For the benefit of anyone who has spent the last year on the moon, the Minnesota Orchestra has been locked out since October, when the musicians rejected an offer from the board of directors for a 20- to 40-percent reduction in pay. It has turned into the ugliest union-management confrontation in recent orchestral history.
But there, is, I believe, something even larger at stake than any of these issues – or, indeed, than the Minnesota Orchestra itself. There’s an implicit question buried in the year-long lockout that should concern everyone who cares about orchestral music in North America.
Is it now, in the year 2013, “okay” for a major U.S. city not to have a major symphony orchestra?
That’s a shocking proposal for classical music fans – one that many aren’t fond of looking squarely in the eye. But just because we hold our art to be sacred, we can’t assume everyone else does.
America’s civic orchestras have always relied heavily on prestige as a support mechanism, to good effect. After the big cities established civic orchestras in the 19th and early 20th centuries – New York, Boston, Philadelphia, etc. – other places followed suit. Before long, every prominent city (or city that aspired to prominence) had one. The symphony orchestra was like a major-league sports team for intellectuals.
However, a floating cloud of prestige is a precarious platform for long-term sustainablility. It must be constantly re-inflated, or it will eventually lose steam. When a new generation of college-educated professionals decides it isn’t much interested in classical music, politicians and business people soon notice. They take their support elsewhere, where they’ll get more bang for their bucks.
If the stakeholders in Minneapolis – not just the musicians and management, but also the politicians, business leaders and the citizenry at large – let the MO collapse or dwindle into a mere shadow of itself, a clear message will be writ large. It will say: orchestras may have once been a de rigueur symbol of civic achievement, sophistication and pride – but they aren’t any more.
For the wider musical world (even a remote place called Canada), that’s what’s at stake in Minneapolis.
© Colin Eatock 2013