Sunday, April 14, 2013

“A Familiar Tune”

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The following news article, headlined “A Familiar Tune”, appeared in the Milwaukee Business Journal on May 20, 1995.

With the alteration of a handful of names, figures and dates, the news article might appear in one of the local newspapers tomorrow—and be entirely accurate and up-to-date, despite the passage of eighteen years.


When the Minnesota Orchestra's musicians went on strike in October 1994, one of them produced a facetious "Top 10" list of reasons for the strike.

Steven Ovitsky, the Orchestra's Vice President and General Manager, made the list for his decision to shave off his beard earlier that year.

The "Top 10" list was a light moment in an otherwise tense situation. Ovitsky's inclusion on the list was a sign of the high regard in which the musicians held him—they never believed he was the source of the symphony's hard-line position—and a sign that they liked him.

Seven months later, Ovitsky moved from the No. 2 job with the Minnesota Orchestral Association to the top job with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO).

His positive relations with musicians were a key reason for his hiring as Executive Director of the Milwaukee Symphony, which had its own serious labor issues from late 1993 to early 1994.

"He understands union contracts and the legitimate concerns of musicians," said Milwaukee attorney Allen Rieselbach, an MSO board member who headed the search committee for a new Executive Director. "And with that understanding, he's able to assist in reaching a mutually-satisfactory agreement."

The Symphony's hiring of Ovitsky marked the first time the musicians had played a role in the process. Three musicians served on the Search Committee, one of the provisions of the Symphony's March 1994 contract with its musicians.

The MSO dispute boiled over in January 1994, when the musicians canceled one weekend's concerts. The musicians finally agreed to pay cuts in a contract they signed in March 1994.

In addition to the committee of musicians and board members, outgoing Music Director Zdenek Macal also recommended Ovitsky.

He replaced Joan Squires, who resigned effective December 1994 to become President and Chief Executive Officer of the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra.

So far, the musicians are pleased with the choice. Ovitsky, who started his job in Milwaukee May 1, arrived here with strong recommendations from Minneapolis [musicians].

"The Board was genuinely serious about making this thing work," said Robert Levine, MSO Principal Violinist and one of the most outspoken musicians during the MSO's labor dispute. "I sense a level of commitment on the Board to make the MSO thrive and succeed."

Making the MSO thrive will be the overarching goal for Ovitsky.

Improving relations between MSO management and the musicians is part of that goal.

Additional priorities include boosting ticket sales, building the MSO's endowment fund and recruiting a new music director to replace Macal.

Ovitsky, 47, seems eager to tackle the whole thing.

"You have to believe in the product," Ovitsky said during an interview at the Symphony's offices in downtown Milwaukee. "This is a wonderful orchestra, and I felt it would be a real honor to work for this organization."

Ovitsky is familiar with the MSO from his 12 years as Artistic Director and General Manager of the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago. He worked at the Minnesota Orchestra for 4 1/2 years.

Prior jobs included stints in public radio and a hitch as a French horn player in the U.S. Army Band.

Ovitsky has moved from one of the 10 largest orchestras in the country to an orchestra in the next tier. The Minnesota Orchestra has more than twice the budget of Milwaukee's—about $23 million vs. MSO's $11.2 million—and a full, 52-week season to Milwaukee's 42 weeks.

Milwaukee offered Ovitsky the opportunity for an Executive Director's job. He offers experience, not only in labor negotiations but also in searching for a new Music Director and raising an endowment fund.

"One of the things that was very appealing (about the MSO job) was that the players and board and staff are working together on committees, in meetings, in planning the orchestra's future," Ovitsky said. "To me, this is an important breakthrough, and the leadership of this orchestra is the wave of the future for orchestras."

In Minneapolis, Ovitsky was the primary labor negotiator for the symphony's management, handling contract talks in 1991 and 1994.

Both negotiations were difficult: The musicians played for eight months with contract extensions in 1991 and struck for 2 1/2 weeks in 1994.

"He was very valuable, because he brings the experience of having been a very good player himself and having been in management," said David Hyslop, President of the Minnesota Orchestral Association.

Kudos for Ovitsky come from the Minnesota Orchestra's musicians as well.

The musicians have "poor" relations with the Minnesota Orchestra's management, but "that is no reflection on Steve," said Jim Clute, Assistant Principal Double Bassist and an active union member. Ovitsky negotiated non-economic contract language, but Hyslop handled financial matters, Clute said.

According to Clute, Ovitsky is "into musician advocacy," and is an insightful negotiator.

"I'm not saying I agree with every decision Steve ever made, but he was more concerned about the musicians than any other person in that position," Clute said.

Musicians saw Hyslop or the Board as the bad guys, and Ovitsky as being "handcuffed" by his bosses, said Brad Eggen, President of American Federation of Musicians Local 30-73.

The Minnesota Orchestra and the union reached a four-year agreement in October [1994]. The contract includes a salary freeze the first year, 3 percent wage increases in the second and third years and a 5 percent raise the fourth year.

Ovitsky declined to comment on the specifics of the negotiations, other than to say the experience was "not pleasant."

"A settlement is a settlement—you go on from there," he said.

Negotiations on the next Milwaukee Symphony musicians contract are to begin in spring 1996. The contract expires in September 1996.

Labor isn't the only tune Ovitsky played in Minnesota. He also worked closely on the orchestra's search for a new Music Director.

Hyslop credits Ovitsky with "discovering" the orchestra's eventual choice, Eiji Oue, a Japanese native who was conducting the Erie (Pa.) Symphony. Oue starts as Minneapolis' music director in September.

"(Ovitsky) was very involved because he's got an encyclopedic knowledge of symphonies, composers—who's on the circuit," Hyslop said.

The Minnesota Orchestra worked with Oue as a guest conductor before choosing him as a "long-shot" candidate, Hyslop said.

Hyslop described Oue as a "very young" conductor who "relates to the audience."

Ovitsky called the Milwaukee Symphony's search for a new Music Director a top priority. He's just begun to work with the search committee, which has worked since early 1994 on seeking a replacement for Macal.

The ideal candidate?

"Someone who will make great music with the orchestra, but will also excite the public and create fantastic performances," Ovitsky said.

The high-priority area where Ovitsky has the least experience is in raising an endowment fund.

The Minnesota Orchestra is near completing a $50 million endowment and capital campaign. Ovitsky was not a central player in that effort, Hyslop said.

Ovitsky sees the MSO's endowment as a key to solidifying the symphony's financial condition. The fund stands at about $12 million, and the MSO board has set a goal of $35 million.

Another financial need for the MSO is improving ticket sales. Concert series revenue dropped from $3.4 million in fiscal 1993 to $3.2 million in fiscal 1994.

Ovitsky plans to emphasize promoting the symphony in the Milwaukee area with everything from concert sound bites on local television newscasts to releasing studies on the arts' economic impact.

Behind it all, he said, is the music.

"It all gets down to making great music," Ovitsky said. "Presenting concerts the people want to hear and are excited (about) and want to come back . . . We need to have people wanting to come and hear the orchestra."


Ovitsky achieved none of his stated objectives in Milwaukee. Losses mounted; the number of concerts had to be reduced, significantly, due to declining attendance; musician pay had to be cut, repeatedly, for fifteen years; and the endowment went nowhere (in January 2013, the Milwaukee Symphony’s endowment was $18 million, only $6 million more than the figure from May 1995).

Ovitsky was to saddle Milwaukee with Andreas Delfs as Music Director, an inexplicable if not disastrous appointment. Delfs’s tenure in Milwaukee was so unsuccessful that it ended, permanently, Delfs’s American conducting career.

Ovitsky’s selection of Eiji Oue as Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra always had been inexplicable, too—and Oue’s tenure in Minneapolis likewise was so unsuccessful that it ended, permanently, Oue’s American conducting career.

Persons from the Upper Midwest will already know that Ovitsky, back in 1995, had not departed from the Minnesota Orchestra voluntarily—he had been instructed that it was time for him to find another job. In Minneapolis, Ovitsky had proven himself unable to maintain professional distance between management and musicians.

Persons from the Upper Midwest will already know, too, that in February 2003 Ovitsky was to be dismissed—summarily, with immediate effect—by the Milwaukee Symphony. In Milwaukee, Ovitsky once again had proven himself unable to maintain professional distance between management and musicians.

After being discharged in Milwaukee, Ovitsky tried to get work with other orchestras, including the Pittsburgh Symphony. Given the trail of wreckage Ovitsky had left behind in Minneapolis and Milwaukee, no orchestra would touch him.

Forced to leave the orchestra field, Ovitsky ended up working for a small chamber music organization in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


Hyslop, portrayed as a villain by the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra during the 1994 Minnesota Orchestra strike, is today viewed as a saint-like figure within the orchestra field, acclaimed for his wisdom and sagacity. His advice is sought by everyone.


Clute is now deceased.


Levine remains Principal Violist (and not, as the news article claimed, Principal Violinist) of the Milwaukee Symphony. An aging, unrepentant Hard Leftist, Levine continues to peddle fact-challenged—if not lunatic—ravings about the orchestra world.

Levine’s pronouncements are couched in breathless, 1930s anti-capitalist imagery and rhetoric; the language of ancient Industrial Workers Of The World handbills is his vernacular.


And the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra remain clueless how to conduct a white-collar dispute. They continue to use beer-hall tactics borrowed from The Teamsters Union—and, inevitably, such tactics alienate the middle class, without whose support the orchestra cannot survive.

It is no wonder, here in town, that the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra are now referred to—simply—as “The Stinkies”.

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