Back from the Brink

How the Minnesota Chorale Bounced Back from an Orchestra Shutdown

What happens when a long-time relationship with an orchestra goes away—taking with it a third of your organization's income?  Shock, dismay, and then a determination to rally around your core mission.

In recent years, contract disputes have shut down symphony orchestras around the country. Since 2011 stages have gone dark in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, San Francisco, and Spokane, symptomatic of the financial pressure many performing arts groups are under.

In October 2012 the Minnesota Chorale learned that the management of the Minnesota Orchestra had locked out its musicians after they refused a contract that would have cut their salaries by 30 percent. A shock to the entire community, the lockout had an immediate and profound impact on the Chorale.

Unlike other choruses that earn income through ticket sales, the Minnesota Chorale’s earned income comes primarily through its orchestra contracts. As the Orchestra’s principal chorus, the Chorale performs an average of 20 concerts per year with the orchestra, earning income that amounts to about a third of its annual budget. The Chorale’s contract with the Orchestra is separate from that of the other musicians, but the bottom line is if the Orchestra isn’t performing, neither is the Chorale.

Who Are We? What Does this Mean?

"We couldn’t just fold up the tents and wait for the Orchestra to come back. We had to be out there performing."
~Bob Peskin

Bob Peskin, the Chorale’s executive director, says the lockout prompted an existential crisis within the Chorale. “It was really scary. At the time there was no way to know whether the orchestra would be dark for a few weeks, a year, or forever,” he says. “We had to ask, ‘Who are we? What does this mean for our organization?’ Of course, choruses are always asking these questions, but most community groups don’t have the built-in relationship that we had with the orchestra.”

To weather the loss of income, the Chorale cut back its staff to half time and asked its professional singer core of 60 to take a temporary pay cut. "The singers were incredibly devoted and dedicated,” Peskin says. “They were all asking, ‘How can I help?’”

In the end, the staff, board, and singers all agreed that the lockout would not mean the end of the music. “We couldn’t just fold up the tents and wait for the Orchestra to come back,” Peskin says. “We had to be out there performing.”

An Alternative Concert Season

In the spring of 2013, Kathy Saltzman Romey, the Chorale’s artistic director, sat down with a group of singers and came up with an alternate program for every upcoming concert date that was likely to be cancelled because of the lockout.

For the first concert of the season, Romey asked her choral colleagues in the Twin Cities to hold open a date in early October for a free choral showcase previewing repertoire from their upcoming seasons. By late September, with the Chorale’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Orchestra almost assuredly cancelled, the choral groups swung into action.

The participating choirs—Minnesota Chorale, Kantorei, the National Lutheran Choir, the Oratorio Society of Minnesota, The Singers, and VocalEssence—donated their services and Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis offered the space for free. “We literally turned that concert around in eight to ten days,” Romey says, “and the church was completely full.”

In December 2013, the Chorale joined with the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra for a performance of Handel’s Messiah, which had previously been scheduled with the Orchestra. Again, the concert in Roseville, Minnesota, was free and drew a large crowd.

“People were so generous with their time,” Peskin says. “And the facilities, because they saw that we were stuck in the middle of this, helped us out too. Because of that, we were able to maintain an active concert season and stay in the public eye doing what we aspire to do—bringing the highest level of artistry to the repertoire.”

The decision to offer the alternative concerts free was a purposeful one, Peskin says. "We wanted to make our concerts accessible to the greatest number of people possible," he says. "By taking away the cost barrier, we felt it would open up what we do to all who wished to experience our concerts."

The Minnesota Chorale collaborated with the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 2, conducted by MSO music director William Schrickel, on Nov. 24, 2013.

From Calamity to Opportunity

Being forced out of its comfort zone has reaped some tangible benefits for the Chorale. “What this did for us was allow us to explore new parts of the Twin Cities and make connections we had not previously made,” Romey said, “and explore repertoire and programming ideas that we had not had the opportunity to consider in the past.”

In mid-January 2014, as the Chorale was preparing for another free concert February 7, featuring the women of the Chorale and the Minneapolis Youth Chorus, word came that the bitter lockout had ended. The women were back on the schedule for the Orchestra’s February 14-15 performances of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. 

It was a busy couple of weekends, Peskin says. “We had to go from zero to 75 miles per hour. But we would rather be dealing with whiplash and g-forces than with the alternative—inertia.”

For Romey, the past year and a half has been a reminder that the music really belongs to the community. “We learned that there are many ways to share your music,” Romey says. “Our motto during that whole year was ‘Keep calm and keep singing.’”

Lessons Learned

Be clear with your constituents. “This flies in the face of the cardinal rule of marketing—never give people bad news,” Peskin says. “But we opted to be real and honest and people responded.”

Peskin said the financial support from the community has been astonishing. “During the lockout year, we ended up breaking every record we had in terms of individual fundraising,” Peskin says. “Grantors stayed with us.”

Remember your core values and mission. As the Minnesota Orchestra contracts were unraveling, the staff and board of the Minnesota Chorale were embarking on a strategic planning process. In retrospect, the timing was perfect, Peskin says, because they were able to reevaluate their relationship to the orchestra and to the community at large.

“The perception was that we were a wing of the orchestra, not another performing group,” he says. “The upside of that was that we got in front of thousands of people. The cost was perhaps losing some of our own identity.”

“We had to think about what the community demands of us,” Peskin says. “The lock out was a stark call that we needed to be in control of our own destiny. We can never again take for granted this ready source of work and income.”

One immediate result was that the board reduced the percent of budgeted income from orchestra contracts, and raised the budgeted income from independently produced concerts. Moving forward, the Chorale hopes to maintain an open access policy as much as possible for its self-produced concerts.

Crises have a way of opening up new opportunities. During the lockout, the organization had a chance to live into its name and expand its reach with new partnerships, many outside the Twin Cities Metro area. “We are called the Minnesota Chorale,” Peskin says, “If we have a state-wide mission, then we want to be performing with the Mankato Symphony and the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra.”

The bonds forged with Twin Cities-area choral groups also will endure, Peskin says. After the choral showcase during the lockout, many of the participants said, “Let’s do this every year.” The next showcase is tentatively set for October of 2014.


Read "Picking Up the Pieces" on the San Francisco Classical Voice website. 

Read "What We Learned in Minnesota" by Michael Kaiser in the Huffington Post.