An Orchestral Op-Ed

Minnesota is making national headlines this week as its two classical-music powerhouses struggle to put a price tag on the sound of the state’s future. Contract negotiations between musicians and management at the Minnesota Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra remain at a standstill over deep potential pay cuts. But as the back-and-forth between the two parties rages on, one central group remains silent: youth—the concertgoers of the future.

In case you missed it, the Minnesota Orchestra locked out musicians and canceled concerts through November 25 after the two parties failed to negotiate a new contract. Meanwhile, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra musicians will continue to play across the river as their contract negotiations continue.

Contracts for both orchestras expired at the end of September, which prompted management to press financial restructuring that would result in 30- to- 50-percent pay and benefit cuts for musicians. While management says it is necessary for musicians to “play their part in the organization’s financial recovery,” musicians assert that these cuts would threaten the future of the state’s musical landscape. As salaries decrease, they say, so will the talent on Minnesota’s stages.

Times are tough for both nationally acclaimed organizations. A difficult economy has endangered ticket sales and endowment funds. As a result, the Minnesota Orchestra—regarded as one of the best in the country (the world, even)—recorded its worst loss ever during the 2011 season: a $2.9 million deficit.

Unfortunately, much of my generation grew up with video-game controllers and cell phones in-hand rather than instruments and sheet music. This is due in part to cuts to music-education programming, but also to a larger cultural shift in the way we define “entertainment.” Similar recent lockouts in the athletic arena sparked a Twitter-storm of passionate discussion from young people who grew up with Super Bowl Sundays and NBA Finals. But I’d have a difficult time finding more than a handful of friends who’ve been to even a single symphonic concert.

I’m not saying that experience isn’t valuable—quite the contrary. Everyone in my family could play an instrument. (In fact, my grandmother and grandfather met in their University’s big band, and my mother was the drum major of her college marching band.) I was one of the lucky ones who got the chance to realize the amazing impact music can have. But I am a very rare case, and I fear there are not enough of us to fill the concert halls of tomorrow.

I don’t know who is right or wrong in this conflict, or even what an immediate solution would look like. But what I do know is that none of it will matter unless we all come together to cultivate a youth culture for this type of entertainment. SPCO has taken an impressive first step by increasing accessibility with $5 monthly membership fees for unlimited concerts. We desperately need more of these efforts. Otherwise, it is inevitable that the Minnesota music giants on both sides of the Mississippi with one day fall silent for good.

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