Community Group Mulls Launch of New St. Paul Orchestra Org.

Community Group Mulls Launch of New St. Paul Orchestra Org.

Two Minnesota lawmakers are among those examining the possibility of establishing “a new organization to host a world‐class chamber orchestra in St. Paul.”

While recent signs indicate that the locked-out Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) musicians and orchestra management may be nearing a resolution, a group of concertgoers and orchestra donors said Tuesday that they are exploring the option of creating an entirely new orchestra organization.

The group, called Save Our SPCO, has formed an exploratory committee to examine the feasibility of establishing “a new organization to host a world‐class chamber orchestra in St. Paul,” in the event that players and existing management are unable to resolve their labor-contract dispute.

In a Tuesday phone interview, Save Our SPCO Chair Mariellen Jacobson described her group as a grassroots organization that formed in late October, shortly after SPCO musicians were locked out. Frustrated with a lack of progress in the drawn-out negotiations, Save Our SPCO conducted a preliminary analysis that suggested a new, sustainable organization could be formed—one with reduced administrative costs, a 34-member orchestra, and “reasonable salaries” for musicians, she said.

The goal would be to pay orchestra members a base salary of roughly $75,000, Jacobson said. Orchestra members’ base salary in the 2011 to 2012 performance year was $73,732, and during the most recent season, prior to the lockout, they were paid an annual rate of $78,233, according to a musician-hosted website. The SPCO management’s latest offer includes a base salary of $60,000, and it aims to reduce the orchestra to 28 positions. (Orchestra musicians also have individual contracts containing “overscale,” or payments they receive in addition to their base salaries.)

While much additional research is required, initial evidence shows that creating a sustainable organization with those salary expenses would involve reducing administrative costs, increasing ticket prices, and launching aggressive marketing campaigns, Jacobson said. The role of the exploratory committee is to more closely examine the feasibility of such an organization and report back on whether it’s worth pursuing.

“The purpose is to confirm that any plan put forward would be credible and sustainable,” Jacobson said.

Phyllis Kahn—a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives who chairs a committee that allocates funding to the SPCO and the Minnesota Orchestra, whose musicians are also currently locked out—is among the members of the exploratory committee.

The other members include Minnesota Representative Joe Atkins; Layton James, a longtime SPCO keyboardist who retired in 2011; Peter Howard, a retired SPCO cellist; Donald Kahn, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota’s school of mathematics; and James Hainlen, conductor and artistic director of the Roseville String Ensemble.

The group said it plans to expand the exploratory committee to include individuals representing the philanthropy, education, business, and political sectors.

Save Our SPCO’s announcement comes shortly after St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman intervened in the orchestra’s labor dispute, spurring orchestra management to put forth a sweetened offer.

While the move appears to be a positive step toward a resolution, the offer included language regarding digital media use, which orchestra members said must be removed by management or resolved by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) before SPCO orchestra musicians can legally vote on the proposal.

SPCO President Dobson West said in a Tuesday statement, however, that management has agreed to negotiate with the AFM where they have claimed jurisdiction. Nothing in the local proposal should now preclude musicians from voting, he said.

Of course, even if SPCO musicians and management end the season at an impasse and Save Our SPCO’s exploratory committee finds what it believes is a feasible plan for a new orchestra organization, the existing orchestra’s musicians would have to agree to the transition.

Lynn Erickson, an orchestra member and spokeswoman for the musicians, told Twin Cities Business in a Tuesday phone interview that she has been apprised of Save Our SPCO’s plans to form an exploratory committee but is unaware of the details.

“We really hope we can settle and aren’t forced to form a new organization,” Erickson said. “But it would be better than no organization at all.”