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Orchestra crisis: A long life or a good life?

As the lockout of Minnesota’s two world-class orchestras continues, I’ve given a lot of thought to the dilemma. A credible outside perspective is hard to find, and we’re left in a “he said / she said” back and forth between management and musicians. Listening to it all, I believe them both on their key points: yes, an organization that is drawing heavily from its endowment cannot last — and yes, the proposed cuts would be an artistic kneecapping for the orchestras.

I’ve thought hard, and I’ve made up my mind. To accept the financial status quo is to doom the orchestras to a slow death — but to accept the proposed cuts is to kill them now. I wish the orchestras could last forever in their current state. But if that cannot be, if it comes right down to it and we are truly forced to choose, the orchestras should draw down their endowments. I’d rather have 10 more years of great music than 100 years of mediocrity.

If you are on the board, and all you can say at the end of this is, “Well, at least we still have an orchestra,” then you failed completely. When an arts organization’s survival trumps the arts, it is no longer an arts organization. It is … I don’t know. A fungus.

If both major orchestras disappear, orchestral music will live on in Minnesota. We have many regional / community / college orchestras, and they do wonderful work. (The Minnesota Philharmonic has a concert this weekend! You should go! They’re good!) The purpose of the Minnesota Orchestra and the SPCO is to be something more than a regional orchestra, something so stellar that it breaks free of geography and shines across the world.

That’s what I felt when I saw the locked-out Minnesota Orchestra musicians play last month, as Pamela Espeland so perfectly put it, “as if their lives depended on it.” During the finale of the Shostakovich 5, all the controversy about the nature and motives of that piece evaporated. Is it sincere or ironic? It is jubilation or forced rejoicing? Is it tragic or triumphant? The answer was simply “YES.” While the music lasted, all contradictions were true, and all the human souls in that hall we were fully, completely alive. It was electrifying.

If that magic dies, questions about the orchestra’s financial solvency are moot.

The question left unanswered for me is this: has it really come down to this dire choice of music vs. survival?

I have two rather pointed sets of questions for management about the financial picture they paint. I’d like them addressed (and believe they can be).

  • The timing: If this is truly an existential crisis, why have alarm bells not been going off publicly for years? Why did they run a “spruce up the lobby” campaign instead of a “ZOMG THE ORCHESTRA IS GOING TO DIE“ campaign? Why the cross-orchestra synchronization? (There is no such thing as a simultaneous coordinated crisis.) Why the changing message? As recently as 2010, the MN Orchestra was trumpeting its financial health. Either they were lying about the finances then, they’re lying about them now, or (quite likely) they honestly didn’t realize they were in trouble. Whichever it is, somebody probably needs to be fired. Yes, I know that the endowment has underperformed projections, but the recession began over four years ago, folks. That’s an ample window for rainy day planning. Short version: WTF happened here?
  • The relationship to the economy: How much of this is due to the recession? How do we expect the picture to change as the economy recovers? Politicians make a business of conflating short-term cyclical deficits with long-term structural deficits, and I have no reason to believe orchestral management is not doing the same. Convince this skeptic that you’re not just seizing a temporary crisis to make permanent a pet agenda.

There may well be compelling answers to these questions. As it stands, the numbers are dire indeed, but smell of cherry picking. This is why an independent financial inspection makes a lot of sense. This is not just about finding bookkeeping errors! It’s about getting a version of the financial big picture we can trust, free of favored narratives — something neither management nor musicians can possibly provide on their own.

These answers won’t change my argument above: if it truly comes down to survival versus music, I choose music. However, answers would clarify the true nature of the choice before our community — and might even spur the musicians to think honestly and quietly among themselves about whether there is a compromise between music and survival that makes sense, that keeps the magic alive for another generation.