Spin In St. Paul

Just a short post today thanks to a longer than expected day of travel getting back to Chicago. Take some time today to stop by the article from Euan Kerr in the 7/16/13 edition of Minnesota Public Radio where he examines the mass turnover in musicians at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO).

newspaperThere is no way an orchestra can lose that many musicians and not endure a profound change in sound and style; in short, the SPCO anyone knew is gone for good, yet the orchestra’s new (old) executive administrator is painting it as a mostly good thing. But if musicians are as interchangeable as cogs in a wheel, then orchestras would have done away with tenure and ditched older musicians to save money a long time ago.

More thoughts on that in the future; in the meantime, what’s your take?

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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30 thoughts on “Spin In St. Paul”

  1. Cogs we are not. When orch managements finally wake up and realize that their product needs (and deserves) proper PR and promotion, then hopefully they’ll start celebritizing individual musicians (other than the MD). Meanwhile, it’s tragic to witness that exodus.

  2. It’s wrong in so many ways. It’s terrible for the orchestra and a hell of a way to treat people. And then to pretend it’s just so gosh-darned wonderful that they “get” to retire! . . . As Alan Fletcher said about another orchestra-management technique in use these days (one that I endured for a year), “it’s unworthy of our beautiful profession.”

  3. “the SPCO anyone knew is gone for good, yet the orchestra’s new (old) executive administrator is painting it as a mostly good thing.”

    He kind of had to. To do otherwise would be to admit a massive failure at the start of his second tenure. He was on the board during the lockout. Because of his past position with the orchestra, I’m assuming that he was an architect of the lockout, or at least didn’t step in to stop or criticize it. He’s now in charge of settling skittish donors and audience members that the future is bright, and how could he do that if he painted it as anything but a good thing? Despite any evidence to the contrary, he HAS to either lie that this is “a mostly good thing,” or convince himself this is “a mostly good thing.”

    Sometimes I wonder if the reporters here realize the extent to which people are manipulating them or attempting to advance their own agenda over telling the fuller picture. When I was doing the Gloomy Minnesota MPR interview with Euan, he said that management in Minnesota was genuinely perplexed why a counter-offer hadn’t been made. And I basically ended up yelling into the phone. “No! NO. They know FULL! WELL! why there hasn’t been a counter-offer!”

    So I feel like this is less a statement about what Bruce Coppock really thinks, or even what’s actually true, as opposed to what Bruce Coppock basically had to say to attempt to bolster badly shaken trust in the organization.

    • Back when Bruce Coppock was President the first time, he gave a PowerPoint presentation for the conferences of the league of American orchestras and ICSOM. One of the bullet points said “2010”, Orchestra generational shift underway”. I think he was just off by a couple of years, but to admit that this was a plan would mean admitting to age discrimination, which would be illegal. The retirements were voluntary, which also covers them against claims. Keep in mind that seniority pay was eliminated from the contract, which was a way of showing that experience was valued. It is currently frozen, no more accumulation over years, and no more for new musicians.

  4. “But if musicians are as interchangeable as cogs in a wheel, then orchestras would have done away with tenure and ditched older musicians to save money a long time ago”

    Many orchestras ( “management” ) might well have done that had not the orchestras ( “members and their union” )prevented it. I don’t believe that these or any other work rules exsist simply as a tribute to a universal belief amongst boards or communities that individual musicians and their styles and abilities are unique and precious, even though I personally believe that to the core of my being.
    my being.

  5. “There is no way an orchestra can lose that many musicians and not endure a profound change in sound and style”

    Doesn’t really put a whole lot of trust in the conductor, now does it? Sorry, but I’m having a hard time keeping up with the hero du jour. Is the conductor one of those we are supposed to worship or throw verbal rocks at?

  6. I’m a St. Paul native. I don’t think anyone is denying that the whole SPCO situation is not ideal. However, I like to remind myself that what’s done is done, and that we need to move on. The lock-out was hostile and the musician-management/board relations were not good, but the lock-out has finally ended and the resulting contract, while definitely not perfect, is not as bad as it could have been. Dobson West is still the Board Chair, which is unfortunate because of his role in the lock-out, but he is no longer the interim CEO which is at least something to be glad about.

    10 musicians are retiring with the retirement package (plus at least 1 who quit before that was an option). The SPCO will never sound the same, and West’s and management’s treatment of the musicians was uncalled for. There is going to be a lot of musical turmoil, and probably PR and reputational turmoil, in the next few years as they begin filling vacant spots.

    But I’m glad Coppock is addressing the situation with positivity (as Emily said, does he even have a choice?). I don’t believe the SPCO is ruined. Yeah, it’s going to be different, but the SPCO has the chance to start a new part of their history with a new sound and new musicians. The SPCO mission *in theory* is good. If Coppock, his management team and the board can put that theory into practice by showing the community why the orchestra, its mission and its musicians are important and valued, I think they stand the chance of comming out of this mess successfully. I sure hope they can do it.

      • I completely agree. That’s why I said *IF* management can put the SPCO mission into practice (which I don’t believe they have done for many months now) and focus on the music first and the politics and “sustainability” second they will have a chance.

        I’m not saying it will be easy to “forgive and forget” because a lot of people are still (understandably) upset with management, but everyone being mad at the other side forever won’t solve any problems.

  7. Ten or so musicians retired, but it’s not as clean as that. There were several vacancies, including the principle cello, viola, and trumpet. With an additional leave of absence, the orchestra currently has one (of four) violists, two (of four) cellos, no basses, and no horns. The principle trumpet position is still open as well. At least mgmt was not able to dictate which positions were to be eliminated (i.e. which musicians).

    Meanwhile, the first concert weekend is the first weekend in September. Less than two months away. I have not renewed but instead may purchase the “membership” – $5/month for all the open seats you want (for one butt). I’m putting Bruce Coppock’s concept of “net revenue” to work here – why spend $780 on subscriptions and donations when I can pay $60? If that’s how mgmt wants to value their “product”, then after all of these months, and attempts by audience members to raise prices a modest amount, I’m not going to quibble.

    It will also be interesting to see if all of those nice cheap Gen Y/Millennial musicians will hang around for long – in other words, will the SPCO continue to be a “destination orchestra” or merely a farm team for the majors?

  8. 10 musicians were “urged” into “voluntary” retirement, squandering over $1 million dollars in cash resources to rid the SPCO of more than three centuries of cumulative experience from ten players still in their prime playing years. (Remember this was all supposedly necessary because of a $900,000 deficit.) In addition, there are at least 5 other vacancies that have not yet or will not be filled due players finding work elsewhere and reduction in the core size of the orchestra. Any way you look at it, more than half the players are gone from what many considered the best chamber orchestra on the planet. For a detailed list of vacancies and early “retirements,” check out this link:


    I wish the remaining great players all the best, and sincerely hope for a speedy recovered return to full forces and artistic excellence. But none of this ugliness was necessary. Even if it had been, it was done in a disgracefully dismissive manner. Principal Bass Chris Brown was not a “mascot,” as SPCO President, Bruce Coppock was quoted in Euan Kerr’s MPR article. Chris is a world-class player, class-act colleague, and multi-talented, innovative leader. I challenge any bassist on the planet to come within a country mile of Chris’s masterful performance of the Haydn 6 bass solo in his last concert with the SPCO.

    Coppock, West, and their cohorts have a lot of rebuilding to do, must learn to respect and value musicians’ contributions and artistic input, and bear the burden of proof to show there’s reason to invest in whatever has survived the devastation left in their wake.

    • Yes, Coppock was pretty disrespectful about Chris. He knew exactly what he was saying – he’s a master.

      The extra “resources” came from “elsewhere” – I’m betting from “SPCO Inc.” which is a separate nonprofit funded by a large donor gift a few years ago. Take a look at the 990.

  9. A contract specifying $60k/year down from $78k with NO longevity increases isn’t likely to attract musicians with a desire to land in a “destination orchestra.” Also, that’s an inordinate amount of principal (not principle) positions to fill.

  10. Sarah, while I appreciate and agree with from where your perspective seems to originate, I hope you realize that when you say “They will have to win back my loyalty, and my contributions,” the people who are actually hurt by any negative action on your part are the musicians that I presume you believe you’re supporting.

    I’m hardly endorsing how management handled this situation. As an orchestral musician myself, I found the whole thing appalling. But audience members and donors who take their ball and go home now should also understand who it is they’re actually damaging in making that decision to do so. Hint: it’s not Bruce Coppock.

    • Thanks for weighing in here Ryan, I wanted to take a quick moment to offer an additional perspective here from the patron and donor. Yes, defraying donations and ticket purchases due to dissatisfaction with any orchestra stakeholder ultimately has short term negative impact on the musicians. For that matter, it impacts most board and employee stakeholders evenly. But this is the only means a supporter has to make his/her voice heard; in short, dollars speak louder than words.

      Consequently, no supporter should feel s/he shouldn’t withhold donations and ticket purchases if that is perceived as the best option available for bringing about positive mid to long term change.

      Similar situations exist in the corporate world; one example popular in the news as of late is the ongoing fight in Washington D.C. between the city government and Walmart over local living wage legislation. Walmart asserts it would require them to pay their employees too much and therefore pull planned jobs from the area. The city asserts it doesn’t want employers who pay poverty wages and instead point to national big box businesses with a DC presence, such as Costco, who manage to exceed their living wage requirements without damaging the company.

      However, I’m curious to know more about why you take a contrary position to other readers regarding Bruce Coppock’s role and responsibility.

    • Ryan, the whole marketing “plan” in slashing ticket prices was to get people to come to concerts and over time get them to become donors. Of course, that was long-term, but the financial crisis was immediate. I drank the Koolaid and donated. Now, however, the orchestra as it now exists is much different than it was a year ago. I have no idea how it will look or sound in six weeks when the season starts. I do not, however, trust Coppock’s “vision”. I am not sure I will want to attend concerts as the trust is gone and my “loyalty” is no longer blind. It is not the orchestra I knew and loved.

      I really don’t think a lot of people understand the fundamental change occurring. The post-lockout concerts were difficult to attend (for me), and even the reviewers mentioned that things were “different”. The “product” is now fundamentally different, and I’m not sure I want to spend my hard-earned money on it. There are plenty of other worthy organizations for me to support.

      If there is a significant drop in donations, then the millionaires on the board can show us how convinced they are of the positive changes and kick in more money. After all, they got what they wanted – younger, cheaper musicians. Now it is up to them to prove that the quality of the “product” has not suffered. The ball is in their court.

  11. Thanks for your response, Drew. To be clear, I wasn’t referencing Bruce in any specific capacity, but more as a general reference to management. How many executive directors have we seen sail ships into icebergs in the last 20 years, only to be recycled almost immediately by some other organization that would rather have an experienced candidate than a successful candidate? I could probably name half a dozen without batting an eye. It’s like watching head coaching retreads in the NFL get brought back by other teams, only to fail yet again because they weren’t good coaches in the first place.

    My broader point is that short term pain for long term gain only works if the organization has a viable path to existence in the long term. Certainly that’s not a concern for Walmart. How long do you realistically think the SPCO can remain intact as a viable top-tier arts organization if the donors start to withhold their contributions as a way of protesting all the talent that’s left or frustration with decisions that a previous CEO made? How does that serve the talent that remains, or the community in which that talent resides? At some point all the stakeholders – community members included – need to pick themselves up, move on, and recommit themselves to sustaining and growing an excellent and important community resource.

    • “How long do you realistically think the SPCO can remain intact as a viable top-tier arts organization if the donors start to withhold their contributions . . .?” I’m not happy about it, but I think maybe that train has already left the station.

    • I certainly wouldn’t disagree that there are too many instances of less than capable executives that migrate from one position to the next. That’s absolutely a problem, but I’m not certain the solution is to accept it as a default, or even likely, outcome.

      With regard to the issue being discussed here, having a patron withhold donations/ticket purchases with the goal of instituting positive change and increased governance expectations is precisely what patrons should do as it stands the best chance at breaking the sorts of negative feedback cycles you described.

      The scenario you described, recommit themselves to sustaining and growing an excellent and important community resource, is far less likely to come about if fundamental governance problems and institutional habits remain unchanged.

      The scenarios you’ve described indicate a change in leadership, and traditionally, that has been the outcome of most vitriolic labor disputes. But that hasn’t been the case with the SPCO (not to mention a few other high profile flash points in the field), so from the patron’s perspective, where is the incentive the trust that things will change?

    • Some interesting points have been raised, and I certainly agree that dusting off Bruce Coppock isn’t necessarily the sort of turning the page gesture that I’m sure many would like to see out of the SPCO. Certainly his preferring funding model is novel. Successful? Maybe a different story.

      To respond to Song of the Lark, I think one of the more interesting developments out of all this is the attempt by some more active audience members to assert themselves more strongly as stakeholders. I don’t think any of us receiving a paycheck from this profession would ever question the importance of the audience. I want to make that clear up front.

      But on the flip side, are these aggrieved audience members raising the millions of dollars themselves to maintain and support these world-class organizations? Are they working aggressively to identify and recruit alternatives to those members of the board with whom they take umbrage – board members who would be capable of doing the kinds of fundraising and institution building that are necessary?

      I love my audience members to death. I’ll be the first one in the lobby to greet them after concerts. I think that sort of presence and outreach is important. But orchestras sure aren’t surviving on earned income alone these days. If the audience wants greater empowerment, one easy way to do that is to jack ticket prices up. If orchestras were getting 90 percent of their revenue from ticket sales instead of 30 percent, I’m willing to bet boards and managers would be a heck of a lot more sensitive to audience concerns. There’s an enormous disconnect between what audiences pay to see a concert and what that concert costs to produce. Audiences want the same thing everyone generally wants – a great product at a cheap price. The only person foolish enough to try that approach, coincidentally, is Bruce Coppock. But typically, those things can’t be mutually resolved but through philanthropy on the part of donors or charity on the part of musicians.

      So I absolutely appreciate their frustration. But a lot of it seems like armchair quarterbacking. To take the neighboring MnOrch dispute as an example, I’m all for people dumping on their executive and board leadership. They’ve more than earned it, at this point. But that aside, what’s the constructive alternative? Have we seen a potential alternative slate of board candidates step forward to indicate how if they were seated on the board, they might govern more effectively? What Plan B is being prepared and sold to the public as a better way forward? If I’ve missed it, please fill me in.

      Relentlessly attacking MnOrch and SPCO leadership might be cathartic, but it’s not particularly constructive. What’s seems to be needed here is a constructive alternative; a real, practical, executable strategy where the ducks are all lined up and ready to go. A year of complaining about Richard Davis and Michael Henson and what’s it gotten anyone?

      • Sorry, I didn’t see your comment until now.

        Some things like what you suggest have actually been suggested…

        Local lawyer Lee Henderson proposed the outline of a plan in an editorial in the Star Tribune. Management dismissed it in a condescending counter-editorial that actually didn’t address any of Mr. Henderson’s points (sorry, I don’t have the link to the counter-editorial). http://www.orchestrateexcellence.org/minnesota-orchestra-a-5-million-five-year-plan/

        Bill Eddins suggested a totally new governance model. Silence from the MOA. http://www.insidethearts.com/sticksanddrones/2013/05/06/billeddins/13905/

        The group Orchestrate Excellence did an in-depth study comparing Minnesota and Cleveland. The board freaked out. As I understand it, none of its recommendations have been adopted.

        The same pattern has been repeating over and over. Patrons have an idea. The management and the board shoots it down or ignores it.

        I also think another thing keeping community members from coming up with more concrete ideas is that so much of the MOA’s doings are shrouded in secrecy. It’s hard to suggest constructive ideas when things like strategic plans haven’t been released and tough questions about finances aren’t answered. Also when there has been a demonstrable pattern of shady behavior and not telling the truth to patrons. (O if I had a nickel for every time I heard from a donor who said s/he never would have donated to the Hall renovation if s/he’d known what was coming,,.I’d have enough to build a new lobby.)

        “A year of complaining about Richard Davis and Michael Henson and what’s it gotten anyone?” It’s made us realize how incompetent Davis and Henson are. That’s not nothing. That’s further ahead than we’d have been if there hadn’t been complaining. It takes a lot of repetition to drive a message home to a large audience. But pro-musician forces did it. And I’m proud of that. I hear from an employee that letters to the Star Tribune are 50-1 in support of musicians. Their Facebook page consists of universal condemnation. People understand who went wrong and why they went wrong. We wouldn’t have that if we hadn’t been complaining.

        For a better way forward to be sold, there needs to be an indication from the MOA that they’re open to a better way forward. I’m working with a group of locked out patrons to try to brainstorm ideas. I’ll bring the idea of a constructive alternative up with them. But a new plan or a new governance structure has been shot down by the MOA, and they’ve made it pretty clear in their various communications that they’re just not interested in anyone else’s input. So we’re left with complaining, I guess. I don’t know what else to do.

        Alan Fletcher will be visiting us in three weeks to discuss our situation and give us some hints and tips on what the audience can do to support our orchestras. This will be very interesting. To the best of my knowledge, no music CEO has publicly addressed a group of patrons about what they can or should do to support an orchestra in crisis. I’ll write about it after it occurs.

      • I also want to mention that Lee Henderson’s editorial in the Strib netted almost $70,000 a year in pledges over five years. Henderson achieved this in 24 hours. This money would only be given under the condition that Osmo and as many of the players as possible stay. Keep in mind his editorial wasn’t publicized and it was in a weekday edition of the paper. I don’t think it’s crazy to imagine he could have gotten more pledges if the MOA had sent it out to its mailing list. (Including the patrons they’ve unceremoniously blacklisted for espousing anti-management viewpoints…)

        That’s probably the best example of a constructive solution that has been turned down wholesale by the board.

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