orchestra, we came to the state because we believe that it wants and deserves to have a world-class orchestra.

We are proud of the cultural gem we have built, with the musicians, for more than half a century. It required long and careful work to assemble a championship team, person by person, always building on a vision of superb music-making.

This legacy can be swiftly destroyed, a tragedy not only for lovers of great music, but for the cultural soul and significance of the region.

An orchestra does not recover easily, from such drastic cuts, if ever. We urge the Minnesota Orchestral Association to do everything in its power to preserve this longstanding jewel.


Although there have been a few instances over the years of conductors and former music directors being supportive of their orchestras, I can’t recall ever seeing anything this directly critical of an orchestra’s board of directors from a group of conductors with as much local history as do these three. Its impact may not be immediately apparent, but I’m pretty sure there will be an impact. Skrowaczewski in particular is a revered figure in the Twin Cities. And he’s not limiting his support to simply writing letters:

Locked out musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra today announced former Music Director Stanislaw Skrowaczewski will conduct them in what they call a “season opening concert” on October 18th.

Minnesota Orchestra management cancelled all concerts through the end of November shortly after locking out the musicians early Monday. French horn player Ellen Smith says having the conductor who led the Minnesota Orchestra from 1960 to 1979 – during which time Orchestra Hall was built – means a great deal to the players.

“Because we know that it won’t be a gesture taken lightly by our management,” said Smith. “They won’t be happy about it. But it truly shows that he supports us fully in what we are doing.”

And speaking of locked-out orchestras holding concerts:

Pianist Andre Watts, whose relationship as guest artist with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra dates back to Izler Solomon, music director from 1956 to 1975, says he hopes that his appearance at an ISO musicians’ concert Sunday “puts the focus on music.”

“It’s important for our general culture,” he said of his decision to anchor a performance by ISO members, who have been locked out since Sept. 10 in a contract dispute with the governing Indianapolis Symphony Society. “A symphony orchestra is part of that.”

Many American orchestras Watts is familiar with have gone through troubles recently. “Our society just in general seems to be shifting to the view that the arts and culture are somehow incidental and elitist,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Bloomington. “That’s disturbing.”

I hope that orchestra musicians recognize just what these four distinguished musicians have done for our field.

And the “uh-oh“:

Mitt Romney’s big new tax reform idea — to cap the amount individuals can benefit from tax deductions in a given year — still lacks for hard specifics but the basic shape of the idea provides tax economists key clues about its potential incidence. And the biggest loser, if he were to implement the plan as president, according to an expert on charitable giving, would be one of the right’s favorite features of the tax code: the deduction for charitable giving.

“The effect on charitable giving is likely to be large for high income individuals, especially in the short run,” says Jim Andreoni, a UC San Diego professor of economics who studies the economics of charitable giving.

Under the current tax code, people are allowed to deduct scores of expenses from their taxable income. Mortgage interest is tax deductible. The cost to workers of their employer-provided insurance is excluded from their taxable income. And reflecting the long-held conservative view that private giving rather than government should be the main source of public welfare, charitable contributions are partially exempt from taxation.

If Romney were to impose a cap on the total amount individuals could benefit from these deduction, people would likely respond by shifting priorities, experts say. But some priorities are more easily shifted than others. While it’s very difficult to downsize a home, and a bitter pill to accept stingier health insurance benefits, cutting smaller checks to churches, universities, and ballet companies is a no-brainer.

And, lest anyone think that the Democratic candidate for president is more supportive of non-profits on this issue:

WASHINGTON — For the fourth year in a row, President Obama is proposing lower tax deductions for the wealthy on donations to churches and other nonprofit organizations. And for the fourth year in a row, nonprofit groups say the change would lead to a dramatic drop in charitable giving.

The reduction, included in Obama’s 2013 budget proposal, rankled the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

“We were hoping this would not come up again this year. We asked that they not renew it, but unfortunately the request was not taken,” said Nathan Diament, the group’s Washington director. “It’s a real concern.”

Under the Obama proposal, the tax break for charitable donations would fall from 35 percent to 28 percent for the top 2 percent of taxpayers, those earning more than $250,000.

In real terms, that would mean a wealthy taxpayer who donates $10,000 to a charity would be able to only claim a $2,800 deduction on his taxes, rather than the current $3,500.

When it analyzed a similar proposal in Obama’s 2012 budget, the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University said it would boost federal revenue by billions of dollars and have a “modest negative effect” on charitable giving.

This is likely to be a big issue in the weeks after the election, regardless of who wins. Non-profit advocates in Washington DC have been sounding the alarm for months now about what might happen in the lame-duck Congress, especially one facing the so-called “fiscal cliff” that happens on January 1, 2013. Whether or not orchestras are still seen by the Congress as s a public good and not as elite entertainment is something we might find out quite soon.






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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