Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Minnesota Orchestra’s year-end results: Let’s not get hysterical

ALSO: “Beyond the Rainbow” streaming on demand; virtual book launch for “Hudson Bay Bound: Two Women, One Dog, Two Thousand Miles to the Arctic”; and more.

The Minnesota Orchestra in dress rehearsal on Jan. 29.
The Minnesota Orchestra in dress rehearsal on Jan. 29.
Photo by Courtney Perry

Last Friday, the Minnesota Orchestra announced the release of “Mahler’s Symphony No. 10,” the newest album in its ongoing Mahler series (seven and counting). Later that evening, 28,450 viewers tuned in for the orchestra’s latest livestreamed concert. More watched on TPT or listened to the MPR simulcast hosted by Melissa Ousley.

Friday’s concert, “Heart and Hope,” included Black British composer Philip Herbert’s “Elegy: In Memoriam – Stephen Lawrence,” an emotional tribute to a young Black man whose life was lost to racial violence. Since the killing of George Floyd last May sparked a national racial reckoning, the Minnesota Orchestra has brought music by Black composers into nearly every performance.

On Thursday morning, the orchestra released its operating results for the fiscal year ending Aug. 31, 2020. The big news: a deficit of $11.7 million, the largest in its history. Last year’s deficit was $8.8 million, another record-breaker. No one who follows the orchestra has forgotten that the record-breaker before that, for 2012, was $6 million, enough to help lead to a lockout that lasted 15 months.

The $11.7 million deficit occurred between September 2019 and August 2020, during which the orchestra played 89 live-and-in-person ticketed concerts. It has played no ticketed concerts since March 2020 (52 were canceled). Orchestra Hall has hosted no community or corporate rentals (19 were canceled). It has sold no concessions. The orchestra’s biggest annual fundraiser, the Symphony Ball, was canceled.

Article continues after advertisement

If the deficit grew by nearly $3 million when the orchestra was still doing business as usual, at least for part of the time, what will it look like for FY21, during which it might not play any live concerts at all?

We’ll have to wait and see. Meanwhile, let’s not get hysterical. Minnesota Orchestra’s management, the relationship between management and musicians, and relationship between the orchestra and the community are not what they were in 2012. Members of the rabble-rousing save-the-orchestra citizens’ groups that formed during the lockout now sit on the orchestra’s board. If we weren’t in a pandemic, Music Director Osmo Vänskä would be signing Mahler CDs in the Orchestra Hall lobby this weekend.

In September, six months into COVID, the musicians ratified a contract that runs through August 2022. They had already taken a 20% pay cut in June; in the new contract, they agreed to 25%. Vänskä took a 35% pay cut, up from 30% in June. While other arts organizations laid off huge swaths of people, the orchestra used $4.5 million in PPP funding to pay its full-time employees. Part-timers are on hiatus, full-timers across the board have taken pay cuts, but they still have jobs.

For a multimillion-dollar organization with a lot of people, the orchestra has been remarkably agile. When it could no longer perform in its full complement before a live audience, it played one more (now historic) concert to an empty hall. When the weather permitted, it played a series of outdoor chamber music concerts. It worked with researchers from the University of Minnesota to learn how (and how far) wind instruments spread aerosols during performance. It reinvented its fall 2020 season as a series of livestreams and hired TPT to produce them, then added more livestreams for spring. (Total views to date of the eight concerts so far: 192,903.) We still haven’t seen the full orchestra play, but we’ve seen more than 40 musicians spread out over the hall’s extended stage.

The orchestra has gone a little crazy on social media, posting (most recently) news, reviews, concert excerpts, poems, interviews with musicians, yoga videos (from earlier performances at Orchestra Hall) and a link to violist Sam Bergman’s recipe for pumpkin bars with salted maple buttercream frosting. Musicians added 60 at-home performance videos. Social media followers reached nearly 100,000 and total video views topped 2.5 million. Engagement increased by 17%.

For FY20, total operating revenue was $6.8 million, down $2.7 million from FY19. Contributed revenue was $14 million, compared to $14.5 million for the previous year (and $22.4 for FY 2018; contributed revenue includes corporate gifts, which are shifting away from the arts). Individual donors increased their support of the annual fund by $400,000, turning Symphony Ball gifts into donations, increasing annual gifts or turning back tickets as donations. Minnesota Orchestra President and CEO Michelle Miller Burns said in a statement, “A bright spot in the year has been the generosity of our individual donors. … We are enormously grateful to these individuals who are powering the Orchestra forward.”

Total net assets were $166 million, down nearly $10 million from 2019. Total expenses were $34.2 million, down from $35.4 million.

The orchestra is calling 2019-20 “a season like no other.” What will 2020-21 bring? We just don’t see the Minnesota Orchestra rolling over or giving up.

Outgoing Board Chair Margaret A. Bracken said: “We are fortunate to have both the organizational resiliency and a financial plan in place to see the Orchestra through to the other side of the pandemic.” Said incoming board chair Joseph T. Green: “Over the last ten months our focus has naturally shifted to managing the organization through this crisis, but we continue to lay the groundwork for the growth plan so that we are ready to launch when we move beyond the pandemic.”

Article continues after advertisement

Bracken mentioned a financial plan; Green a growth plan. Burns explained the difference in an email:

“These two initiatives are different but related: One brings the organization through the pandemic, the other looks ahead to what the organization can achieve, post-pandemic.

“The financial plan to see the Orchestra through to the other side of the pandemic centers around cost reductions – that include salary cuts taken by every member of the organization – and careful control over expenses. There is also a significant emphasis on raising contributed revenue in the pandemic, since our earned revenue potential is so much more limited due to COVID restrictions around group gatherings.

“The focus of that multi-year revenue growth plan is to increase both the Orchestra’s contributed and earned revenues. Over the last ten months our institutional focus has shifted to managing through the pandemic, but the growth plan remains our long-term strategy, and it is necessary to be setting the stage now so that we are able to move on this when we emerge from the pandemic.”

We also wanted to know if the orchestra will resume live in-person performances in April, as the calendar on the website now shows. Burns replied:

“We plan to make an announcement about those spring concerts in March. We’ve learned to tie announcements pretty close to the time period in question so that we are responding to the most current set of circumstances.

“At this point we are still discussing whether it will be feasible to invite audiences back to Orchestra Hall in the spring. We’ll ultimately make that decision based on many factors, including state-wide guidelines and restrictions; information from public health officials and medical experts; the vaccine rollout rate; and assessments from peer organizations, to name a few. We are doing a lot of scenario planning so that we are ready to safely invite audiences back whenever the time comes.”

The picks

V is for virtual, L is for live and in person.

V Streaming on demand: History Theatre Radio Hour: “Beyond the Rainbow.” More than a dozen songs and scenes from the original History Theatre production starring Ivey Award winner Jody Briskey and Norah Long. This 2005 recording also includes interviews with playwright William Randall Beard, Judy’s daughter Lorna Luft and actor Mickey Rooney. Free.

V Streaming on demand: Dark Muse Performing Arts and the Guthrie Theater: “The Uprising Volume II: Black HERstory.” Part of the Guthrie’s anti-racism series, begun in response to the killing of George Floyd. Written and directed by Vanessa Brooke Agnes, it blends storytelling, dance and music to celebrate the experiences and contributions of Black women through history. Free on YouTube.

Maud Hixson
Maud Hixson
V Saturday, Feb. 6: Twin Cities Jazz Festival and Crooners: Keep Music Live doubleheader. At 5:30 p.m.: Singer Maud Hixson, accompanied by Rick Carlson on piano, will present “Judy Garland: A Star Is Born in Minnesota.” Hixson’s concerts combine storytelling with great songs and silky, impeccable singing. Free, with registration required. At 8:30 p.m.: Acoustic Deathwish. A jazz and improv power trio with Anthony Cox on bass, Brandon Wozniak on tenor saxophone and Dave King on drums. Free, with registration required. Both events will be livestreamed from the Dunsmore Jazz Room at Crooners, which now offers both in-person seating and pay-per-view livestreams. The Keep Music Live shows stream for free.

An image from “Goin’ Back to T-Town.”
An image from “Goin’ Back to T-Town.”
V Tuesday, Feb. 9, 8 p.m. on TPT2: American Experience: “Goin’ Back to T-Town: Memories of the Tulsa Massacre” In 1921, Greenwood, Oklahoma, known as the “Black Wall Street,” was destroyed by a racially motivated massacre. As many as 300 Black residents were killed by white mobs and buried in unmarked graves. The story had been nearly forgotten when documentary filmmaker Sam Pollard (“MLK/FBI”) made “Goin’ Back to T-Town” in the early 1990s. Re-released for the centennial of the massacre, it features some of the last recorded accounts from survivors.

Natalie Warren
Courtesy of University of Minnesota Press
Natalie Warren
V Tuesday, Feb. 9, 7 p.m.: University of Minnesota Press: Virtual Book Launch for “Hudson Bay Bound: Two Women, One Dog, Two Thousand Miles to the Arctic” by Natalie Warren. In 2011, 22-year-old Natalie Warren and her friend Ann Raiho paddled from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay, a 2,000-mile canoe trip where they faced many trials – including the challenge of staying friends. Polar explorer Ann Bancroft wrote the introduction to the book and will introduce Warren at the launch. The evening will also include music, videos, trivia, poetry, storytelling, and a Q&A moderated by environmental activist and canoe expeditioner Lee Vue. Free, with registration required.