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Some in MNO ‘exodus’ took leaves or left before lockout

A recent Community Voices commentary by Jonathan L. Eisenberg inaccurately describes a “massive exodus” of talent from the Minnesota Orchestra. We appreciate the opportunity to set the record straight.

• Since the lockout began in October, two musicians have resigned and five have requested leaves of absence. In our field it is common for musicians to take a one-year leave during which time their position is held open while they try out a post in another orchestra.

• Three of the eleven musicians noted by Mr. Eisenberg actually left Minnesota in the 2011-12 season to try out positions in other orchestras. These decisions were made before our labor negotiations had even begun.

• Two musicians he describes as planning to leave have not announced that intention to us — one of whom has a husband who plays in the SPCO and just accepted a new position in that orchestra.

• By way of comparison, in a typical concert season, an average of three musicians will depart to pursue other jobs as part of the natural ebb and flow of any organization (this average does not include retirements). It’s regretful to lose any talented musician, and debating the impact of difficult contract negotiations on musician departures is fair. But that debate is best accomplished with facts rather than exaggerations or distortions.

Esther Saarela is the director of Human Resources at Minnesota Orchestra.

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Emily E Hogstad on 06/11/2013 - 04:16 pm.

    Cool! I’m appreciative of this opportunity, too…

    Hi, Ms. Saarela! I appreciate the opportunity to set the record straight, too!

    The Chicago Symphony has 111 players. Right now, Minnesota has something in the mid-70s (sorry I can’t give an exact number; departures are occurring so quickly I can’t keep track of them). It is not “common” in your industry for an orchestra to be without an Associate Concertmaster, three section 1st violins, Principal Second Violin, Assistant Principal Second Violin, four section 2nd violins, four violas, Associate Principal Cello, two section cellos, Principal Bass, Associate Principal Bass, Principal Oboe, Principal Clarinet, Bass Trombone, Piano/Harpsichord, and Assistant Principal Librarian…unless, of course, your orchestra is going through catastrophic mismanagement.

    In short: it is simply not fair to only talk about resignations or leaves of absences that occurred after negotiations began, and you know it. People aren’t stupid, and they saw what was coming two, three years ago. Let’s not dismiss the departures that obviously occurred because the working conditions became increasingly acrimonious for musicians (thanks in large part to the work of two key individuals, whose names will be very familiar to you).

    If you want to keep saying that it’s totally normal for a major American symphony orchestra to have two dozen empty seats, well, then I don’t know what to say. We don’t live in the same reality.

    (And don’t retort with saying there are only a few empty seats, while neglecting to mention Mr. Henson wants to decrease the size of the orchestra to 84 musicians. A major symphony orchestra usually has around 95 to 100 people in it…or more. Like I said, Chicago has 111.)

    Even if “only” seven musicians have left or requested leaves of absences, if the MOA was anything like its peer orchestras, it would be incredibly concerned about this. The Pittsburgh Symphony CEO James A. Wilkinson just said this: “We lost [violinist Sylvia Kim] to Chicago last year and are losing [violinist Shaun Shaun Yo] to New York. We don’t want to lose any more.” Imagine the heart attack he’d have if he had 24 seats to fill.

    Jon wrote his article before Kyu-Young’s complete surprise announcement yesterday that he and his wife cellist Pitnarry Shin were staying in Minnesota, and he has since updated it. You’re really going to criticize him about that? Really? The MOA is even more petty than I thought, and trust me, that bar is a high one to clear.

    I agree that “that debate is best accomplished with facts rather than exaggerations or distortions.” The MOA for one needs to take your advice. Here’s hoping that happens sooner rather than later.

    My regards to Mr. Henson.

    PS – It certainly wouldn’t hurt if you “set the record straight” about another recent editorial on MinnPost that raised questions about the MOA’s competence… I’m sure you know which one I’m referring to.

  2. Submitted by Amy Adams on 06/11/2013 - 04:52 pm.

    Use a little imagination

    Ms. Saarela, imagine you’re a musician working in a delightful city with gifted colleagues, all playing music at the top of your game… Now imagine a slow shift in the climate of your workplace, the sad disappearance of this player and that player…and the depressing confirmation that strange places actually seem more welcoming than home. Imagine reading in the newspaper a condescending and callous letter written by the daughter of the head of human resources. This is the view from where the locked-out musicians sit.

    You, Ms. Saarela, are part of the work environment. (I believe you personally are actually still collecting a paycheck and medical benefits, is that true?) The ones who attend the concerts know who is missing, and why. They actually speak to their friends, the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra.

  3. Submitted by MaryAnn Goldstein on 06/11/2013 - 06:08 pm.

    Not much more to add to Emily’s comment…

    I just have to second everything Emily said re: the MN Orchestra situation and players already gone or leaving. She certainly filled the holes in Ms. Saarela’s letter.

    I’m sure that the MOA thinks the public will hang onto every word it says because responses to our questions are so very, very rare. However, the MOA’s credibility is in the sewer. By now, almost everyone knows that it is prudent to read between the lines and pay attention to what is NOT said. Surely the MOA realizes that the public is onto its game, namely, that when the MOA does deign to say something, it is typically a proclamation or half-truth thrown out via the media—which only reinforces the general impression that the MOA is hiding something. Today’s letter is no different. And please, MOA, don’t respond yet again that this discussion should not be held in the media—this has been your preferred methodology all along, which by the way, you started via the media.

    Having said that, most of us would still love to have a substantive discussion with the MOA— a real face to face back and forth, with serious questions asked and serious (and complete) answers given, with the opportunity to ask for clarification. Perhaps in a public town hall forum? Where patrons and donors aren’t hand picked to attend (as in Mr. Henson’s very closed and limited Q &A sessions). We would welcome this conversation with open arms. It’s not like we haven’t asked for more comprehensive answers over and over and over again during these dreadful lockout months.

    Ms. Saarela, good luck continuing on the path you and the MOA have taken. You continue to dig an even deeper hole with your “stakeholders.” Remember, though, it is never too late to turn back. Someday, and maybe sooner than you think, you will need us.

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/11/2013 - 07:47 pm.

    Maybe the Twin Cities

    will now have two chamber orchestras.
    I’ve long been a fan of the SPCO; it’s nice to see that the MSO is moving to the same format.

  5. Submitted by Nils Halker on 06/11/2013 - 08:54 pm.

    It was Going Bad Before the Lockout Started!

    Ms Saarela, I invite you to set the record straight if I am mistaken: it seems to me that the very title of your commentary is evidence that the working conditions at the Minnesota Orchestra were severely deteriorating before the lockout, which would explain the 20+ vacancies in the ranks of musicians. This would also corroborate what I have heard from several inside sources: that the climate under the administration of Mr Henson had become increasingly hostile. As Director of Human Resources for the Orchestra, it also strikes me that you must bear a large measure of responsibility for those conditions.

    I agree that an honest debate can only be accomplished “with facts rather than exaggerations or distortions.” It also requires placing data in its full and proper context so they are not misleading or misrepresentations of reality.

    I would like to echo MaryAnn Goldstein’s request that there be a substantive discussion with ALL interested patrons and the MOA that we might have that honest debate.

  6. Submitted by Jon Eisenberg on 06/12/2013 - 06:19 pm.

    A disaster by any other name is still a disaster

    I’m unclear on the purpose of Ms. Saarela’s post or any public benefit of it. Every actual or planned resignation I identified was linked to a public source. (One link is missing and I will try to add it back.) I presented information concerning 10 MN Orchestra musicians who had left or whose plans to leave had been announced, as well as the threatened resignation of Osmo Vanska and the fact that Concertmaster Erin Keefe had received two offers from other orchestra. Out of these 12 situations, Ms. Saarela only quibbles with a few classifications and claims lack of notice of a few planned resignations:

    * By her own count, two musicians have resigned and five have requested LOAs “since the lockout began in October.” We all know that LOAs are generally preparatory to leaving, although that certainly does not always happen. It’s an ominous sign for the orchestra no matter how you slice it. If we are lucky, and the lockout ever ends, perhaps some will come back.

    * She states that three musicians left during the 2011-12 season, before the negotiations began. The musicians are intelligent people who knew full well that a knock-down, drag-out battle was coming and they were all preparing for it. A few made the sensible decision to leave for an orchestra in which they could play music unencumbered by the distraction of a protracted round of labor negotiations, even if they did not specifically know that they would be locked out.

    * “Two musicians he describes as planning to leave have not announced that intention to us.” I do not have access to MN Orchestra’s personnel files, but the departures were publicly announced at the sites I linked. If management takes any comfort from the fact that they have not yet received formal letters of resignation from these musicians, I certainly do not.

    * Cellist Pitnarry Shin is married to Kyu-Young Kim of SPCO who had accepted a position with the NY Philharmonic and stated publicly that their family would be relocating. Within hours after my article was published, SPCO announced that Kim would stay with SPCO as its Artistic Director as well as Principal Second Violin. An update was posted to my article to reflect this. Our community will be fortunate indeed if both remain in Minnesota.

    Ms. Saarela does not dispute the vast number of open positions that I related per a post by the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra. The musicians also reported in their posting that the orchestra’s complement is down from 98 to 74, a reduction of 24 musicians. Perhaps a number of those positions also became vacant prior to the lockout, but today the positions are open.

    Apart from those who have left or are planning to leave, we remain at risk that Maestro Vanska and Concertmaster Keefe may leave at any time.

    These are dark days indeed for the Minnesota Orchestra. Those with decision-making authority should do something about it, and you know who you are.

  7. Submitted by Sarah Nagle on 06/13/2013 - 09:11 am.

    What Jon Said.


  8. Submitted by Michael Hess on 06/13/2013 - 05:06 pm.

    And this means…

    Since the assessment of musician departures triggered a management response to correct errors as they perceived them, I guess this mean there is no dispute within management with the recent commentary about the recent assessment of weakness in the orchestra financial plans and recent performance.

  9. Submitted by Andy Buelow on 06/17/2013 - 03:06 pm.

    Be as snarky as you want, but the letter corrects the record

    Since Mr. Eisenberg is “unclear” on the purpose of Esther Saarela’s letter, let me try to clarify it as I see it.

    Actually Saarela clearly states that the intent is to correct the record: two resignations have taken place since the lockout began. That is not a “massive exodus,” and so Jonathan Eisenberg’s previous Community Voices letter was, in fact, inaccurate and misleading.

    I realize everyone is having a great old time writing snarky responses to Esther Saarela’s letter, and I’m sorry to rain on your parade — but it’s pretty simple. People are free to think, write and say whatever they choose, but they should be prepared to have what they present as fact challenged — and when it is inaccurate, corrected.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 06/18/2013 - 01:27 pm.

      Setting the record straight?

      I do not intend to be snarky, only observant. But it seems to me that, while the mass exodus did not begin after the lockout, the fact remains that there are more than a quarter of the positions in the orchestra (many of them key positions) open. That’s pretty significant. In other words, while the record was technically “set straight,” it really only introduced technicalities into the ultimate reality.

      The big picture is this: enough musicians have felt that the professional climate was subpar such that, should the orchestra get back to playing tomorrow, it will be doing so with only 75% of its talent, with much of the very top talent gone (at least temporarily). I certainly won’t pay full price for that. Not because I don’t think that the remaining players are inferior, but because the best ones aren’t there. I might not pay for it at all because I don’t want to support an organization that has treated its patrons like half witted fools, which is only slightly better than its treated its workers. I’m sure I’m not alone in taking my dollars elsewhere. The MNO should be very, very concerned about that.

      The record is clear: a 25% vacancy rate exists in the MN Orchestra right now. Regardless of when the “mass exodus” happened, the end result is bad.

      • Submitted by Amy Adams on 06/19/2013 - 02:12 pm.

        Rachel, well said.

        I’m kind of puzzled by Andy Buelow’s remarks above: it’s as if he read only Esther Saarela’s words, and completely ignored Jonathan Eisenberg’s clear rebuttal. (I suppose that kind of behavior is not uncommon among orchestra management…hearing only what you want to hear.)
        As you said, talent has left and is leaving the Minnesota Orchestra. Rather than making “room” for new talent, as some would wishfully assume, this will have the effect of discouraging some musicians from heading toward Minnesota. I think only the bottom-line suits, toasting themselves and avoiding concerts altogether, will think this is a desirable outcome.

  10. Submitted by Jon Eisenberg on 08/13/2013 - 03:32 pm.

    Another two gone

    “By way of comparison, in a typical concert season, an average of three musicians will depart to pursue other jobs as part of the natural ebb and flow of any organization.” – Esther Saarela, MOA Director of HR

    Let’s see where things stand currently:

    “Continuing our count of musicians who have left since Oct. 1, 2012, when the musicians were locked out by management over a contract dispute, 12 has now become 14.” – Pamela Espeland, MinnPost columnist

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