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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It has been a terrible week for the Minnesota Orchestra. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis resigned from the orchestra after 15 years. The conductor, Osmo Vanska, quit too, one year into the most rancorous and long-running labor disputes in U.S. orchestra history. The Minnesota musicians have been locked out for a year.

Minnesota Public Radio's Euan Kerr has more.

EUAN KERR, BYLINE: Osmo Vanska is the Minnesota orchestra's franchise player. The Finnish conductor took the orchestra from an also-ran to one of the top ensembles in the nation, and some would say in the world. Vanska isn't doing interviews nowadays, but two years ago he said his method was simple. Rigorous rehearsal came first, then recordings.

OSMO VANSKA: Which are so good that they will get international attention. And then the third thing is we have to be able to go out from home to do national and international touring to prove that what people are listening from the recordings is true.

KERR: The formula worked. Recordings of all the Beethoven symphonies won acclaim and resulted in U.S. and European tours. Two more discs of Sibelius, Vanska's specialty, also drew raves.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KERR: They led to an invitation to play Carnegie Hall this coming November. In May, Vanska announced that if the concerts were cancelled because of the labor dispute, he would resign. They were, and he did. To understand how he got to this point, we need to go back to a five-year contract the musicians signed in 2007. It offered a 22 percent pay increase.

A year later, the economy tanked and the orchestra's endowment took a pasting. Before the contract expired last year, management proposed cutting salaries by over a third. This angered musicians so much they didn't offer a formal contract counterproposal. One day after the old contract ran out, management locked out the musicians.

The two sides negotiated through the press but almost never at the table. Musicians and supporters staged protests.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

CROWD: Unlock the music, unlock the music.

KERR: Management argued it had cut everywhere else it could and the musicians' contract was the only thing left to trim. The orchestra posted a $6 million deficit. Musicians questioned why the orchestra was spending $50 million on a renovation of its concert hall while pleading poverty in a labor dispute. Principle cellist Tony Ross is on the musicians' negotiating committee. Like many critics of management, he questions how it's reported its finances.

TONY ROSS: Deficits can be small or large, depending on how they want to make the books look. It was clear when you read the meeting minutes from the board meetings.

KERR: Musicians argued they had been asked to work hard to become a top orchestra and they had delivered, so they deserve top salaries. And in a perfect world, they do, says Minnesota Orchestra board chair, John Campbell.

JOHN CAMPBELL: I'd like to be the highest paid too, but, you know, the reality is we can do what the community can afford.

KERR: Minnesota's governor even stepped in to help, enlisting George Mitchell, who negotiated the peace settlement in Northern Ireland, but even that didn't work. And last week, in addition to Vanska, composer Aaron Jay Kernin resigned as head of the orchestra's Composers Institute in protest over how both sides in the dispute have handled themselves.

AARON JAY KERNIN: Not talking, not in contact directly, not sitting down together. Things have been done through intermediaries or through the press and it just seemed to me it was time to be honest and work these things out together.

KERR: The musicians finally put forward two contract counterproposals last Monday. Management said the pay concessions were not enough and rejected them almost immediately. The orchestra then withdrew from the Carnegie shows. Vanska resigned early the next morning. But he still led the orchestra this weekend in concerts arranged by the musicians to say thank you and farewell.

The question is, what happens now? Both sides say they still want a contract, but with Vanska gone, so is the pressure to reach a deal. And now the dispute could go on for many more months. For NPR News, I'm Euan Kerr in St. Paul.

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