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Minnesota Orchestra’s next challenge: Filling stage, staff departures from lockout

Some took leaves of absence; others resigned or retired; more than two dozen personnel have left musician and office/administration ranks.

The lockout brought huge personnel losses both among the musicians and the Minnesota Orchestral Association's management and administration teams. The musicians put out this "ghost" image during the lockout.
Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra

The 15-month lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra’s musicians has finally ended, and soon we’ll be able to hear our great orchestra play in its own newly spiffed-up home. But first, a sobering reminder of the human costs of a bitter dispute that started off worse than it needed to and lasted longer than it should have.

We’ve already reported on the number of musicians who resigned or took leaves of absence during the lockout: 15 in all, most recently Tim Zavadil, clarinet, who took a one-year position with the St. Louis Symphony while continuing to serve as a negotiator for the musicians. Gina DeBello, Yun-Ting Lee and Stephanie Arado resigned, as did Sarah Kwak, Vali Phillips, Matt Young and Mina Fisher. Peter McGuire, Thomas Turner, Ken Freed, Burt Hara, David Pharris, Robert Dorer and Michael Gast are all on leave; they may return or resign when their leaves end. While the new contract stipulates a full complement of 95 musicians, there are now 77, and seven are on leave, making 70 who will be performing regularly with the Minnesota Orchestra when concerts resume in February. (Several musicians resigned or retired shortly before the lockout began; their positions remain vacant.)

But the musicians weren’t the only ones who lost colleagues and friends. On May 9, 2012, shortly before ending the 2012 season and breaking ground for the $50 million renovation of Orchestra Hall, the Minnesota Orchestral Association eliminated nine full-time and seven part-time positions. During the 488 days of the lockout, 18 more members of the MOA’s management and administration either retired or resigned. They are:

  1. John Swanson, executive assistant to Michael Henson (retired; his position was filled by new hire Julie Stemmler)
  2. Julie Haight-Curran, orchestra personnel manager (retired)
  3. Leah Mohling, associate orchestra personnel manager (resigned)
  4. Lilly Schwartz, director of pops and special projects (resigned; now with SFJAZZ))
  5. Nate Boutang, rental and events manager (resigned; his position was filled by Scott Feldman, who holds the new title of event and facility sales manager)
  6. Heidi A. Droegemueller, director of development and individual giving (resigned; now vice president of development for Caringbridge)
  7. Laura Nichols-Endres, director of foundation and government relations (resigned; now with Minnesota Children’s Museum; her position was filled by Anna M. Gram, former manager of corporate relations)
  8. Clayton Smith, grants coordinator  (resigned; now with Minnesota Children’s Museum)
  9. Amy Braford Whittey, manager of corporate relations (resigned; now at HGA Architects)
  10. Britany Bleistein, manager of individual giving (resigned; now with Fort Worth Symphony in Texas)
  11. Jim Bartsch, director of educational activities (resigned; returned to teaching)
  12. Sarah Tengblad, special events coordinator (resigned; now with Auction Harmony)
  13. Timothy Eickholt, stage manager (retired)
  14. Terry Tilley, audio engineer (retired)
  15. Ronald J. Foster-Smith, marketing manager (resigned; now at Cal Performances, UC Berkeley)
  16. Julie Ann Gramke, marketing manager (resigned; now with UnitedHealth Group)
  17. Nicholas Kimpton, manager of database marketing and online communications (resigned; now with another nonprofit)
  18. Bethany Zenner, marketing coordinator (resigned)

Among these are several key positions: both orchestra personnel managers, the director of pops and special projects, the manager of corporate relations, the development director, the education director, the marketing manager, the director of online communications, the stage manager, the sound man.

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At an orchestra concert, an open position doesn’t mean an empty chair on stage. It’s filled by a substitute player. But who can step in for Julie Haight-Curran, the orchestra personnel manager who retired in December, after more than a year of no orchestra personnel to manage? The Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra played last weekend’s concerts at the Ted Mann in tribute to her. “Tonight, we’d like to honor a person whose importance to us cannot be overstated,” cellist Marcia Peck told the sold-out crowd. “She’s been with us since 1979 … Behind the scenes, we had a true artist, helping us and working her tail off to help us make each concert the best it can be. She knows us better than anyone. She can recite births, deaths, marriages. She knows every time our children were sent home from school, or whenever someone had to schedule a colonoscopy. I guess you could say she knows us inside and out … No one has served the orchestra with more heart.”

The grassroots organization Save Our Symphony Minnesota (SOSMN), which has worked tirelessly to end the lockout since its launch in late August of last year, expressed its concerns about the loss of key staff in a statement issued Thursday: “We are saddened and disturbed by the number of lives and careers that have been disrupted as a result of the lockout. The collateral damage goes well beyond the musicians … The loss of talented employees with their years of experience in key areas such as human resources, fundraising, operations and sound engineering has caused a large loss of ‘institutional memory.’ These departures will make it even harder to restart the music and rebuild the orchestral program. This seems to us to be one more aspect that MOA seriously underestimated when starting the disastrous lockout. 

“SOSMN believes that with the new agreement, new MOA leadership, and a renewed commitment to excellence and collaboration in all areas of operation that the community can support, the Minnesota Orchestral Association will become once again a destination orchestra and organization for musicians, non-musician staff, and the public.”

We’re told that with a contract in place, MOA can now begin hiring for additional positions. But the first priority, according to MOA spokesperson Gwen Pappas, is “to get concerts back onstage.”

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Orchestra no longer has a music director, and its prestigious Composer Institute lacks a director. Both Osmo Vänskä and Aaron Jay Kernis resigned on the same day.

There’s a lot of work to do, and fewer people on both sides to do it.

Update: We learned after publication that Rick Hansen, coordinator for non-classical concert and rental events, resigned last week for a position with Historic Theatre Group. His last day is today.