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How the Minnesota Orchestra got its mojo back

MinnPost photo by John Whiting
The rehiring of Osmo Vänskä as music director was crucial to keeping the reputation of the orchestra at a high level.

If the story of the Minnesota Orchestra were a symphony, we would have to start with a wildly discordant movement punctuated with crashing symbols (furioso) and move to one filled with sweetness and harmony (dulce). 

All with the twitch of a conductor’s baton.

Doug Wright
Courtesy of the Minnesota Orchestra
Doug Wright

“Think where we were a year ago,’’ said Doug Wright, principal trombonist of the Orchestra as well as a key member of the musician’s negotiating committee. “Osmo was out; we’d been locked out for a year; nobody was speaking to each other. It looked hopeless. Now we have the vast majority of the orchestra back, Osmo’s back, the audience is excited, there have been leadership changes. Everything is different.’’ 

Yet what might be the most surprising thing isn’t just that so much has changed in the 10 months since the end of the lockout of the orchestra’s musicians by the Minnesota Orchestral Association, the group’s governing body. Rather, it’s that the change happened so rapidly — after so much rancor.

Hiring Smith was key

Not that everyone can forget. Management and musicians agree that there are a handful of MOA board members and musicians who remain angry over all that transpired between Oct. 1, 2012, when the lockout began, and Feb. 1, 2014, when a new contract was signed by musicians. 

Mostly, though, there seems to be a sense of goodwill among most of the parties that even is approaching — gasp — trust. “There has been a far faster turnaround than I would ever have expected,’’ said Jon Eisenberg, a leader of Save Our Symphony Minnesota, one of a number of groups that grew up around the lockout. 

All parties agree that the key to moving so quickly from so much ill will to so much teamwork was the decision to hire Kevin Smith to replace Michael Henson as the Orchestral Association’s president. Much to the delight of all stakeholders, the word “interim” was dropped from Smith’s title last week. 

CEO Kevin Smith
Courtesy of the Minnesota Orchestra
CEO Kevin Smith

The style differences of Henson and Smith couldn’t be more pronounced. Henson tended to be closed; Smith is open. Henson came across as arrogant to both musicians and the fan base; Smith is willing to have a sincere session with anybody who knocks, calls or stops him on the street.  

Of course, there have been other key changes as well. The rehiring of Osmo Vänskä as music director was crucial to keeping the reputation of the orchestra at a high level. The change at the top of the board, from Jon Campbell, who supported Henson’s hard-nosed plan, to Gordon Sprenger, who is open to input from all parties, healed many wounds. The return of most of the key musicians, the continued commitment of the fan base, the willingness of the musicians and board members to not dwell on the past, the fact that the orchestra performed concerts throughout the lockout all are important elements in the turnaround. 

Financial issues remain

There remain economic issues to be dealt with, however. It is expected that the orchestra will be in deficit in the coming year. But the problems seem solvable, especially given that all parties are attempting to work on these problems now, in the early stages of the three-year contract that was agreed to on a cold February night.

Musicians believe that their voices are being heard on the artistic committee. And there is a new, 10-member liaison committee made up of five musicians and five board members that take on all sorts of issues. Indeed, there’s so much goodwill that there even are suggestions that work should begin soon on a next contract, though the current contract has more than two years to run. 

Lockout concerts kept the musicians together

It may be legitimate to wonder whether the orchestra could have arrived at this place without going through the pain of the lockout. It may be legitimate to wonder if feelings toward Sprenger and Smith would have been so warm if they had not been preceded by Campbell and Henson.

Tony Ross
Courtesy of the Minnesota Orchestra
Tony Ross

Even before the lockout, the ill will was such between musicians and Henson that nobody wants to talk about it now. “We don’t want to play old tape,’’ is how principal cellist and negotiator Tony Ross puts it. 

But it was what happened during the lockout that helped set the stage for what seems to be happening now. And one of the most important things that happened during that period was that the musicians kept performing concerts. The concerts became love fests between the classical music audience and the musicians. 

“How much the community loves this orchestra was the big take-away from those concerts,’’ said clarinetist and negotiator Tim Zavadil. 

Ross agrees. The concerts — and the audience response to those events — almost all of which were sold out, were inspiring to the musicians.

But they also required musicians to do a lot of heavy lifting. “The concerts kept us together,’’ Ross said. “I don’t think anybody anticipated how we handled them and the way the community responded. But those concerts also made me respect the job of our staff. We need those professional staff people. We can run those concerts by ourselves, but on the other hand, I don’t want to die at 56.”

Add up the benefits of those concerts during the lockout: The musicians kept the music alive, the music kept most of the players together, the orchestra members saw how much their performances meant to so many. That good feeling lingers.

Now, after concerts, musicians, who once seemed distant, mingle with the audience in the new and improved Orchestra Hall lobby. “We all better understand what a great jewel we have with this orchestra,’’ said Sprenger. “There are skeptics. But there’s also an understanding that it takes a total community to keep this jewel.’’

Old hands, new future

It is two old hands, Sprenger, who is 76 years old and the retired CEO of Allina Health Systems, and Smith, who is 63 and the retired president of the Minnesota Opera, who have the task of shaping the future. Neither was seeking the challenge, but neither is afraid of it, either.

Gordon Sprenger
Courtesy of the Minnesota Orchestra
Gordon Sprenger

Sprenger became board chair last January, replacing Campbell, who had shared Henson’s desire to balance the orchestra books by slicing musician salaries and benefits by more than 30 percent. 

“Why would I take this on at this point in my life?’’ Sprenger said. “I love this orchestra and I had a history of working with (health care) unions of highly skilled professionals who had great talent and definite opinions about how things should work. Besides, being retired, I had a lot of time for those breakfast meetings.’’

As Henson was being shown the door last spring, Sprenger was in contact with Smith, who had spent a quarter century building the Minnesota Opera. In the process of growing the opera, Smith knocked on thousands of doors throughout the metro.  

“Gordy called me and we talked about the situation,’’ Smith said. “He talked about an interim position. He made that part clear. This would be an interim position.’’

Sprenger laughed as Smith emphasized the word ‘interim.’  “Often you have an interim person come in to maintain a situation. Kevin’s not a maintainer sort of guy.’’

Will big donors stick around?

Save our Symphony Minnesota’s Eisenberg is elated with Smith’s enthusiasm, as well as his willingness to meet — and his willingness to listen.

“The people in our organization can’t sit down and write a check for a half million dollars,’’ Eisenberg said. “But we buy tickets, we can support in other ways, and we do love the music.’’

The love of the music has showed in numerous ways.  For example, one of the fears during the lockout was that patrons would get out of the habit of attending concerts. Instead, it appears that the buzz around the orchestra actually grew. Statistics compiled by the Minnesota Orchestra Association showed that 40 percent of the people who attended an opening September concert had either never been to a concert or hadn’t been to a concert in five years. 

This summer, there was a “grass roots’’ fundraising event called the CommUnity in Concert Challenge Grant, which was aimed at relatively small donors. In one month, those donors, many of whom had been members of the various organizations that began during the lockout, raised $174,000, which was on top of the $115,000 grant that was use to prime the drive.

Osmo Vänskä
Courtesy of the Minnesota Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä

What’s not yet totally clear is whether the big hitters will stick with the orchestra. It is important to remember that Henson’s take-it-or-leave-it offer to the musicians once had the support of the full board. And at least a handful of board members quit when Henson — and his strategy — was dumped.

Board members are the orchestra’s rainmakers. Presumably, disgruntled board members don’t make much rain. Yes, there have been major contributions coming into the orchestra coffers since the labor dispute was resolved. But Smith is honest about the situation. “We’ve had some (donor) losses,’’ he said in a recent interview, “but we’ve had gains, too. I think we have a number of corporations in a position of sitting back and waiting to see how we’re doing.’’

The key to everything, of course, is the music. At the point of the lockout, the Minnesota Orchestra was getting worldwide attention. People love supporting a winner. But if the status of the orchestra would fall, financial support likely would fall, too.

Remarkably, the orchestra came out of the lockout playing at a much higher level than many expected. In large part, the performance level is due to the chemistry of the musicians and their respect for Vänskä.

If anything, the relationship between Vänskä and the musicians is closer than it was prelockout.

“We’ve grown with Osmo throughout his tenure,’’ Ross said. “But I think the lockout concerts made his trust in us go beyond what it had ever been. He’s been a great partner since we started up again. The hardest thing to build is that two-way trust. We have that.’’

And after everything they’ve been through, the musicians say, there’s an obligation: to the music — and to each other. Or as Wright puts it: “Each member plays every note as if it was their last.”

Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 11/19/2014 - 09:52 am.

    I have…

    attended three performances of the Minnesota Orchestra and am glad they are back. I was getting tired of traveling to Des Moines and Kansas City for my doses of good classical music.

  2. Submitted by Emily E Hogstad on 11/19/2014 - 09:59 am.


    Thanks so much for this great summary of where things are at, Doug! MinnPost is invaluable for this sort of thing.

  3. Submitted by jody rooney on 11/19/2014 - 10:16 am.

    Gordon Sprenger sounds great

    after all he has to have breakfast somewhere.

    The question I have is who are all the phonies that were on the board for their own ego not to be of service to the community? Hopefully they will come to their senses and contribute so that they won’t be labeled hypocrites.

  4. Submitted by Stephanie Sarich on 11/19/2014 - 04:10 pm.

    MN Orchestra’s MOJO

    The stellar conductors who pitched in during the lockout, particularly Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, who conducted several times, famous soloists and talented substitute musicians have our utmost gratitude for helping to keep the great symphonic music going during that dark time.

  5. Submitted by Adam Twardowski on 11/19/2014 - 11:52 am.

    Completely agree. However…

    I couldn’t agree more with this article that the Minnesota Orchestra is playing brilliantly, enthusiasm among audience members is at an all-time high, and the organization is moving forward in an overwhelmingly positive direction. Although I don’t want to diminish this excitement and although the orchestra’s level of playing is stratospherically high, there is still a ways to go – musically, that is – before it reaches its pre-lockout level. I have gone to virtually every single concert last spring and since September and have noted a regular large contingent of substitutes whose composition changes on a weekly basis. Perhaps my ears are a bit more sensitive to this because of my own violin playing background, but the violin section in particular has had some lackluster moments. I have taken to counting out of tune and noticeable blemishes.

    My point is not to minimize in any way the joy anyone, including myself, feels about the orchestra. I am donating money as much as I can given my modest means. But there can’t be any complacency about artistic standards. Although I am obviously not privy to the audition/musician personnel process, I think the organization should be pushed to restore the diminished ranks more quickly.

  6. Submitted by Michael Hess on 11/19/2014 - 12:20 pm.

    Welcome back

    The musicians held together well during the lockout and through their performances and cohesion kept something special in place. With the return of Osmo they got a huge boost. Likewise, the elimination of the toxic 3 from the board/exec office, plus other less supportive board members has likely cleared the deck for the culture to continue to improve.

    • Submitted by John Smith on 11/19/2014 - 04:08 pm.

      This has to be a mistake

      I thought all the musicians were going to leave and easily get the six figure salaries for part time work? I thought no way was Osmo going to still be a free agent?

      Amazing what happens when face reality. Turns out there are a surplus of musicians.

      What there isn’t a surplus of is money, the orchestra still runs a deficit and as a result has to take from future generations.

      So unless the culture improving means $100k checks it doesn’t mean a thing. Remember board members have to give large amounts to charity to keep this thing afloat, so driving them away and calling them evil isn’t smart.

  7. Submitted by John Smith on 11/19/2014 - 04:00 pm.

    No you couldn’t Mr. Ross

    I doubt you could perform the level required of the back of the house functions to support an orchestra of this caliber. Once again throughout this tantrum the ego of the musicians seems to still be inflated at levels that are not realistic.

    The back of the house staff of the orchestra was just as big of part of the success as the musicians, the conductor and the board. Without all four we don’t have an orchestra.

    The union stunt that was pulled has left the back of the house staff in ruins and drove away a number of large donors on the corporate side.

    If any workers got the shaft during this mess it was the back office staff of the orchestra, but hey as long as the musicians didn’t have to feel any pain it was a win.

    I hope the musicians can figure out how to fund the drained endowment.

    And as usual we could only find old white men for all the positions playing old white guy music along with a calendar that has less pops and jazz. Typical Minnesota progressive solution.

  8. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 11/19/2014 - 06:48 pm.

    I would rather…..

    see public dollars going into the orchestra than to Roger and Zygi.

  9. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/20/2014 - 06:43 am.


    We need to know whether the issues which led to the lockout still exist, have been resolved, or never existed at all.

  10. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/20/2014 - 09:20 am.

    What happened

    It just seems to me that after the lockout, everyone sort of turned away from the issues it presented. Now everyone is saying everything is just peachy, and there is no reason to worry your pretty little heads about where the orchestra is going. Well is there, or isn’t there? The orchestra was locked out because, we were told, it was on an unsustainable financial path. Well was it? A deal was made, and the orchestra returned to work. Did the deal solve the problem? Or push the problem down the road? Or was there never a problem to begin with? During the lockout, lots of folks made lots of suggestions about how the orchestra could attain financial viability. Well what’s happening to those suggestions? Are they being implemented? Are other ideas being pursued? Or were they never necessary in the first place?

    During the lockout, there was lots of talk about a lack of transparency. Well where to transparency issues stand now? Is the orchestra coming clean with about the prospects for it’s financial future? Or has it simply returned to the bad old days, when such information just sort of disappeared, until we were in the midst of a full blown financial crisis?

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