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With week’s events, is a Minnesota Orchestra settlement any closer?

On the surface, the answer would seem to be a resounding no. Still, there seem to be some little signs hinting that there may be some small progress toward resolution.

Michael Henson, president and CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra: “Everyone needs to put the hurt of the last 18 months behind. We have to focus on what’s ahead.”
File photo by John Whiting

It’s never been clearer that musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestral Association desperately need each other.

It’s always been simple: One group has the talent; the other has the keys to the money and Orchestra Hall.

But, in the wake of reports issued by each group this week, is a settlement any closer?

On the surface, the answer would seem to be a resounding no because nothing has changed.  Still, there are little remarks being made that hint at some small progress toward resolution.

Major negatives still there

To see the positives, you have to have an active imagination and a generally hopeful outlook about life and times. The negatives remain right in front of us.

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The negatives:

The MOA’s board of directors is not changing the leadership that created the strategy that began with a lockout. In fact, if there were ever any debate about whether Michael Henson should be replaced as CEO and that Jon Campbell and Richard Davis should be pushed aside from their positions as leaders of the board, they were held far from the public eye.

There was no change-of-direction discussion at Wednesday’s annual board meeting held at the Minneapolis Club.

(Side note: Board members, who must pay $10,000 just for a seat on the board, have to pay for their own meals at all board functions.)

Given the harsh feedback that board members are getting from some in the community, why would anybody want to stay on the board?

Attorney Doug Kelley, who has served as a negotiator for the MOA, was asked that question after he opted to re-join the board this year.

Kelley, who previously had been on the board for 19 years and currently has worked as a negotiator for the MOA, said board members aren’t doing the work for love and adoration from the public. 

“I recently got an e-mail that said, ‘You’re nothing but an expensive media whore for the board of directors.’ I wrote the guy back and said, ‘I may be a media whore, but I’m not expensive, I’m doing this as a volunteer.’ ”

The moral of the story, Kelley said, is that board members truly do love the orchestra and the organization that supports it. They want it to survive into the future.

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OK, that’s what MOA leadership has been saying for 14 months: This lockout is about the long-term future of the orchestra.

Long term vs. short term

If the shorter-term needs of today’s musicians aren’t given greater consideration by the MOA, the silence in Orchestra Hall has just begun.  

At their public meeting on Monday, musicians said their No. 1 priority is resolving the dispute and going back to Orchestra Hall. But, on the clear negative side, they said they’ve prepared a series of concerts, which will include star guest artists, for the winter/spring season.

By the way, those pricey guest artists perform in these concerts for far less than their normal fees. In some cases, they’ve even turned back those fees as a contribution to the orchestra musicians.

Musicians seem united. And they seem excited about the support they’re receiving from both their audiences and their peers across the country. And they still are distrustful of the MOA leadership.

The statement they offered following the Wednesday release of the MOA’s annual report wasn’t exactly filled with olive branches.

“It’s of great concern to the musicians that the leadership of the MOA managed to spend $13 million and run a $1 million deficit while producing no concerts,” musicians said in a statement. “This begs the question as to whether the MOA’s new business model will truly lead toward sustainability or success.

“As we stated at our community meeting on Monday, it is our top priority to reach an agreement with the MOA that keeps a world-class symphony orchestra in Minnesota. However, until we reach that point, we will continue to plan and produce concerts so that we can continue to serve our audiences and preserve what the community has built over the past 110 years.”

Slight hints at changing dynamics

The positives:

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There are at least slight hints that something might be changing in the dynamics of this dispute.

Following the annual meeting, Henson, talked, almost wistfully, of the need for both sides “to look forward.”

Asked in an interview if starting this whole process with a lockout was a strategy he now regrets, Henson sat silent for a moment.

“We all need to sit down together,” Henson said. “Everyone needs to put the hurt of the last 18 months behind. We have to focus on what’s ahead.”

OK, that’s not exactly a mea culpa. But Henson, in part because of his heavy British accent and in part because of his outward self-confidence, has the type of personality that at times has seemed to add fuel to the labor fire.

In our conversation on Wednesday, Henson seemed a little more appreciative of the musicians and what they were able to accomplish in Minnesota.

“This is a world-class orchestra and it will be in the future,” he said in various ways on several occasions.

Clearly, Henson still believes that this dispute at this time and place has worldwide implications and implications for the arts everywhere.

“This is a debate about the arts around the world,” he said.

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And he’d like to be the guy who wins the debate and shows the arts world that with deep cuts here and there, the arts can be made more sustainable.

Through much of this long dispute, Henson came across as someone who believed his was the only way. His longtime view: The musicians must be made to understand that they would have to take deep cuts if the orchestra is to survive.

There perhaps were subtle differences in his words Wednesday.

“I think what has been shown this week is that we all need each other,” Henson said. “This is an exceptional board, an exceptional orchestra, an exceptional community. There has to be a way to bring that all together.”

Of course, that’s been true for 14 months and nothing has happened.

Yet from both musicians and management, there has been more talk of late of needing each other and less belligerence than there’s been in months.