When bad boards happen to good orchestras

There’s a very interesting story going around the Twin Cities, but this one’s about baseball.

Apparently the management of the Minnesota Twins has decided that they need a retractable roof after all, for about a $100 million price tag. The chances of public funding are essentially zero, so the management is planning to reduce player salaries by about 40%. Given their current payroll of about $94 million, this should produce enough revenue to pay for the roof in three seasons. Of course, the management expects that a number of their current players will leave for greener pastures, but they are confident that they will have no problem recruiting qualified replacements; in fact, the General Manager has been quoted as saying that there will be “hundreds” of applicants from college teams for every open position. With the new roof in place, as well as their exciting fresh young roster, management believes that the future is indeed bright for the team – as well as for them personally, as not only are their salaries tied to the team’s profits but, as the re-inventors of what a Major League baseball team should be, they will have their pick of jobs in cities they might actually want to live in.

So why didn’t you believe a word of that?

Of course, the artistic quality of an orchestra is harder to measure than the competitiveness of a baseball team. And it’s likely true that for a major league team to lose most of its games (as the mythical “New Model” Minnesota Twins would surely do) would have a quicker and surer impact on its economic foundations than the deterioration in an orchestra’s performance if its strongest players leave would have on its funding. But that’s no excuse for the surprising number of experienced industry professionals who seem to have bought into the idea that it doesn’t really matter if salaries are cut and the best players leave as a result, because there are “hundreds” of good young unemployed conservatory graduates willing to take their place for however many bags of Purina Viola Chow managements might deign to offer as salary.

The most glaring error in this faulty picture of how the orchestra labor market lies in how auditions really work. Let’s imagine, for example, that an extraordinary principal oboist (“K”) gets fed up with working for an orchestra (call it “The Saint Paul, Minnesota, Orchestra”) that thinks that the New Model means she’s worth about half of what they thought she was worth last year  – and, in response goes off and wins the next big oboe job. Who did she beat at the audition to win that job? Most likely the very same people (minus her, of course), who will come and audition for her old job. But, almost by definition, none of them will be as good as her – after all, she beat all of them to get her new job. Of course the winner of the audition for her old job is likely to continue to audition for better-paying jobs; he’s going to get tired of eating Viola Chow in a hurry. Being the second-best oboist on the recent audition circuit, he’s likely to get one, too. And so the cycle continues, and not to  the artistic benefit of The Saint Paul, Minnesota, Orchestra.

“Ah,” says the SPMO CEO. “That won’t happen because all of the orchestras we used to compete with for talent are going to have the same salary ‘reset’ as us, and will be also paying their musicians in Viola Chow.” I’m told from people close to the situation at the Minnesota Orchestra (the real one) that this is precisely what the board is being told (although they likely are using language like “sustainable salaries” instead of “Viola Chow”). I wonder what effect today’s news about a new agreement in Cleveland (without, apparently, any regression on economics)  might have on that thinking, not to mention the recent Chicago settlement or the recent National settlement or the other settlements that orchestras are making that pay in the range of what Minnesota agreed to in 2009. Sure doesn’t look like a top-end “reset” to me.

But the sad fact is that nothing like facts will likely have any effect on the thinking of the Minnesota Orchestra board, at least in the short term. Ideologues don’t usually have much respect for reality, and the folks driving the train at the Minnesota Orchestra appear to be motivated more by a belief in what things should be like than in what they really are. It will take a while for a critical mass of the local power structure to figure out that those driving the train have no belief in the value of track signals.

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.

One Comment

Leave a comment
  • I hope and pray Principal Oboists named “K.” find good reasons to continue their association with the SPCO. Hearing “K.” play is consistently one of the highlights of the live music orchestral scene on planet Earth, let alone the US, Minnesota, or Twin Cities region. The idea that management of both world-class MN orchestra seems to have no idea of the intrinsic value of the great musicians they have in their orchestras, and apparently no clue of the tragedy it would be lose any of them to another orchestra or early retirement through contract dispute (or resolution!) is depressingly mind-boggling.

    I hope and believe you are mistaken in your final paragraph. These problems might come home to roost sooner than either of the managements or boards realize. They have in fact been entrusted with management of highly-prized cultural gems. Though may not act like it or realize it, they are ultimately answerable to the true “shareholders” of their organizations: The people who attend these concerts, donate their support in many ways, and love and value the music and the musicians that make it happen at an inspiring level of virtuosity.

Leave a Reply