Should Orchestra Musicians Go Independent? Economics Won't Work

Article excerpt

Last weekend, the Minnesota Orchestra played to three successive sellout crowds at the Ted Mann Concert Hall.

At a recent rally, Tony Ross, principal cellist for the orchestra, told musicians' supporters that the orchestra would continue to play concerts despite the year-long lockout. The music, he said to cheers, "belongs to the community."

In a recent Star Tribune op-ed piece, music lover Lawrence Perelman offered this advice to the musicians: "Follow Maestro Vanska's lead and resign from the Minnesota Orchestra Association. Immediately announce the creation of the Minnesota Symphony, a self- governing orchestra modeled on the Vienna Philharmonic.''

On the surface, the idea seems intriguing. After all, it is the artists who draw the crowds -- and the dollars.

But most who follow the business of large orchestras say the economics of the idea simply won't work.

Most of those who responded to questions about the idea of the musicians walking away from the mother organization, asked not to be named, for fear of making a bad labor situation even worse.

Plenty of problems

As idyllic as self-management might seem, here are just a few of the problems:

[bullet] It would disrupt whatever is left of the stability of the orchestra, meaning more members would leave for more traditional orchestra structures.

[bullet] It would take years for an organization of musicians to build the sort of funding strength the 110-year old Orchestra Association has created. (The Association endowment is in the area of $150 million.)

[bullet] There's a question as to whether the huge patrons of the Association ever would follow revolutionary musicians no matter how talented.

In his piece, Perelman suggests that the musicians would need to play about 100 concerts, with receipts of $100,000 per concert, to generate the $10 million needed to pay 100 musicians $100,000 per year.

But consider: Those three sellout crowds last weekend likely generated ticket revenue of less than $150,000 total. Internationally acclaimed pianist Emanuel Ax, who typically would be paid in excess of $30,000 for the concerts, performed for free, an act of solidarity with the musicians. Osmo Vanska conducted as a farewell gesture to the orchestra and the community.

In other words, even before such things as the costs of health- care bene?ts, stagehands, a few administrators and sales people, the numbers don't come close to adding up for the musicians.

Two sides need each other

Like it or not, the musicians and the board members need each other desperately.

Even as Ross told the crowd at the recent rally that the orchestra would continue to perform during the lockout, he made it clear that the ultimate goal was to return to Orchestra Hall.

It should be noted that Perelman isn't alone in his desire to see the musicians work to ?nd a new model.

Rena Kraut, a freelance professional clarinet player, would love to see the musicians move away from the Association.

"But I don't have to pay their mortgages,'' said Kraut. "I do think it's time to ?nd a new model for supporting orchestras. But I don't think it's fair to ask these musicians to be guinea pigs, either.''

Out of frustration with the board, which she believes has taken a one-note stand in the lockout, Kraut has started an online petition drive.

Online petition effort

The petition went online on Tuesday, and as of Friday morning, Kraut had collected nearly 2,500 signees. …