About that $6 million deficit…

The Minneapolis StarTribune is reporting that, at tomorrow’s annual meeting of the Minnesota Orchestral Association, the board will report a deficit for 2011-12 of $6 million on expenses of around $31 million. That’s a pretty impressive number, not least because it’s so much worse than the previous three years and yet so close to the $5 million per year in compensation concessions the board is demanding from the musicians.

The writer, Graydon Royce, seems to be having some trouble figuring out just what’s going on with the numbers – not surprising, given the lack of transparency, if not flat-out deception, the board has demonstrated the past few years in how it reports the orchestra’s financial condition. Unfortunately, this leads him to ask the wrong question:

So the question facing the orchestra board’s 85 members, as they lunch Thursday on sour financial data, is whether the organization can afford itself.

A close look at recent Minnesota Orchestra contracts begs a different question, which is: how did the orchestra manage to run balanced budgets for so many years?

The difference between base salary in 2006-7 and 2011-12 was around $15, 000 per musician, which amounts to an increase of around $1.3 million in wages for the entire orchestra. (I’m assuming, as is usually the case, that titled musicians were not receiving the same percentage increases in their individually-negotiated overscale amounts, but it wouldn’t make a lot of difference to the overall number if they were). Obviously overall musician compensation went up more than $1.3 annually during that period, due mostly to health insurance costs. But that leaves a huge gap between the reported $6 million deficit and what the board claims are unsustainable increases in labor costs.

Essentially the board is claiming that they’re unable to pay, not only for the orchestra they have now, but for the orchestra that they had for a long time before the most recent settlement. No wonder the musicians want an independent analysis of the orchestra’s financial situation. How does an orchestra go from running balanced budgets year after year, well into the deepest recession in our industry’s history, and then start running massive deficits – far above any increase in overall orchestra compensation – when the economy is coming out of that recession? And all this while raising major sums for hall renovation?

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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