Monday, November 12, 2012


Has anyone else noticed that not many people are using the word 'trust' much right now?  It suddenly hit me late last week as I was thinking about the two labor disputes in the Twin Cities involving orchestras.  They have a unique situation, actually.  On the east side of the Mississippi River, in St. Paul, they have the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO), an internationally renowned chamber orchestra.  On the west side of the Mississippi, in Minneapolis, they have the Minnesota Orchestra, formerly known as the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra.  The Minnesota Orchestra (MO) with Music Director/Conductor Osmo Vänskä
has climbed the artistic excellence mountain in the last nine years and achieved the summit, becoming a recognized world class orchestra with international fame.

Ah, but for both these orchestras, fame does not pay the bills.  Both are experiencing financial difficulties exacerbated by the Great Recession and lower ticket sales.  Both are in the throes of a negotiation stalemate in their contract talks with their musicians.  I am far less familiar with the SPCO's situation than I am with the MO's, but with both, trust between musicians and management has been severely eroded.  Trust, the white elephant in the room.  Or perhaps I should say, distrust.

Trust is one of those things that is always there so it doesn't get much attention, at least until it's no longer there or has been betrayed in some way.  What makes a person worthy of trust?  If you think about it, consistency is terribly important.  The person does what he says he'll do and when he says he'll do it.  His word has integrity, i.e. he describes situations factually and honestly, and doesn't try to obscure them with false words or descriptions.  Regarding money, he always pays back his loans on time or if a personal loan, when he says he will.  There's no pussy-footin' around or saying that the payback will come after the tax refund has been received.  And probably something not thought about too much is how important it is that he can be empathetic as well as sympathetic, and not a selfish egotist.

When Superstorm Sandy hit two weeks ago, the people living in the disaster areas expected disaster relief would arrive quickly, whether food and water, power restoration, or a place to live.  In the communities where relief came, the level of trust for the government (federal, state and local) remained high.  Where it didn't arrive quickly or has yet to arrive, distrust seeps in pushing trust back into the ocean.

Well, you might say, those people shouldn't expect the government to take care of them!  They shouldn't expect that help.  But the federal government has an agency dedicated to providing disaster relief: FEMA.  So with that agency comes the expectation of help.  Not to mention the federal government's responsibility to defend and protect.  When relief doesn't come immediately, there needs to be clear and honest communication from those providing the relief services explaining the reason for the delay and when they will arrive.  Communication plays a huge role in the maintenance of trust and the destruction of it.

Which brings me back to the Minnesota Orchestra.  Management has made public claims in previous years about the organization's finances that now they are saying were not really true, and rather than coming out and saying that, they've been trying to put a "spin" on the situation that doesn't make them look like they've horribly mismanaged the finances.  In addition, they've had a fundraising campaign called "Building for the Future" that included money for renovations to Orchestra Hall where MO performs.  Even though management was aware of their approaching fiscal cliff, they continued with this fundraising and broke ground on the renovation this past summer.  And finally, they have claimed receiving bad investment advice.

So, here's the question: how trustworthy is the Minnesota Orchestral Association's management?  Would you trust them to run your company?

Given the way management has behaved, is it any surprise that the MO's musicians probably do not trust them?  One indication of this distrust is the musicians' request for a joint independent financial analysis of the Association's finances, and the money raised so far for the Building for the Future campaign.  If management really cared about having a good working relationship with their musicians, if they cared about earning back the trust they've lost so that negotiations can move forward, management would agree to that financial analysis and stop calling it a "gimmick" or "stalling tactic that unions use."

If management truly wants the negotiations to go forward, then they need to demonstrate their understanding of the role of trust in successful negotiations.  Two parties who do not trust each other cannot negotiate in good faith.  Management needs to demonstrate their respect for the musicians (right now, their public responses have been disrespectful) by no longer dismissing the musicians' offers as "suggestions" and seriously consider their offers to "play and talk" and to submit to binding arbitration, not just to a federal mediator.

One of the comments I've heard repeatedly (and often repeated) is about how easy, supposedly, it will be to replace the musicians who leave with others because there are so many talented musicians in the country right now.  Management needs to reconsider this belief, just as they needed to reconsider four years ago the investment advice that they were getting.  The classical music world is a really small one.  Management is being watched closely by orchestra musicians all over the country to see how it treats the MO's musicians, if they are trustworthy, and are they a management that is friendly to musicians, understands the musicians' lives, and how to achieve and maintain artistic excellence, as well as manage the Association's finances.  They will notice how management has now changed the Mission Statement, too by gutting it of any artistic vision. 

How do you think the Minnesota Orchestral Association's management rates among musicians right now?  Do you think there really will be lots of young and talented (and inexperienced) musicians making a beeline to Minneapolis to play in this Orchestra with this management? 

Not unless management starts to clean up their act....

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