Are City Orchestras a Dying Breed?

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Last Friday, for the first time in months, the Minnesota Orchestra was back together again. Conductor Osmo Vänskä, a former principal clarinet who attends rehearsals in t-shirts and sometimes a Czech soccer jersey, his body swinging around vigorously from the knees, led his musicians in a rousing performance of Sibelius’s 2nd and 5th symphonies. Vänskä is possibly the best conductor in the world when it comes to Sibelius. Alex Ross, a critic for the New Yorker, has called him a “genius” in that realm, and if the orchestra’s Grammy nomination is any indication, the recording industry seems to agree.

Sibelius, the late Finnish composer, described his Symphony No. 2 as “a struggle between death and salvation.” It starts off tepid and a little sweet, descends into turmoil, and then the horns carry out a proud resolution. The struggle element (though not the resolution) is fitting, given the orchestra’s situation. After the concert, the musicians parted ways in the bitter Minnesota cold to return to an equally bitter lockout that began in October, a labor dispute complicated by the orchestra’s dwindling endowment and the very troubling question of whether it manipulated its books to show a $6 million deficit as an excuse to give its players a 30 percent pay cut. Of late, the musicians have been performing each concert as though it’s their lastâ&#128;&#148;maybe because they feel it might be.

The Minnesota Orchestra is far from alone: Symphonies in Detroit, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Pittsburg, and Chicago have all experienced strikes and/or lockouts over the past two years,and those in many smaller cities, including Miami, Honolulu, and Albuquerque, have folded altogether. In the spring of 2011, the Philadelphia Orchestra became the nation’s first major orchestra to file for chapter 11 bankruptcyâ&#128;&#148;it emerged from restructuring last July with 10 fewer musicians, and a 15 percent pay cut for the remaining players.

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Are City Orchestras a Dying Breed?

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