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

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

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.

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.

“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.

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.”

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Curt Carlson on 03/21/2014 - 11:35 am.

    Henson’s accomplishments

    If the non-descript, poorly finished renovated lobby is one of Henson’s great accomplishments, his departure is certainly long overdue.

    • Submitted by Arthur Horowitz on 03/21/2014 - 02:05 pm.

      The lobby—come on now, its not that bad

      It just looks like a bank lobby without tellers’ windows, but its roomy and there are more rest rooms. Now if they would only fix the coat lockers! In excess of a $50 million renovation and the number of broken lockers is inexorably increasing to the point where it will no doubt match the number of non functioning lockers present when the hall was closed for renovation. Since the so many on the board rarely attended the concerts, especially in the winter, they quite possibly didn’t realize the locker problem so they can be excused for their oversight.

  2. Submitted by jody rooney on 03/21/2014 - 12:02 pm.

    While this isn’t the private sector

    the organization has apparently been governed by private sector individuals and this is an excellent example of the “efficiency” of the private sector. Mismanage your organization to the point of near annihilation – get a generous buy off. That is a lot more costly than anything that happens with poor performers in the public sector.

    At least the sector I worked in where an executive in another part of the country screwed up and they were working in Alaska with a whole lot less responsibility in three days and invited to retire in 30 days.

    It sort of makes you wonder how bad business decisions are these days.

  3. Submitted by Arthur Horowitz on 03/21/2014 - 01:54 pm.

    Bye Bye Mr. Henson

    Although you were the agent of the board, you must now share the fate of the other two “Poster Boys” of the lockout, Mr. Davis and Mr. Campbell, and leave. Its not as if the majority of the orchestra board wasn’t in lock step behind you three, but they can now hide behind you and profess their innocence. Hopefully, next Friday evening, we will hear a dramatic announcement from the stage of Orchestra Hall detailing Mr. Vanska’s re engagement as music director and chief conductor. Its too late to get Burt Hara back, but maybe we’ll see the return of many of our fine musicians who are on leave. Hopefully this may mark a new beginning and a rebirth for the orchestra, but there is still a lot of hurt about this in the music loving community.

  4. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 03/21/2014 - 03:29 pm.

    Henson wasn’t the problem.

    The question remains, unanswered: Will this orchestra attract sufficient audience financial support to pay its expenses or will it become a publicly supported entity?

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/25/2014 - 07:42 pm.

      You mean like the Vikings ?

      No, I doubt either of your options will come to pass.

      The first: pay its expenses – no, because it has lost so much good will in the self-immolating lockout.

      The second: a publicly supported entity – no, because while public money flows to a business where people knock themselves silly (literally) in a violent sport, and our public officials tremble at cutting the Vikings off from the public trough, orchestral music is simply not violent enough to get the attention of those same public officials. A little blood-letting or some significant brain injuries would no doubt get the juices, and public support, flowing. A little baksheesh in the right places, aka corruption, doesn’t hurt one bit, either.

      This community has plenty more resources than necessary, and can EASILY support this orchestra. It simply doesn’t want to, in the final analysis, in the orchestra’s current form and profile. Make its Board a more responsive and responsible body, and this could change, though.

  5. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 03/21/2014 - 03:53 pm.

    As a member of SOSMn discovered in researching the history

    of the orchestra, the precursor of the Minnesota Orchestra Association was open to anyone who paid a certain fee ($10, or perhaps $100-200 in today’s money), and the membership elected the board.

    Gradually, requirements for being on the board became more and more restrictive, until it evolved in to the self-perpetuating, closed circle that it is today.

    Maybe the board needs to rediscover its roots and become an elected body so that it has to answer to the audiences instead of being susceptible to misguided groupthink, as during the lockout.

    • Submitted by Gina Hunter on 03/22/2014 - 10:50 am.

      Governance Reform at MOA

      I was the one who did the research on the MOA’s governance history and published my findings at my blog Eyes on Life. Anyone could be a member of the Association for $100 per year. Out of that membership group, the Board members were elected. Out of the Board members, the officers were elected, except for the President and CEO, who is a salaried employee of the Association hired by the Board. Beginning in the late 1970’s, the Board began to restrict membership until in 1990 they eliminated it altogether.

      I agree with you, Karen. The MOA Board needs to rediscover its roots, its accountability to the community and its other stakeholders, and reinstate the membership governance structure.


  6. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 03/21/2014 - 05:29 pm.


    Ever gone to one of those sing along concerts of Handel’s Messiah that skipped one or two or more of your faviorite choruses?

    Today I wouldn’t mind going to one at Orchestra Hall that nixed everything but the Hallelujah Chorus.

  7. Submitted by David Markle on 03/21/2014 - 06:41 pm.


    If Henson has left the Association in good financial status, as the new Chair has stated to the press, then surely that change has been largely a result of avoiding expenses (locking out the musicians for 14 months and avoiding rent for the Convention Center) while continuing to raise funds. In other words, the benefit was apparently subtracted from the ears of the audience and the pockets of the musicians.

    It seems to me that the financial future would be much brighter if the Board had simply placed most of the more than $100-million they raised into the endowment instead of spending half on the building and half on ??. Such an amount invested in gilt-edged stocks (utilities or railroads, for example, not to say banks!) should bring at least a 3% to 5% annual return, and would have done much to solve the ongoing deficit problem.

  8. Submitted by Renee McGivern on 03/22/2014 - 12:40 pm.

    Board members should leave

    As board members’ terms come up, they should have the class to leave and make room for others who can help make a fresh start. They chose over and over not to perform their duty of care for the orchestra. They ruined a world-class orchestra and diminished the community.

    Get off the board and take your justifications and weird approach to people and life with you. And please god, do not replace outgoing board members with your look-alikes. Call up MAP and get some advice about how to attract normal people with high EQs.

    • Submitted by Catherine Benson on 03/24/2014 - 03:05 pm.

      Funny, I have been thinking that the professionals at MAP could help — beginning with Board Boot Camp to get board members on the same page about governance and their fiduciary duties to the organization. MAP could provide guidance on identifying and recruiting members from across the community and provide training on what it takes to be a good board member and a good civic steward.

  9. Submitted by Bernt von Ohlen on 03/24/2014 - 01:50 pm.

    Henson’s departure

    I want to thank you for your continuing coverage of the situation at the Minnesota Orchestra. Your latest article summarizes a number some of the continuing challenges that the Orchestra faces. The decision to allow Henson to remain until the end of August reflects the incumbent board’s continued reluctance or unwillingness to address the real issues. If Maestro Vänskä were to return as music director, that would be a significant step in the right direction and would, I believe, galvanize public support.

    I am puzzled by your decision to quote Lee Henderson. Does Mr. Henderson in fact offer any particularly good insights about the current situation? I encourage you, either directly or through the sources whom you quote, to focus on actions that the community can take to continue the important work of saving the Minnesota Orchestra. Stating that there remain administrative and governance challenges is merely stating the obvious: it was the failure to take on those challenges that created the problems that persist at the Minnesota Orchestra.

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