What do orchestral musicians do when they can't find work in their hometown? Like other musicians, they look somewhere else.
Such a predicament has landed clarinetist Tim Zavadil in Ohio this week to fill in for a musician at the Cleveland Orchestra who is out sick. Last week, he was in Missouri doing the same thing at the St. Louis Symphony.
The 43-year-old married father of two says he is grateful for the opportunities to support his family. But he'd rather be in Minneapolis, where for the past five years he has played in the Minnesota Orchestra. Instead, he and his colleagues are scattered across the country grabbing up freelance gigs after being locked out of Orchestra Hall without pay or benefits since October 1, the day after their five-year contract expired without a new one in place.
The musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra worry that the lockout might leave them without jobs, driving them out of the city and diminishing the orchestral organization's reputation as a world-class ensemble. A destination orchestra is like a powerhouse sports team, Zavadil says. It draws top talent from around the world, brings entertainment to the community and boosts the economy by creating jobs within the orchestral organization and stimulating local businesses that benefit from concert traffic.
"What an orchestra brings to the community is a whole other dimension to the quality of life, another amenity," Zavadil said. "For musicians it's about sharing music with the community and providing an environment where people can escape the craziness of their lives to listen to beautiful music."
On Thursday night, many of Minnesota Orchestra musicians pooled their own resources so they could rent out the Minneapolis Convention Center and stage their own concert as the "Locked Out Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra." An audience of 2,100 listeners turned up for what would have been the opening night of Minnesota Orchestra's 110th season in an evening that had "all the earmarks of an opening gala," Minnesota Star Tribune journalist Graydon Royce noted.
Fans responded enthusiastically on the musicians' Facebook page, which also contained goodwill messages from afar.
"It was a stunning concert. Thank you from the bottom of my heart," concertgoer Jean Elizabeth Anderson said.
Others left messages echoing the musicians' chief grievances in the dispute.
"It is really hard to think of not getting tickets for this season. Doesn't management realize that we come to hear the MUSICIANS? Good acoustics are nice, a comfy building is nice but not essential. Musicians are essential. We need you!" Sonja Langsjoen said.
More than anything, Zavadil wanted to be there, he said. But he has a family to take care of.
"I miss my family, and I really miss my orchestra," he said in a phone interview from Cleveland. "But the reality is I have no income coming in, and I have to think about my family."
While grateful for the freelance gigs, Zavadil is anxious to return to the supportive community he left behind.
When the community supports the orchestra, the orchestra gives back to the community through educational outreach and benefit concerts, he said. It also gives musicians a reason to stick around and become active members of the community.
"My family and I have put roots down in Minnesota. It's where we want to stay," Zavadil said. "When the community shows a desire to build up a world-class professional ensemble, the reciprocal effect is musicians want to stay."
Lockouts are typically associated with football refs, hockey players and teachers, but many orchestral musicians are also union members. The situation in Minneapolis is part of a wider web of clashes this year between professional musicians and orchestra management nationwide as contracts came up for renewal this fall before the start of the 2012-2013 season.
The rifts underscore the evolving role of orchestras in America's cultural landscape, something orchestral organizations have been grappling with for years as new art forms compete for audiences. But even if labor disputes make headlines, the bigger picture among the country's 350 professional orchestras contains more success stories, said Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras.
"Great art costs money and resources, and how much any community can support it is a constant push and pull," he said.
"The pattern that we see when we look at the entire community of 350 organizations is that most of them solve those tensions and resolve them without work stoppages," he said. "There are lots of instances of seeing new audience development and marketing practices come into play and lots of creativity in programming designed to be appealing and attractive to audiences outside the typical pool."
Indeed, the question shouldn't be why are orchestras failing, but rather, why some are having difficulties when others of comparable sizes are succeeding, said Bruce Ridge, chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, which represents more than 4,000 musicians in the United States.
"There is no crisis in classical music, the crisis is on the part of management of orchestra organizations," said Ridge, a double-bassist with the North Carolina Symphony.
"Our field has a very strange way of both promoting and undermining itself at the same time,"
The Minnesota Orchestral Association canceled its fall season in September after talks fell apart prior to the contract's expiration. Other high-profile disputes in Chicago, Atlanta and Indianapolis have resulted in strikes and lockouts ending in varying degrees of satisfaction for musicians. But the Minnesota Orchestra's situation stands out because of its longstanding reputation as a "destination background" and the duration of the lockout. It's also the only lockout this year to play out against the backdrop of a $97 million building renovation project.
While each organization has its own unique set of dynamics, at the heart of each dispute is the tension between maintaining artistic excellence and the financial struggles facing orchestras.
Similar to professional sports, or any competitive field for that matter, skilled players want to be on teams with other talented players that offer the best salary, benefits and work environment, said Christina Smith, principal flutist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which narrowly avoided a lockout this year.