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Remembering orchestra advocate Lee Henderson

Henderson, a key behind-the-scenes community player in resolving the Minnesota Orchestra’s labor issues, died suddenly Thursday morning.

Even after the lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra ended, various community groups decided to continue to meet, with the hope of expanding the orchestra’s audience and economic base.

Lee Henderson
Hessian & McKasy
Lee Henderson

Participants at those meetings always introduce themselves the same way: “I’m Mariellen Jacobson with Save Our Symphony Minnesota…” and so forth, as they go around the table.

When it would be Lee Henderson’s turn at such meetings, he would invariably introduce himself as “Lee Henderson. Just a guy.” 

Nothing could have been further from the truth. Henderson, who was one of those key behind-the-scenes community players involved in resolving the Minnesota Orchestra labor issues, died suddenly Thursday morning following a short run. He was 59 years old and, along with his wife, Polly, was preparing to travel with the orchestra on its upcoming trip to Cuba.

“Lee was very much a free thinker in orchestra matters and also very much in the forefront,’’ wrote SOSM’s Jon Eisenberg, in an e-mail. “He was not affiliated with Save Our Symphony Minnesota or, to my knowledge, with any other orchestra groups.  He worked quite independently, but still was influential. He made an amazing amount of difference in helping to save and restore the orchestra.” 

“Lee Henderson was a great music lover and an outstanding voice in support of the Minnesota Orchestra who was willing to extend himself in so many ways on behalf of the Orchestra,” said the orchestra President and CEO Kevin Smith. He and his wife Polly were actively engaged in a life of music and they were enthusiastically planning to travel with the Orchestra as cultural advocates on our upcoming Cuba tour. We are so profoundly sorry to hear of his untimely passing and, on behalf of the entire Orchestra family, we offer our heartfelt condolences to his family.” 

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During the 16-month lockout, Henderson wrote provocative analysis pieces that frequently were published by the Star Tribune. While acknowledging the difficult economics of symphony orchestras, he called for a new sort of “governance,” which would be based on “collaboration not confrontation.’’ (Ultimately, it appears that the Minnesota Orchestra has moved in that direction, as Kevin Smith has replaced Michael Henson as the Orchestra’s CEO, and the board of directors leadership also has dramatically changed.)

Henderson, a partner with the Hessian & McKasy law firm, carefully studied the Orchestra Hall lease the Minnesota Orchestral Association has with the city of Minneapolis, and called for the mayor and city council to actively pursue taking the Hall away from the Association. He also called on the state’s attorney general to become active in the dispute.

These pieces didn’t necessarily endear him to some of the board leadership, but many believe it was Henderson’s ideas that helped create the attitudinal changes with management that were necessary to reach a settlement.

But what has made the resolution of this labor dispute unique is that the individuals and groups that became so involved during the lockout have stayed involved, even now that the orchestra is back and playing. Henderson had been among the leaders in that post-settlement participation, working with the Orchestral Association administration and such groups as SOSM to expand the orchestra’s base. He spear-headed a community fund-raising drive that brought in nearly $300,000, thanks to contributions that were sometimes as small as $10.

Henderson was motivated by two things in his efforts surrounding the orchestra’s woes:  His belief that the Twin Cities can support a world-class symphony orchestra — and his own love of music.  During the lockout, Henderson and his wife Polly made frequent trips to Chicago, as well as other cities, to feed their classical music appetite.

It was music that brought the Hendersons together. Polly was first-chair flute in the Madison, WI, West High band. He was first-chair clarinet.

Besides Polly, Lee Henderson is survived by three adult daughters and two grandchildren. He’s also survived by people who appreciate his role in bringing back the music to Orchestra Hall. “We are being flooded by calls from musicians,” Polly Henderson said. “You can feel their love.” 

Services are to be held Thursday, May 7, at 10 a.m. at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, 4100 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis.