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Tension is palpable as Minnesota Orchestra decision points loom

Photo by John Whiting
Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vänskä leading the musicians in a February concert at the Convention Center concert hall.

“They can’t even agree on what day it is.”

The speaker, a prominent St. Paul arts administrator, was reflecting on the debate last Friday on Minnesota Public Radio’s “The Daily Circuit” concerning the contract battle between the management of the Minnesota Orchestra and the musicians, who have been locked out since last October, the longest lockout ever of a major American orchestra. Indeed, the two combatants on the show, orchestra President and CEO Michael Henson and, speaking for the musicians, percussionist Kevin Watkins, couldn’t agree on much of anything over the course of an increasingly tense 40 minutes of talk – not on finances, not on the reasons for the lockout, and certainly not on strategies to solve the crisis, not even on the role of the orchestra in the community.

The degree of their mutual frustration suggested that this was enmity with legs. Its roots went back further than the start of the lockout last October — and they would surely continue to poison the organism long after a new contract is signed, should that ever happen.

And there was extra pressure on all participants Friday that likely raised the emotional temperature. Music Director Osmo Vänskä, under whose artistic leadership the orchestra has enjoyed unprecedented popularity and critical acclaim, had said the musicians must be in rehearsal the week of Sept. 30 to be ready for two dates at Carnegie Hall in early November; he’d earlier said that, should the Carnegie Hall concerts be canceled he would have to resign. All this means the “deadline” is approaching fast since the musicians, some of them working elsewhere, would have to be given a reasonable amount of notice to return to work (in fact management had set Sept. 15 as a deadline because of this).

Vänskä’s situation here, needless to say, is becoming untenable. And yet his departure, especially under these dark circumstances, would be an irreparable loss to the orchestra, to the city and perhaps to the entire world of music-lovers, given the special chemistry that has evolved between this orchestra and conductor. One result of that chemistry is an award-winning series of recordings, the most recent of them a Sibelius set that will remain unfinished if Vänskä leaves. 

Vänskä is much in demand as a guest conductor in this country and in Europe – he enjoys special favor in England. Should he seek another permanent post, he will easily find one. However, given the negative publicity this lockout has received around the world, it’s hard to imagine that a conductor of any renown or significance would be willing to take on the orchestra here, at least for a while. That suggests several seasons of guest conductors and an inevitable artistic incoherence; it takes time for even an outstanding conductor and orchestra to develop a relationship, a consistent level of excellence, and a distinctive sound.

Different orchestra, different vision

Besides which, it won’t be the same orchestra. Many musicians have already left, have retired or are taking a year off to play in another orchestra. (Artscape writer Pamela Espeland provides a detailed count here.)

Moreover, looking at the board’s strategic plan and its revised mission statement, which eliminated (but then, after a brouhaha by musicians, reinstated) any reference to the orchestra itself, it’s clear that the board envisions the standard orchestral format and programming playing a lesser role in the future than they have in the past. The orchestra would share time with an increased number of pops concerts and “presentations,” meaning the booking of various kinds of outside musical acts. This is either a bad idea or an idea that’s ahead of its time, and it needs to be explained more fully. Either way, it has infuriated the musicians who, seeing all this plus plans for an orchestra reduced in size, were also asked to accept a salary reduction of 34 per cent on average — along with more than 200 changes in work rules. This is not a recipe for sustaining artistic excellence.

Henson’s public response to the exodus of so many musicians was characteristically cavalier. The New York Times quoted him: “When we get up and running again … I’m sure we will get an astonishing bunch of individuals who will want to perform and live in this great city.” This suggestion that orchestra musicians are easily exchanged one for the other and that experience doesn’t count for much was yet another insult to those musicians here who haven’t bailed out — especially since a number of those now departed, like Burt Hara and Stephanie Arado, were more than key players; they were stars of the orchestra.

‘All three may fall’

Even more callous was the comment early this month by Richard Davis, chairman of the management’s negotiating team, to the Star Tribune. “Osmo may have to leave,” he said. “The board is resolved to know that this is a risk. Carnegie, the opening of the hall. All three may fall.”

One should grant the sincerity of Henson’s and Davis’ and current board chairman Jon Campbell’s efforts to manage the orchestra’s finances and solve its problems, among them the mounting deficits — reported as $2.9 million in fiscal 2011 and $6 million in 2012, to be followed, they say, by potentially larger ones, if there is no substantial drop in expenses or increase in revenues. And, of course, they aren’t to blame for the recession of 2008 and ’09, which caused a tumble in the value of many orchestra endowment funds around the country. However, many if not most of the biggest of those funds have gradually returned to their former value. This is not the case here.

To acknowledge their efforts isn’t to excuse the manner in which they have presented themselves and their dealings with the musicians in public. To an observable degree, they have become the villains of this 12-month scenario. The musicians, of course, have contributed to this, wasting no opportunity to denounce the management and the board at their self-managed concerts and creating in short order what is probably the liveliest and most informative musicians’ website in cyber history.

It’s clear that a lockout, no matter who’s cast in the lead roles, creates an especially intense kind of drama. A lockout, one might argue, is a legitimate albeit drastic tactic in labor relations. It gets people’s attention, and it certainly did that here. The downside is that it severely disrupts lives — and in this case deprives audiences of music as it puts an outstanding ensemble in jeopardy. It also makes the employer look heartless, especially if the lockout continues for an extended period. It’s not unlike World War 1: a few skirmishes at the start, followed by agonizing and deadly years of stalemate in the trenches accompanied by ever-growing hatred for the enemy. One guesses that Henson and his people thought the lockout would be brief and effective, that, after a few offers and counteroffers, the musicians would be back onstage by December at the latest – back home for Christmas, 1914, as all the belligerents thought at the start of the war.

A drop to regional status

Which leads to the question: What if the musicians had accepted the management’s first salary offer: a cut in base pay down to $78,000 from $115,000? According to figures from the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ISCOM), this would drop the orchestra’s ranking by salary from No. 8 to 17, putting it right behind the Detroit Symphony, which is still in the recovery stage from a corrosive six-month strike that ended in 2011. The orchestra here, in other words, would drop from the top 10 to what is usually thought of as the category of regional orchestras.

From the musicians’ point of view, concern about salary rankings is more than the desire for a bigger paycheck. They speak of “feeder” orchestras and of “destination” orchestras — orchestras of artistic excellence where they’re playing with the best musicians, under the best conductors, and are able to recruit the best new members. A musician in a feeder orchestra, so the argument goes, is often biding his time until he can audition for – and get – a position in a destination orchestra, that is, a top-10 ensemble. In a feeder orchestra the best players may be out the door shortly after they arrive, which gives the orchestra a feeling of impermanence and no cohesive style. (Of course some musicians in, let’s say, the Atlanta Symphony will say, “I love this city, this orchestra, the weather and the cute house I bought. Even though I just got an offer from the Boston Symphony, I’m staying here.”)

Nonetheless, both artistic rewards and salary rankings affect the way orchestra musicians view their work and their professional standing. Which is why it irks the musicians here no end that the management and the board never address this issue: Do we lose anything by becoming a regional orchestra?

Said flutist Wendy Williams in an e-mail, “We want to remain a destination orchestra so that we can serve our community as an arts leader and continue to offer the artistic excellence that our community has come to expect and deserves.”

According to Williams, the two orchestras she and her colleagues think of as peers of the one here are the Cleveland Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Symphony. In the 2011-12 season, the salary ranking put the Minnesota Orchestra in eighth place, at $111,566, between the Cleveland Orchestra ($120,120) and the Philadelphia Orchestra ($108,750). Pittsburgh at that time was ranked in tenth place at $100,110. Closer to the present, Pittsburgh comes in at $102,104 and Cleveland at $123,864.

The question of excellence

Artistic ranking, of course, is a different – and more subjective – matter. But orchestras with artistic excellence tend to also have larger budgets. In terms of artistry, Cleveland and Philadelphia traditionally have been listed in the Top 5 (along with Boston, Chicago and New York). Four or five decades ago, no one in the music business would have ranked the San Francisco Symphony or the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the top 5 or even the top 10. Now both are in everybody’s top 10, as are their budgets and salaries. San Francisco emerged from a brief strike last year with a base salary of $148,000. Question: With all due respect to Michael Tilson Thomas, a brilliant conductor, does any musically literate person think the San Francisco Symphony is the artistic equal of the orchestra here under Vänskä? Ten years from now, if the Minnesota Orchestra has dropped into the regional orchestra category, the answer to that question might be quite different from what it is today.

It’s been a tough year for American orchestras, a year of strikes and lockouts and teeth-gnashing. Even so, just about all the contracts have been settled, some with modest increases in salary for the musicians. (Musicians of the Atlanta Symphony signed a contract after a three-week lockout.) One, of course, a big one, is still unresolved. There are glimmers of hope (and things have been quiet this week) — but the prospects appear bleak, and frustration and anger abound. In just a few days, a cherished music director might pack up and leave. 

The clock is ticking …

Michael Anthony, a former longtime music critic for the Star Tribune and the author of “Osmo Vänskä, Orchestra Builder,” writes about classical music and other arts topics for MinnPost.

Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Ralf Wyman on 09/18/2013 - 11:06 am.

    Losing our Minnesota-ness

    If Vanska leaves and the impasse continues, we here in Minnesota will be in about the same boat as that miserable US Congress: bitterness, recrimination, and conservatives driving us past the bring of reason into shutdown and loss.

    What has happened to the MN Orchestra board and management that they have decided to abandon the long tradition of Minnesotans pitching in together? If these folks had been in government in Minnesota 40 years ago, the Minnesota Miracle that helped transform and improve our state would never have had a shot.

    This is really not how we – the music-going and arts-loving public – want our nonprofits and arts organizations to behave. It is time to swallow some pride and talk! Really talk and really be Minnesotan about this (no, not the passive-aggressive thing we sometimes do, but the collaborative, community-building thing we also do (or did) well).

  2. Submitted by Michael Wunsch on 09/18/2013 - 12:59 pm.

    An unnecessary tragedy

    The tragedy of this situation is that it could have been completely avoided by transparency and collaborative problem-solving.

    The best way to resolve financial problems is to be fully transparent and honest and to involve all stakeholders in identifying solutions; that way, if cuts need to be made, everyone knows and trusts that they were necessary. The board and management of the orchestra have failed in all of these areas: They spoke glowingly of the excellent financial health of the orchestra as recently as 2010, and then (according to their own minutes from their board meetings) they deliberately exacerbated deficits in order to gain additional concessions during contract negotiations. They have refused to allow any financial analysis that assesses how the finances might look if the orchestra adopted successful strategies pioneered by the Cleveland Orchestra (which is attracting record audiences and is balancing its books despite paying more its musicians than Minnesota ever has paid), and the board and management have refused to give the musicians the full financial information requested.

    Throughout all of this, patrons, small and medium size donors, and musicians have been given no voice on the future of the orchestra. The musicians were told that the only part of the new contract that could be negotiated is how the musicians absorb the salary reductions (ie reduction in base pay, vs. reduction in benefits, vs. reduction in seniority pay, etc.). Patrons and small and medium size donors who disagree with the orchestra’s approach are dismissed, dropped from the orchestra’s communications, and barred from their meetings. The board and management have made it clear that the only people who matter are a handful of very wealthy big donors.

    Had the orchestra management and board treated their musicians, patrons, and small and medium size donors as important stakeholders whose input was valued and respected, none of this would have occurred. This entire situation has been truly an unnecessary tragedy caused by a handful of misguided individuals and the terrible mismanagement that they empowered.

  3. Submitted by Bill Slobotski on 09/18/2013 - 01:00 pm.

    The 200 work rule changes

    What are they? A list would surely quiet those who believe the musicians are acting out of greed. Yes, let’s see all 200 so we can get a glimpse into the soul of the orchestra’s board.

    • Submitted by Sarah Nagle on 09/18/2013 - 02:25 pm.

      Agree totally!

      Most of the “reporting” has focused on musician salaries. Michael Anthony has also focused on “artistic excellence” which we all want. But the 200+ proposed work changes – which are humiliating and unnecessary – never get any publicity.

      Please, spell them out!!

  4. Submitted by Michael Wunsch on 09/18/2013 - 01:39 pm.

    Work rule changes

    One of the most startling work-rule changes is that that final hiring authority for musicians will be given to the CEO. Final hiring authority currently resides with the music director (currently, Osmo Vanska), as it must if the music director is to be empowered to assemble a team that is compatible with his vision for the ensemble.

    Several other work rule changes were examined by arts consultant Drew McManus on his blog, Adaptistration:
    Sept. 12, 2013:
    October 22, 2012:
    November 12, 2012:

    • Submitted by Sarah Nagle on 09/18/2013 - 02:32 pm.

      It’s not about the money

      It’s all about control.

    • Submitted by jim hughes on 09/18/2013 - 04:05 pm.


      The CEO choosing the players – that’s almost unbeleiveable. I guess it’s obvious by now that this orchestra – and a large sum of money that was contributed to support it – have simply fallen into the wrong hands.

  5. Submitted by Arthur Horowitz on 09/18/2013 - 04:28 pm.


    Over the past several years the MN Orchestra board presided over the orchestra’s endowments’ horrific losses which apparently have not been restored as the economy has recovered unlike what I have been told is the situation at many other major orchestras and non-profits. But it was on this board’s tenure that a $50 million attempt to create Disney Hall in Minneapolis was undertaken instead of what should have been a $10 million hall renovation–namely extra toilets, new carpets, upholstery and repaired coat lockers. And the musicians are now expected to pay for these errors? But we have ignored the professional board management, namely Mr. Woodcock and now Mr. Henson. It appears that crisis management (or mis-management?) at the Bournemouth Symphony in the U.K. is now a pre-requisite to becoming the administrative president of the Minnesota Orchestra. Rather than ill conceived crisis management ideas, why not make attempts to restore audience attendance? Its indeed nice to take the Orchestra on tour to Europe, Japan or New York and this should continue. But Mr. Henson, have you ever heard of Rochester, MN or the Quad Cities in Iowa, or St. Paul? There could be a series of at least 18 sold out concerts annually. (LaCrosse?-well I don’t know about that one.) And these local gigs would make money, not cost money like overseas trips. Maybe we should hire an administrator next time who is familiar with the local scene rather than that in Ulster or Bournemouth. On the other hand, the sophisticated sound of a British accent is so often irresistible to us midwestern colonials.

    • Submitted by Sarah Nagle on 09/19/2013 - 12:55 pm.

      Minnesota Beethoven Festival

      It’s near LaCrosse, and the MN O used to play there, so you might be surprised at how popular it would be in LaCrosse . . . besides, if marketed well (which appears to be an issue) they could draw from central Wisconsin.

      • Submitted by Arthur Horowitz on 09/20/2013 - 11:12 am.

        Just kidding-Go Vikes

        I guess I couldn’t resist a dig at Wisconsin owing to my Viking loyalties. LaCrosse is would of course be a great venue for a MO concert series, easily reached with guaranteed full houses. But I’m not sure if LaCrosse is known to folks from Bournemouth, though I feel certain the opposite is true!

  6. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 09/18/2013 - 05:26 pm.

    This column is unnecessarily slanted.

    Hey folks, please remember that the Board and it’s management are trying to attain a sustainable organization that doesn’t dig a $6 million hole every season. That means cutting costs – sorry!

    • Submitted by Carol Logie on 09/18/2013 - 10:35 pm.

      then why take on a $500 million renovation….

      that seats 365 less people than before? Why drive your biggest names out of the orchestra altogether? Orchestra management obviously sees itself as leading an entertainment venue, not sustaining an internationally recognized orchestra. The idea that one musician is just as good as another tells you all you need to know about the motivation here.

      And while we’re at it, what about the public stake in the orchestra? The bonding bill poured 17 million state dollars into the renovation, and MO management sold it as a fitting home for a world-class orchestra. If, as some have speculated, the idea all along was to dumb down to orchestra-lite and just bring in road shows, then that’s some serious bait and switch.

      You want to cut costs? How about starting with the 400K salary being paid to a CEO who aspires to failure and mediocrity?

    • Submitted by Sarah Nagle on 09/19/2013 - 01:00 pm.

      The $6 million is an estimate

      By the MN Orchestra, which cuts its numbers to fit its narrative. Why did they not come clean about the financial situation, instead of hiring a PR firm to tell them when would be the best time to announce a financial downturn in order to 1) get state money and 2) immediately call “the sky is falling! Must cut musician salaries!!”. Why did they not get their audience involved??

      But we had all of those “financial experts” in charge, who lost a huge amount in endowment investments and created this mess. So I guess we had better listen to them again – just like with the banksters and the national economy.

  7. Submitted by Mark Carter on 09/18/2013 - 05:32 pm.

    Minnesota Orchestra

    We need to keep the temperature, down now negotiations are restarted. If things do fall apart, will have to support the musicians in their new season.

    • Submitted by Amy Adams on 09/21/2013 - 04:14 pm.

      Supporting the musicians will never be an issue.

      And it’s not wrong to continue point fingers at the perpetrators…at least until they End The Lockout.

  8. Submitted by John Smith on 09/18/2013 - 06:47 pm.

    Why criticize other orchestras?

    “Does any musically literate person think the San Francisco Symphony is the artistic equal of the orchestra here under Vänskä?” The Recording Academy chose the San Francisco Symphony over the Minnesota Orchestra for last year’s Grammy, so I think that answers your question. On what objective criteria (budget, average salary, Grammy awards, touring, etc.) would Minnesota come out ahead? I’m very sorry about what’s happening to the Minnesota Orchestra, but I don’t see how uninformed criticism of other orchestras helps their cause.

  9. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 09/18/2013 - 08:29 pm.

    why not state the obvious?

    It’s plain old fashioned union busting. Management doesn’t care what damage it does as long as it ends up in control. Some people would rather rule the rubble than live in the building … no matter how expensive the renovation.

  10. Submitted by Ross Reishus on 09/18/2013 - 11:00 pm.

    CEOs have little man syndrome

    The board memebers sound like U.S. House Speaker John Bohner. All for us, and none for you. Gee this sounds familiar. Oh yes, it was Governor Pawlenty for me, and none for you. Same attitude. Workers should be abused, and CEOs should be showered with gold, even if they destroy the business, or organization in the process.

  11. Submitted by George Carlson on 09/19/2013 - 12:10 pm.

    Has casting the Board as villains contributed to the stalemate?

    The article states:

    “One should grant the sincerity of Henson’s and Davis’ and current board chairman Jon Campbell’s efforts to manage the orchestra’s finances and solve its problems, among them the mounting deficits … .”

    And it further states:

    “To acknowledge their efforts isn’t to excuse the manner in which they have presented themselves and their dealings with the musicians in public. To an observable degree, they have become the villains of this 12-month scenario. The musicians, of course, have contributed to this, wasting no opportunity to denounce the management and the board at their self-managed concerts and creating in short order what is probably the liveliest and most informative musicians’ website in cyber history.”

    As noted above, the musicians have won the public relations battle. This is, in part, due to both the musicians on-going attack and the Board’s passive and somewhat inept public relations. But we should ask ourselves, does the public’s taking sides feed the musicians’ apparent strategy of avoiding negotiation? Does it contribute to the hard feelings and determination to dig in exhibited by both sides? I think it does, and I think that a settlement might be more likely if we step back and let the Board and musicians do their thing.

    • Submitted by Sarah Nagle on 09/19/2013 - 01:03 pm.

      You do know . . .

      That both the mediator – chosen by the Board – and the musicians agreed to a tough proposal in mediation, one which would have “hurt” both parties. The Board refused it and instead broke the agreement and started publicizing it, whining about how they were ready to meet “without preconditions”. Very few people bought it.

      As for the Board’s PR – it’s been ongoing and expensive. For years.

  12. Submitted by Amy Adams on 09/19/2013 - 02:18 pm.

    “Passive?” Yes. “Somewhat inept?” Also yes.

    Really? “…the musicians’ ongoing attack” is jaw-droppingly out of line.

    The board and management are NOT locked out. They have stopped the musicians’ salaries, health benefits and concert season. To then claim that these locked-out musicians are attacking and vilifying the Board is just one of the many out-of-touch-with-reality statements that outrages their supporters.

    MOA board, if you’re tired of being vilified…stop doing the wrong thing. Simple.

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