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Osmo Vänskä’s return seems inevitable if the Minnesota Orchestra is to recover

The board faces immense public and political pressure from the likes of DFL Rep. Alice Hausman and the grass-roots groups that backed the musicians.

Prior to the lockout, the board understood how important Osmo Vänskä was to its mission.
Photo by Greg Helgeson

The long lockout may be over, but the Minnesota Orchestral Association board of directors still is under tremendous pressure.

Given the realities of public and political pressures, it appears certain that Osmo Vänskä must be asked to return as music director if the Minnesota Orchestra’s process of healing is to move forward.

That, however, cannot be an easy task for the board or current management.

It was Vänskä, after all, who put so much pressure on the board to resolve the lockout. Rather than remaining neutral in the dispute, Vänskä, by his actions, became the symbol of choosing artistic excellence over bottom-line business calculations. On Oct. 1, he followed through on his threat to resign from his million-dollar post. 

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No other event during the dispute created so much attention in the media or from the various classical-music fan organizations that were created during the lockout than the departure of the 60-year-old Finn.

Vänskä became a symbol of artistic ‘loss’

He came to represent all that was being lost in the dispute.

Given Vänskä’s international stature, comments by Michael Henson, the MOA’s chief executive, and by board leaders Jon Campbell and Richard Davis seemed shallow and cold.

In a Minnesota Public Radio interview, for instance, when Vänskä was in the process of leaving, Henson made statements that became a public relations nightmare for the MOA.

“Ultimately, if Osmo decides to go, it is his decision,” Henson said in the interview. “We want him to stay through the end of his contract (2015). … We have had many distinguished conductors in the past.”

Henson’s point, of course, was that conductors come and go — which is true. But under Vänskä, the orchestra had achieved an international stature that it never before had enjoyed.

Even Minnesotans who wouldn’t walk across Nicollet Avenue to see the orchestra perform had been able to take pride in the prestige the assembly brought to its home state. 

Prior to the lockout, the board understood how important Vänskä was to its mission. 

Hausman: Vänskä sold Hall makeover

Rep. Alice Hausman, a DFLer from St. Paul, recalled Vänskä’s role in winning state bonding money for the rehab of Orchestra Hall.

“When our House committee visited Orchestra Hall for the bonding pitch,” Hausman said, “it was Osmo Vänskä on the stage making the pitch. I think he was alone on that stage. We never would have done this for a board of directors, but we built it for the musicians and the director.”

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Hausman is among those who believe that the board must ask Vänskä to return, noting that the music director seems to have made it clear that all the board must do is ask.

“We will look just as foolish as we did during the lockout if we don’t ask him back,” Hausman said.

It was Vänskä who set the stage for a return when a Finnish newspaper reported that he had posted on Facebook“I’m going to try! But they have to ask me!”

On so many levels, that would seem like such a simple thing for the board to do: Call up the maestro and say, “Please come back.”

Most musicians have made it clear they would see that as a very positive step in putting the pieces back together. The musicians believe that it was Vänskä’s vision and discipline that moved the orchestra to an elite level.

Orchestra fans — those who joined such organizations as Orchestrate Excellence and Save Our Symphony — also have been clear: A return of Vänskä is a necessary step to begin the healing. 

Those “fans” are vital to the future of the orchestra. They may not be the big hitters in terms of donations, but they understand and love the music and they buy the tickets.

Kelley cites ‘energy’  of musician supporters

Additionally, as Doug Kelley, who ended up as one of the key negotiators for the MOA, noted, they created “energy” during the lockout. These were the people filling various concert halls to hear the locked-out musicians perform.

On the evening that the board and musicians voted to ratify the new contract, Kelley acknowledged that the “energy” of those followers is needed at Orchestra Hall.

“It seems to me that returning him to the podium would be a PR win-win for the MOA,” wrote Nils Halker, secretary of Save Our Symphony, Minnesota, in an e-mail.

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 “It would hugely benefit musical rebuilding/restoration and I suspect would also really help in rebuilding/restoring trust of donors,” he wrote.” Getting Osmo back would send a message to the community that the MOA is truly committed to continuing a world-class orchestra. I’m not under any illusion that getting Osmo back would solve everything but without him I think the challenges of rebuilding the orchestra will be much greater.”

On one hand, people such as Hausman and Halker — and presumably many, many more — are surprised that the MOA hasn’t already reached out to Vänskä.

But Hausman has been told in conversations with board members and those associated with board members that this is not as easy as picking up the phone. There is a sense among at least some board members that Vänskä “burned his bridges” with his passionate resignation.

Although Vänskä never point-blank said the actions of the board were wrong-headed, it was clear that he stood with the art, not the bottom line. At a “farewell” concert following his resignation, Vänskä asked the crowd to not applaud in a closing encore piece.

“I ask you to hold your applause after this encore. I have to say that the situation here is terrible, and the orchestra is in so terrible and … and … like almost hopeless situation right now, and that situation doesn’t need any applause.”

These were bruising words to a board that had hired Vänskä to a rich contract.

Henson’s fate, role uncertain

Additionally, there is the complex situation with Vänskä and Henson. It’s almost impossible to imagine that the two could work together again.

For that matter, it’s difficult to imagine how Henson, with or without Vänskä, can be part of a healing scenario among musicians, the board and the community.

Yet, the board seems to face a dilemma: Can it reasonably fire the guy whose strategy it embraced and then rehire the person who, through his actions, said the strategy was folly?

Perhaps, recent weeks have created enough new leadership on the board that Vänskä can be called back and Henson either pushed out or at least pushed into a corner, far from public eye.

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But so far, Kelley — who for the moment is the face and voice of the board — is trying to juggle both. Henson, Kelley has said, will remain as CEO. The Vänskä situation will be dealt with another day, he said.

The board, though, is expected to elect a new board chairman — replacing Campbell — soon. Presumably, that move will set off a series of moves, including a phone call to Vänskä.

Save Our Symphony’s Halker doesn’t think the board has any option.

“The alternative, starting a search for a new music director, would be incredibly hard,” he said. “The entire musical world has been watching us and I imagine that most potential candidates would be very hesitant to step in right now.”