ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.
We're ending 2013 with a series of stories about numbers - numbers that tell us something about the year gone by. Today, that number is 365. That's the number of days the Minnesota Orchestra did not play in Orchestra Hall this year. The musicians had been locked out for 15 months, in a labor dispute with management. Minnesota Public Radio's Euan Kerr reports on how this does - and does not - reflect what's going on at orchestras across the country.
EUAN KERR, BYLINE: In October, Conductor Osmo Vanska led the locked-out musicians one last time, just days after resigning as music director because of the conflict.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KERR: For his final encore, Vanska chose the Valz Triste by Sibelius, asking the audience to withhold applause at the end of the piece.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KERR: Many in the audience stood sobbing as Vanska walked off the stage in silence. The root of the Minnesota conflict lies in a challenge facing all major orchestras. The executive director of the Cleveland Orchestra, Gary Hanson, puts it this way.
GARY HANSON: Without artistic excellence, nothing else will work. But in order to maintain artistic excellence, everything else has to work.
KERR: The music has to be world class but so does the fundraising, the ticket sales and everything else behind the scenes. That was happening in Minnesota. But then came the economic downturn in 2008, a year after the musicians got a hefty pay raise. The musicians gave some of it back, but management says it has to cut salaries even more. Musicians say top players will leave, threatening the very artistic quality they need to attract audiences and funders.
HANSON: Any orchestra could slide off the road into the ditch, the way Minnesota has done.
KERR: Some foundations have shifted support from arts to social causes. Ticket sales are down, in part because of Web-based entertainment. And that's led to a string of crises at orchestras around the country - from Indianapolis to Chicago to Colorado. Yet there is optimism, even in a city that's facing bankruptcy.
ANNE PARSONS: We balanced our budget for the first time since 2007, and that was no small feat.
KERR: Detroit Symphony President and CEO Anne Parsons acknowledges her organization experienced a bruising, six-month strike a couple of years ago. But now, the orchestra has a 10-year plan to raise $30 million a year. Parsons says accessibility is crucial, with concerts outside Orchestra Hall in the neighborhoods and online - 300,000 people watched free DSO webcasts last year.
PARSONS: That's how people entertain themselves. All kinds of things are happening there and - and if you want to be relevant, you need to be there. You need to be in that platform, in that digital space.
KERR: Audience growth is vital for major orchestras. Baltimore has launched a successful series of concerts in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Cleveland has a popular annual residency in Miami. The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra began playing concerts in the community a decade ago. It also cut ticket prices, and attendance increased by 30 percent. SPCO President Bruce Coppock, who designed Cleveland's Miami residency, says St. Paul now offers a package like a museum membership.
BRUCE COPPOCK: If you pay your $5 a month, you can come to any SPCO concert as long as there's a ticket available. It's a radical idea and raised a lot of eyebrows. But it's been enormously successful.
KERR: The SPCO went through its own lockout this past year, resulting in musician salary cuts. A third of the 32-member orchestra took early retirement. But now, Coppock says musicians and management are working together. In fact, one of them, principal second violin Kyu Young Kim, is now in management. He's senior director of artistic planning while still playing in the orchestra.
COPPOCK: Musicians who are engaged in the life and long-term health of their organizations - their employer, if you will - will play better concerts. There's no question, in my mind.
KERR: Something similar is happening at the Colorado Symphony, according to Jerry Kern, the co-chair of that orchestra's board. Two years ago, Colorado faced financial collapse and a majority of the Board of Trustees quit. Now...
JERRY KERN: We have nine musicians trustees. The musicians control the artistic content. The musicians have a majority of the people on the artistic committee.
KERR: Back in Minneapolis, musicians and management are not talking. The locked-out players of the Minnesota Orchestra recently announced a 10-concert spring season, including appearances by Itzhak Perlman and Joshua Bell. So far, no new negotiations have been scheduled.
For NPR News, I'm Euan Kerr in St. Paul.
RATH: You can hear the final encore conductor Osmo Vanska performed with the Minnesota Orchestra, on our website, nprmusic.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.