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Osmo Vänskä’s fate: Minnesota Orchestra board facing intense pressure

The issue: Vänskä, the more-beloved-than-ever former music director, versus Michael Henson, the not-beloved chief executive officer.

Osmo Vänskä: “For any healing to begin at the orchestra, Michael Henson must go.’’
Photo by Greg Helgeson

The lockout may be over, but the pressure on the Minnesota Orchestral Association board of directors remains intense.

The issue: Osmo Vänskä, the more-beloved-than-ever former music director, versus Michael Henson, the not-beloved chief executive officer.

Internally, the board apparently can’t figure out to handle a dicey situation.

If it doesn’t rehire Vänskä, it faces the wrath of a substantial number in the ticket-buying public. If it fires Henson, it is yielding to an ultimatum issued by Vänskä and many of its most loyal supporters.

Vänskä’s ‘ultimatum’

Vänskä, who mostly has stayed in the background and did not respond to requests through his agent for comment, made what sounded like an ultimatum in a conversation with Brian Newhouse of Classical Minnesota Public Radio last month.

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“For any healing to begin at the orchestra, Michael Henson must go,’’ Vänskä told Newhouse.

Gordon Sprenger, the new head of the board, responded by saying he was disappointed in those remarks.

Since then, the board has held a meeting, which was preceded by considerable speculation that a resolution on the Vänskä-Henson matter would be forthcoming.  But there was no resolution. Instead, there was a bland statement.

We held a productive meeting today [Feb. 28] and the board came to a very strong agreement on leadership and a positive direction for the organization. However, we have more work to do before we are able to make a detailed public statement. We will share further news as soon as we are able.

Since then, there’s been outward silence, though there are constant rumors that lobbying within the board is intense.

Board members mum

What could be the problem?  Only board members know for sure — and they aren’t saying anything.

But understand, many of the board members are corporate heavyweights. Most corporate heavyweights don’t react well to ultimatums.

Beyond that, the vast majority of board members supported the lockout strategy of Henson, former board chairman Jon Campbell and former negotiating head Richard Davis. Campbell and Davis have stepped down from their leadership positions, but to fire Henson would be to acknowledge that the board-approved negotiating strategy was wrong.

For their part, musicians are attempting to stay clear of this board dilemma.

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Musician spokesman Blois Olson issued this statement regarding the musicians’ feelings on the issue:

We support 150 percent the return of Osmo but we look forward to working with the board and the audience.

And by all accounts, the musicians have performed admirably and seem to have warm regard for Sprenger, the new board chair.

However, others aren’t being quite so cautious about expressing their feelings.

Save Our Symphony still applying pressure

Members of Save Our Symphony Minnesota have made it clear they’re not going away now that the lockout has ended. More importantly, they’ve made it clear to the board that they want Henson gone and Vänskä back — and they want more information about what’s going on within the board.

“In the age of social media, there’s a demand for more transparency,’’ said Mariellen Jacobson, an SOS leader. “Certainly, the board has received unmistakable communication from the community.’’

Jacobson said SOS members have had one informal, “off-the-record’’ meeting with two members of the board and plan to meet with them again. But Sprenger has not been responsive to SOS requests for communications.

Jacobson repeatedly pointed out that social media have changed things.

“Social media replaces ‘noblesse oblige,’ ’’ she said. “The attitude of the past was that we should be grateful to the members of the board. Now, we expect information about a community institution.’’

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SOS is not a small group. According to Jacobson, the organization now has more than 11,500 Facebook followers.

There are major deadlines the board is facing, Jacobson believes.

The first — and potentially the most tumultuous —  comes at the end of this month, when Vänskä is to conduct Sibelius concerts March 27, 28 and 29. (Vänskä conducting Sibelius, recall, made this a Grammy-award winning orchestra.) If he’s merely a guest conductor, this is going to unleash strong anti-board emotions.

Beyond that, according to Jacobson, this is typically  the time of year when  orchestras put the final touches on their upcoming season.

“How can you succeed at that without an artistic director?’’ Jacobson asked.

A baseball comparison

Excuse a personal observation from an old,  former sportswriter.

This situation is somewhat remindful of decisions made by  Calvin Griffith, the former owner of the Minnesota Twins.

In 1969, Griffith, feeling public pressure, took the risk of hiring Billy Martin as Twins manager.

The hiring of the explosive Martin was a huge hit with the fans and the team performed superbly under Martin, playing an aggressive style that fans adored. The team won a division title but lost in the playoffs.

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But throughout the season, Martin caused Griffith no end of headaches, and at the end of a successful year, Martin was fired.

Even though Griffith replaced Martin with a well-known manager, Bill Rigney, for the 1970 season and even though the Twins continued to be an on-the-field success, fans were outraged. Attendance fell, and “Bring Back Billy” bumper stickers were a common sight in the Twin Cities.

Griffith never was forgiven by many, and for several years, the team faded to near oblivion in public consciousness.

It is not a stretch to suggest that in this analogy, Henson is Griffith and Vänskä is Martin.

In some ways, the lockout has created a level of interest in the orchestra that probably did not exist in the past.

This talented orchestra and Vänskä, who resigned as a show of support for his players,  have almost come to represent a blue-collar crew who took on the elite in the city.

But now with deadlines looming and the newfound attention the orchestra is receiving, there’s also a new pressure on the board to act.