When Vampire Squid meets orchestra

One of the best metaphors in recent years was coined by Matt Taibbi, who wrote one of the great articles on the financial crisis of 2008:

The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.

Taibbi’s “vampire squid” quickly became synonymous with the excessive power of Wall Street in American society.

So what do vampire squids have to do with orchestras? A recent very gloomy piece on Minnesota Public Radio by Euan Kerr and Chris Roberts almost suggests what:

The start of July marks ten months for the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, with no end in sight for the musicians, management and audience.

It seems that many opinions are swirling in the classical world about what’s happening at the orchestra. Few predict sweetness and light, but rather a gloomy outcome.

“I think what we are seeing in Minnesota is almost without parallel,” classical music writer Norman Lebrecht said.

“They can’t even agree on basic facts,” labor expert John Budd said. “They can’t even agree on who is going to put the facts together for them.”

“There’s no win-win situation…I personally believe it’s going to take the intervention of a third party,” said [Emily] Hogstad of Eau Claire, Wis., and author of the Song of the Lark blog, which has been critical of management and its attitude to audiences.

“Whether that’s a politician, a community leader, a mutually respected arts consultant, somebody like that — if both sides are open to outside help, and I don’t know that they are,” Hogstad said.

Several observers believe the Minnesota Orchestra dispute will only be resolved with outside help.

There have been rumors about attempts at mediation, which neither side will confirm on the record. Budd, a University of Minnesota labor expert, is skeptical it would work.

“Outside intervention can usually be very helpful, but only when the parties are really willing to be helped themselves,” Budd said. He worries that the duration of the lockout is doing increasing damage to the orchestra.

Emily Hogstad is right – it likely will take the intervention of a third party. The real problem, delicately unaddressed by the writers of the article, is that there is no third party willing to wade in and lean on the Minnesota Orchestra board to abandon an approach which has not worked and shows no signs of ever working.

And why is that? I would guess it’s because the Minnesota Orchestra board chair and the head of the board’s negotiating committee – in other words, the two people most in charge of calling the shots – run, or help run, the two biggest banks in town, Wells Fargo and US Bank (to be more precise, the board chair is “Executive Vice President and Director of Government and Community Relations” for Wells Fargo and the negotiating committee chair (and immediate past chair of the MO board) is Chairman, President and CEO of US Bancorp.) US Bank is the fifth largest US bank, while Wells Fargo is the fourth largest, or largest, depending on which measure of size is used. People this powerful in banks this large would be major players in world financial capitals, much less the 15th-largest metropolitan area in the US.

There are not many people who could actually make a difference to a bad orchestra negotiation who are willing to tangle with that kind of firepower. Normally, one would expect the mayor, or the state’s governor, or perhaps the state’s US senators, to get involved in a negotiation that’s garnering so much negative national publicity. But politicians need donations, and most certainly don‘t need the fourth or fifth largest bank in the country opposed to them. Other board members are not going to be willing to go up against heavy hitters like that either – not if they might ever need a working relationship with one of those banks in the future. So who’s left who can lean on board leadership to change course?

Every bad orchestra negotiation is a battle with the community’s power structure, as just about every orchestra board is tied into that power structure, almost by definition. But I can’t recall any negotiation where the key players on the board were quite so… powerful, relative to the rest of the board and the community, as these two men appear to be.

Governance committees generally look very positively at individuals with the kind of throw weight these two gentlemen have. I wonder if it’s occurred to any governance committee that they’d need to worry about who can put folks that powerful back on track if they go off the rails.

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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