What Can One Person Do?

Seeing the Locked Out Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra in Beethoven 9 was a hugely emotional experience, and I really need some time to process it before I write a single word on the subject. Needless to say, the musicians were fabulous…and so was the audience, if I may say so myself!

Sooooooooo, while I’m busy processing… Here’s an utterly fabulous piece to prove that last point. Here’s SOTL reader Rolf Erdahl, discussing both his protest at the Minneapolis Club at the Minnesota Orchestral Association’s annual meeting on December 6, and, even more importantly, what you can do. Don’t feel helpless. You have a part to play. I promise!

***

You know those cartoons about the crazy guy dressed is sackcloth and ashes carrying the sign “The End is Near”?

On Thursday, Dec. 6, I was that guy standing outside the Minneapolis Club where the Minnesota Orchestra Board was holding their annual meeting.

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The crazy guy

The only difference was I was wearing white tie and tails, and my sign was a posterboard with the shape of a cello cut out from the top, and a message that read, “SOMETHING’S MISSING!!! BRING BACK OUR MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA”

I’ll now describe the reasons behind my actions and tell you how the day went. If you want to save time, skip to the important part of this message at the bottom for some suggested answers to the question “What can one person do?”

WHY STAND OUT IN THE COLD ALONE? I did it because I’m one person who is terrified that the actions of the Minnesota Orchestra Board and management could destroy a great orchestra. (The same is true of the SPCO Board and Management across the river — I just wasn’t free the day of their board meeting — the SPCO situation will get a separate blog post soon.)

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM? The boards and orchestra managers appear determined to downsize, dumb-down, and downgrade both orchestras, an insult to the musicians, audiences, and supporters. This would take world-leading orchestras and turn them into third-class, untested figments of their short-sighted, misinformed imaginations. They would rather manage performing venues than artistic organizations. They intend to change the artistic model of the orchestra without input or participation from their conductors or performing artists, regardless of finances. It’s not about the economy.

They truly believe it’s the buildings that generate revenue. On Dec. 6, 2012, Board Chair Jon R. Campbell and Minnesota Orchestra President and CEO Michael Henson included this line in a letter to past MN Orchestra donors:

“A revitalized Orchestra Hall is one of the new revenue-generating components in our strategic plan. . .”

A beautiful cathedral without a gospel, message, preacher, congregation, choir, or faith doesn’t have a reason to exist, and will not generate revenue or audience or serve the greater public without something worth hearing inside. That’s strategic?

The Board is also on record choosing to selectively draw down on their endowment to show positive or negative balances, depending on who they were dealing with:

“Balances in 2009 and 2010 would support our state bonding aspirations,” Bryan Ebensteiner, vice president of finance, told the orchestra’s executive committee in September 2009, “while the deficits in 2011 and 2012 would demonstrate the need to reset the business model.” (Graydon Royce, Star-Tribune 11/26/12)

It’s not about the money.

WHO AM I? I am a professional bassist with years of orchestral training and experience. I’ve auditioned for both the Minnesota Orchestra and SPCO (no luck on that Olympian level of competition in MN). I have, however, been fortunate to work as a substitute bassist in both orchestras. My wife and I have done educational outreach programs for both orchestras. I’ve studied with Minnesota Orchestra and SPCO bassists Eugene Levinson, Chris Brown, Peter Lloyd, Fred Bretschger, and Jim Clute. I know how both orchestras work, and how hard and well they work, from inside and out. I have attended Minnesota Orchestra concerts for over 30 years since my Sibley High School days, I didn’t miss a single SPCO Northfield runout concert as a student at St. Olaf, and, until the double lockout, I have attended both orchestras as often as my schedule and budget as a self-employed musician and parent allow.

I used to play Assistant Principal Bass in the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra. They don’t exist anymore. Their board and management teams decided they wanted to downsize, dumb-down, and degrade their 100-year old gem-of-the-Pacific orchestra. There are fitful attempts to restart the orchestra, and I wish them the very best, but they have only played a handful of concerts in the past two years, and their future is uncertain at best.

I’ve seen first-hand that it’s easier to kill a healthy orchestra than it is to resuscitate it. Boards and Executive Directors can kill orchestras if they want to unless people rise up to stop them.

That’s why I decided to picket the annual meeting of the Minnesota Orchestra Board.

THE PROTEST:

Problems:
1) The Board announced Dec. 6 was the day of the meeting, but they did not reveal the time or the place of the meeting
2) I got this crazy idea the day of the meeting
3) There was a lot of last-minute work to do in the garden before the snow flew
4) I was just one person

Solutions:
1) I made a total of 3 phone calls and emails and learned they usually met for lunch at the Minneapolis Club (FYI, my source was neither Song of the Lark nor the Minnesota Orchestra Musicians)
2) Once I learned when and where the Board might be meeting, I posted on Facebook that I would be sharing my views with the Board on the street, and invited friends to join me in front of the Minneapolis Club (90 minute notice)
3) The snow will eventually melt and I can re-seed the lawn under the leaf pile
4) One person can make an impact

I made one sign from some left-over poster board from one of our educational projects. My wife, oboist Carrie Vecchione, had made a cutout cello for elementary school kids to hold in an instrument parade. The silhouette of the cello gave me the idea for the sign and the theme of my one-man protest (Carrie had to teach that day). The sign read:

SOMETHING’S MISSING!!! BRING BACK OUR MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA I also grabbed one each of the official SUPPORT MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA MUSICIANS signs and buttons. Finally I suited up in my orchestral work clothes, white tie and tails.

I did call one friend, because I knew he might be crazy and committed enough to join me – Bill Eddins, former Assistant Conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, Music Director of the Edmonton Symphony, and concert pianist. I knew he was in town for the week between conducting engagements in Italy and with the Cleveland Orchestra. Thanks to caller ID, he answered the phone with “How much bail money do you need?” We hopped in our cars and drove downtown.

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Remember we weren’t even sure the board would be meeting there. Bill and I strolled up and down the street for a while, waved and greeted people and made ourselves and our message generally visible and vocal, to mostly positive responses. Shortly after we arrived, TV camera crews showed up to cover the meeting. (I guess we picked the right spot to picket!) Press was not invited to nor allowed to attend the actual meeting, but were on hand to get final statements from Mr. Henson and the Board. The TV crew suggested they might be able to film us if we could hang around until afterwards. Bill had to take off. He had a dinner engagement. He also had to prepare for the next week’s conducting engagement with the Cleveland Orchestra. He understands the importance of this situation and has done a lot to address it and avoid a catastrophe. Truly a friend in need! Check out his “Sticks and Drones” blogs on the topic: Minnesota – A Calamity in One Tragic Act (12/3/12) and Coda (12/15/12)

After strolling around in the cold alone for about 30 minutes, my good friend Kristen Schweiloch, (who I first met that instant) showed up sporting a “SUPPORT MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA MUSICIANS” button accompanied by her intrepid Jack Russel terrier, Walter. She had heard through social media that I was picketing the Board Meeting and she came to join me on short notice between some dog-sitting assignments. She does not play in an orchestra, but she loves music, sang in the recent lockout chorus of Beethoven’s 9th, and has a deep dislike for injustice. She also passed on info about this little protest to her friend, Emily Hogstad, who subsequently asked me to share this story on her Song of the Lark site.

Aside from friendly honks and waves from passing cars, four encounters on the street stand out in my mind: with a board member, a well-dressed young man, a young woman attending St. Olaf College, and a former Orchestra Hall janitor. The board member angrily brushed past us and shouted, “Well, why don’t you put up a counterproposal we can work with?” and didn’t stop to chat or seek an answer. Another very well-dressed young man came up to us next. We thought to ourselves, “Oh no, another Board member come to berate us.” We were wrong. He looked very sad and disturbed and asked for our perspective on the situation. He said that he loved the orchestra and hopes it will come out of this situation intact. The St. Olaf student came up to us and said, “Everyone on campus supports the musicians!” I told her I was an Ole too, and had just attended the St. Olaf Christmas Festival. Turns out she just sang for me in the St. Olaf Cantorie Choir. Something about talking with the next generation of performers and enthusiastic future orchestra audience members left me thankful, but speechless given the uncertain future of the orchestra. Lastly a man stopped by to talk. He had been a janitor in Orchestra Hall some years ago, and knew and liked the musicians. He reminisced about how hard they worked, how great they sounded, how approachable they were, then wished them well.

All of these people, with the exception of the board member, asked, “What can I do to help?”

Our little, unannounced protest made the evening news on WCCO and KSTP (starting around 1:25). Here’s the KSTP video:

http://kstp.com/news/stories/S2858513.shtml?cat=1

“What can one person do?”

1) Keep up on the situation. It is a complex situation and there’s a lot of disinformation, hyperbole, and way too much lack of understanding. Song of the Lark and MNuet.com are the best clearing houses for information. Also check out the musician’s websites and facebook pages, and see what management has to say on their official sites and pages. At Adaptistration.com, Drew McManus, a world authority on musician contracts, thoroughly explains the complex Minnesota Orchestra contract redline items on his blog. It’s a long read, but clearly explains what’s at stake. Most of these redline issues prove this is not a negotiation situation based on finance or economy, but a list of ultimatums designed to cede artistic control to management to redefine the nature and mission of the orchestra.

2) Join audience coalitions supporting the musicians and working for an end to the lockout. Buy and display the buttons and lawn signs. Visit Save Our SPCO at http://sospco.org For the Minnesota Orchestra visit the recently formed Orchestrate Excellence at http://orchestrateexcellence.org

3) Write personal letters to board members, the Musician’s Union, politicians. We don’t need tax dollars to pull this off. We need mediation. We need understanding of the consequences for all stake holders from musicians to audiences, to businesses that have lost thousands of dollars due to the lockout. We need resolve. We need commitment.

4) Sign petitions. Normally I don’t recommend this — it’s too easy to sign a petition, and too easy for them to be disregarded. That is not true of the petition recently posted by SOSPCO.org which contains heartfelt statements of support for the orchestra. Saying how much you love something makes a difference.

5) Vote with social media. Like the facebook pages of organizations you support, and unlike the pages representing those whose actions you cannot support. I just noticed the official sites of the MN Orchestra and SPCO lost one number from their “likes” tally after my most recent visit. If the facebook pages of the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra and Musicians of the SPCO could have more “likes” than their management’s pages, it could have an impact. Number-crunchers notice.

6) Realize you can’t speak for the musicians in their delicate maneuverings with management, but you can speak up for them in many ways. Letters to the Editor work. Buttons or lawn signs work. Picketing works. Talking to friends and neighbors works. Writing blogs works. Emily Hogstad was just one person concerned about the future of the orchestras she loves, and her work on The Song of the Lark blog has garnered well-earned respect, gone viral, and has had a national impact.

7) Organize a group to sing lockout carols in front of Board member and Management homes. I wrote, “We’re Getting Locked out for Christmas,” to be sung to “I’m Getting Nothin’ for Christmas.” Make up your own carols to fit the season and the situation!

8) Keep calm, cool, and collected — it’s easy to respond with anger to hurtful actions and statements in both directions. It’s also less effective than expressing your views and insights with a firm resolve, stated and presented reasonably. That’s why Gandhi and Martin Luther King were so effective in dealing with reprehensible regimes, rules, people and situations. Raving lunatics may have right on their side, but they and their messages are much easier to dismiss.

9) Everyone knows someone who has clout and effectiveness. Get that other person informed and involved.

10) Respond in whatever way personally resonates with you, your situation, and your location. Whatever statement or action you can make that springs from your unique heart and imagination will have much more impact than following any of the above suggestions.

One person can make a huge difference!

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14 Comments

Filed under Not My Writing

14 responses to “What Can One Person Do?

  1. I just noticed The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra facebook page lists them thusly: “The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra is the nation’s only full-time professional chamber orchestra and is widely regarded as one of the finest chamber orchestras in the world.”

    Interestingly, management’s most recent contract removes the concept of “full-time” from the contract.

  2. Amy Adams

    HIgh five from Oregon, Rolf!!

  3. Beautifully observed and acted and written. Thanks much, Rolf!

    Mariellen Jacobson, SOSPCO Chair

  4. Sarah

    Rolf. you are awesome. Why is it that I have found musicians and advocates to be articulate, intelligent, and inclusive, and “management” – not so much? What does that tell us?

  5. Sarah

    Oh, and I look forward to your summation of the SPCO mess – and where do you see the Schubert Club fitting in here? Just because I’m paranoid . . .

  6. Brenda Mickens

    Rolf,
    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!
    I know you only by reputation (from a friend who loves the presentations you do with your wife)–and I am deeply moved by your account of What One Person Can Do! I did not know that you were in the Honolulu Symphony, so many fine players have been on the scene lately because of that disintegration, and others around the country. My sincere thanks for the inspiration and encouragement! I am an SPCO musician.

  7. Is this the right place for thoughts on taxes and the orchestra? I dunno. Seems it might get read here, so here goes:

    Isn’t it odd? It is a well known secret that American banks, insurance companies, as well as wealthy individuals–are flush with lots of cash. There is no lack lot of money to invest, or to give to charitable institutions–such as the Minnesota Orchestra–but they’re holding back. All that money seems to be secreted away beneath the proverbial pillow. Why is this so? Could it be the tax rates, rather than the recession itself, that have put the Minnesota Orchestra in such a fix?

    When tax rates are flat and low, charitable giving diminishes, and the tax rates have been flattening and lowering for several decades. On the upside, this trend may be about to reverse. At the moment, a huge brawl is going on in Washington over increasing taxes on the wealthy to 39%, while maintaining some loopholes: versus, maintaining the current low rate on the wealthy of 36%, and raising revenue by closing loopholes.

    “Loopholes” are very important in a discussion of arts funding, and if one of our first concerns is the well being of the Minnesota Orchestra, we might want to understand how they work, and keep our eyes on the tax rates as well. This facet of arts funding gets very little discussion, but it seems important to me, and I’ve tried to think it through.

    Here’s my attempt at understanding taxes and giving–I’m an amateur doing my best, googling around on marginal taxes, and hope I’ve got it right. I’m quite sure I’m generally right. So please, I welcome corrections if I’m off base.

    Anyway, here goes: if a donar is in the 36% bracket, and earning more than $100,000 over the threshold for that bracket, then the donar can give that $100,000 to the Minnesota Orchestra–but because of the loophole for charatible giving, the donation effectively costs the donar only $64,000. He or she didn’t save money overall: that is to say that he or she saved $36,000 on taxes, and spent $100,000 on the charitable contribution, for an out-of-pocket cost of $64,000.

    Plug in 39%, and the numbers come out like this: the donor gives 100,000 dollars of excess income to the orchestra, at an out of pocket cost $61,000, ($3,000 LESS THAN IF THE RATE WERE 36%), and the government is shy $39,000. Point being, the higher the tax rate, the greater is the incentive to give, provided there is a loophole for charitable giving.

    It is important to understand–the higher the tax rate, the more beneficial is the loophole to both the Minnesota Orchestra and the patron. The downside, is that depending on the percentages used, there is $36,000 or $39,000 less in the public coffers (I’ll get back to this).

    Today, the tax rate is just over 36% for incomes over $250,000. One side in the current tax dispute wants to keep the rate that low, but do away with tax “loopholes.” But the rate of 36% is already very low, and if the loophole for charitable giving were to be removed, patrons are likely to give even less.

    The other side in the dispute wants to raise the rate for incomes over $250,000 to 39 percent, but wishes to keep at least some of the loopholes. This is still a low rate, but it is a move in the right direction. Combined with the loophole for charitable giving, the Minnesota Orchestra would have a better chance of future financial health under this scenario.

    But now a different point–and going back to that $36,000 or $39,000 less in the public coffers: There is a kind of unacknowledged trade-off here, where other tax payers–in the aggregate, all of us–pay back to the government that $36,000 or $39,000 thousand dollars which went to the Minnesota Orchestra through the patron’s donation.

    There is a feeling I sometimes run into amongst friends and acquaintences, that since many of us don’t contribute to the orchestra more than the price of our ticket, we should simply be quiet, and graciously accept whatever the outcome may be–afterall, it’s true, the price of our tickets doesn’t even begin to cover the costs. Therefore, we should just quietly accept a scaled down Minnesota Orchestra–it’s not our affair.

    Well, we do pay–sometimes unwittingly, sometimes unwillingly–but all of us pay back to the government the money that the patron gave to the orchestra through the loophole. In this oblique manner, all of us tangibly contribute taxes to support the Minnesota Orchestra, and contribute far more than the price of our tickets. We therefore have every bit as much “say” as anyone else in the current crisis situation.

    None of this is meant to impugn the sincerity of the patrons of the Minnesota Orchestra, or to question their love of music. It is simply an effort to take proper credit for what those of us of ordinary income also contribute, and to make clear that we have a rightful stake when we voice our concerns.

    • Sarah

      This is a throw-back to the days of wealthy patrons. But, at some point, SOMEONE has to buy the tickets. So, even if we only pay that much, we are stakeholders – the Board etc. needs an audience, no?

      But this is all part of the “wealthy people are the only jobs creators and therefore they MUST have lower taxes because otherwise they will not invest and will park their capital gains profits in the Caymans”. It’s the same old political meme meant to keep us quiet and unresisting,

      And you are also correct in the “we pay in other ways” assertion – we all pay for Walmart low prices because their employees need food stamps and other public assistance, and this is how Walmart gets obscene profits.

      So what if “they” gave concerts in their new concert hall and nobody came? Obviously there has been no deliberate thought given to that. We will of course just accept whatever is on offer.

      Grrrr!

  8. Kathy Hough

    Hi. You mentioned buttons 4 times… but not how to get them! Actually, I have a son studying at UW Eau Claire (in the trombone studio), who is really passionate about the situation. I would like to ‘borrow’ your button design and print it on a T-shirt for him to wear around campus (and around the Twin Cities over winter break). ??? Thanks

    • Emily here… I hope Rolf doesn’t mind but I’m going to answer your question for him. (Of course he’s welcome to jump in, too!) I LOVE TO KNOW ABOUT PEOPLE FROM OUTSIDE THE TWIN CITIES WHO ARE INVOLVED IN THE FIGHT! YAY! (Sorry for the capital letters. lol But I just love hearing from people from out of town who are involved. And especially other people with Eau Claire connections.)

      Buttons / T-shirts / signs / window clings are available at different shops around the Twin Cities. http://www.minnesotaorchestramusicians.org/?page_id=3250 I’ve gotten things from Quinn Violins and Claire Givens before; they may mail signs and shirts and buttons, as well. Contact them and ask, and let me know. My luthier is in Chippewa, and I’d like to talk to him about possibly setting up a Western Wisconsin location to sell buttons and T-shirts at. I’ve seen three Support Minnesota Orchestra Musicians signs in Eau Claire, and I haven’t even been down by the college lately. I imagine there are a lot more there. I saw at least one UWEC professor at the show on Sunday.

  9. Holiday bonus suggestion # 11: Buy tickets for the Messiah performances the locked out Musicians of the SPCO are giving this Thursday and Friday, Dec. 20 and 21 at Central Lutheran in Mpls! Here’s the link to order tickets:

    http://messiahmpls.brownpapertickets.com

    See you there!

  10. Pingback: All You Need is Love. Time for the Minnesota Orchestra to Come Together | Low Rumblings

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