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With Henson’s departure, Minnesota Orchestra faces many questions beyond Vänskä’s fate

Among them: Will the public rally around? Can the orchestra rediscover the chemistry that made it elite? Can it attract new audiences?

Minnesota Orchestra CEO Michael Henson testified before a legislative panel in January 2013, during the year-plus lockout of musicians.
File photo by John Whiting

With some pats on the back rather than a push out the door, Michael Henson is gone as the chief executive officer of the Minnesota Orchestral Association.

Henson won’t officially “step down” from his position until Aug. 31, and he will be available to consult for the board “as needed” for a period of time after that. But it’s assumed by most that Henson’s days as a decision-maker are over now.

With Henson gone, two big questions remain: Will Osmo Vänskä be asked to return as artistic director/conductor? Would he accept if asked?

Many questions ahead

But there are scores of other questions, too:

  • Will more musicians leave the orchestra?
  • Will the public rally around whatever constitutes the new orchestra?
  • Can the orchestra rediscover the chemistry that had made the Minnesota Orchestra elite?
  • Can new management find a way to bring new audiences into Orchestra Hall?

The first step toward any chance at healing wounds from the lockout, the departure of Henson, now has been taken.

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The announcement of Henson’s came in carefully written statements that still don’t get at the truth of who made the decision to use the lockout strategy that began Oct. 1, 2012, and ended on Jan. 18 of this year.

For the duration of the lockout, the board comfortably stood far, far behind Henson; Jon Campbell, who was board chairman throughout the lockout; and negotiating committee chairman Richard Davis. (With the end of the lockout, Campbell and Davis, both bank executives, stepped off the board.)

In his statement, the MOA’s new board chairman, Gordon Sprenger, did seem to say that the board had a hand in a negotiating strategy that, for better or worse, has created fundamental changes in the future of the organization.

“Michael has always supported the Orchestra’s artistic mission and when the board asked him to address the serious financial challenges of the organization, he faced the issues directly, re-organizing administrative staff and helping deliver a musicians’ contract that was difficult but necessary.”

Sprenger called Henson an “agent of change.” But then, so is TNT.

Still, Henson goes out in classic 21st-century CEO style, meaning he gets everything but a parade down the Nicollet Mall, rather than being fired.

The MOA listed all of his accomplishments since arriving in the Twin Cities in 2007: He raised a lot of money, he was part of the team that led the orchestra to new heights, and he was instrumental in the renovation of Orchestra Hall.

Henson’s ‘soft landing’

That he sticks around until Aug. 31 means he’ll continue to get paid his salary (around $400,000) as he seeks new employment. That he’ll be available to “consult” after Aug. 31, presumably means he’ll continue to be paid in what amounts to a severance package.

Such a soft landing will be acceptable to orchestra fans and musicians as long as the return of Vänskä is the next step, according to Mariellen Jacobson, treasurer of Save Our Symphony Minnesota, an organization of music lovers.

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“If Osmo comes back,” Jacobson wrote in an email, “I believe the public will not be looking for more flesh out of the board. If, for whatever reason, he does not come back, I can imagine that a lot of people will hold back from contributing and buying tickets.”

Most assume that Vanska’s future with the orchestra will be known soon. He is scheduled to come back as a “guest conductor” next weekend for a Sibelius concert. What better time to announce his full-time return?

The musicians continue to walk around all of this very carefully. The statement they issued, through their spokesman, Blois Olson, did not touch on their raw emotions.

“In light of today’s announcement,” they said in a statement, “we look forward to working with our board and future management to move the Minnesota Orchestra forward in a positive direction.”

Lee Henderson, a Twin Cities attorney and music lover who wrote about the need for structural change in the MOA during the lockout, is particularly objective about what lies ahead for the orchestra, even if Vänskä should return.

Ending the lockout was obviously the first key step.

“Mr. Henson’s departure was a necessary next step,” Henderson wrote in an email. “Re-engaging Mr. Vänskä is the next step required to stop the bleeding.”

But Henderson said, even assuming a Vänskä return, the challenges ahead are huge.

“There still remain many administrative and governance challenges for the organization that need to be addressed so it can harness that passion for the orchestra the lockout created in the community,” Henderson wrote regarding Henson’s departure.

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Understand, the rebuilding process must include the administration as well as the orchestra and the fan base. The lockout didn’t just create holes in the orchestra, but in the administrative infrastructure as well.

In his departure statement, Henson promised he’d pitch in during the rebuilding process.

“It has always been my aim to do what is right for the organization, however great the challenges and I’m proud of our accomplishments,” he said in his statement. “The right thing now is for me to work to ensure continuity during this transition to the next phase in in the life of the Minnesota Orchestra, which I’m sure will be bright.”

Best guess is that Henson won’t be called on to “ensure continuity.”