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

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

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.

“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.

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.’’

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.

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.

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Comments (35)

  1. Submitted by David Assemany on 03/10/2014 - 10:10 am.


    I don’t see Maestro Vanska’s statement as an ultimatum. I see it as a statement of opinion and I totally agree with it.

  2. Submitted by Karla Jennings on 03/10/2014 - 10:14 am.

    Is Michael Henson an asset or a liability?

    If stubborn pride leads the Minnesota,Orchestra Board to retain Henson rather than rehiring Vanska, it will be a serious error. The community has spoken loud and clear. What is so exceptional about Henson that makes him the better choice? Just look at the sales for the upcoming concerts. Vanska is the “rock star” of classical music and ticket sales prove this. Does Henson’s presence sell a single ticket? The man is so disliked that I predict he will never be allowed to speak at a concert for fear of a loud and long session of negative audience response. Can the Board ever “sell” Henson in this community? Absolultely not! Board members: swallow your pride, rehire Vanska, and end this debacle.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/10/2014 - 11:57 am.

      Selling Tickets

      Not only does Henson not sell any tickets, he may in fact depress sales.

      • Submitted by Manny Laureano on 03/10/2014 - 08:23 pm.

        Tickets and donations

        I don’t know whether he affects ticket sales but it is indisputable that a large segment of the musicians’ supporters will not donate to the Association so long as he remains president.

  3. Submitted by Arthur Horowitz on 03/10/2014 - 10:33 am.

    Osmo’s return.

    We rather hope that the reason we have not heard anything definitive from the board is that they are working on a “Golden Parachute” for Mr. Henson (possibly with holes in it or a defective rip cord) and a long term contract for Mr. Vanska, to be announced when he “guest conducts”. If this not be the case and Mr. Henson is retained rather than Mr Vanska, barring the engagement of Gilbert, Muti, Dudamel or Gergiev as music director, I fear the there will be trouble ahead. We will doubtlessly renew our full season subscription as we have for the past 43 years, but don’t look for our names in the program under the guarantors’ section ever again. Other subscribers may feel differently and buy some recordings of the orchestra in lieu of renewing their season’s subscriptions.

  4. Submitted by ann klefstad on 03/10/2014 - 11:10 am.

    Henson is a major sour note

    I think Vanska is simply expressing what many of the musicians also feel– Henson mismanaged the situation badly, tore apart people’s lives, wielded power seemingly for the sake of doing so– it will be impossible to proceed afresh with him at the helm. I think it is time that he take his leave. Why on earth he would want to stay is beyond me.

  5. Submitted by Mark Carter on 03/10/2014 - 11:14 am.

    The Board seem to have learned little. They continue to be a murky organization living in the shadows. Transparency is the key. The Board’s attitude I think can be summed up: -“we give lots of money and you plebs have to be so grateful!” Well I for one am not. They have made a hash of it, and they do need to admit it. If they can’t do that, then they need to at least acknowledge that they are despised and resign.

    We would form a transparent organization that would turn the orchestra into a vibrant one, making all use of community energy and talent in a hurry.

    Time I think is running out. Things need to change fast.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/10/2014 - 11:20 am.

    Corporate Heavyweights Exposed

    I wouldn’t expect these so-call heavyweights will “manage” this dilemma much better than previous dilemma’s. The lesson here is that we’ve obviously attributed far more intelligence and business acumen to these corporate executives than they ever deserved. Let’s hope that some degree of common sense somehow manages to prevail. At the very least it shouldn’t be too much to expect that board members will realize that intransigent adherence to a failed policy will neither repair their egos or re-establish their credibility… on the contrary. They put the Orchestra into a death spiral, keeping it there won’t win them any accolades. Management would get far more credit and respect for changing course they can by steering towards the same old iceberg.

  7. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 03/10/2014 - 12:33 pm.

    Osmo ” …who resigned as a show of support for his players.””

    Is this a fact or an assertion? My view and memory is that he thought he needed to get on with his own career. Not true?

    • Submitted by Gina Hunter on 03/10/2014 - 02:29 pm.

      Osmo’s Resignation

      Osmo resigned because the Board and the musicians had not reached a settlement by midnight on 9/30. He had informed both sides why — the lack of a settlement meant that they would lose the November Carnegie Hall concerts (indeed, the Board cancelled them before Carnegie could), and Osmo had indicated that those concerts were an artistic goal for him and the orchestra. He also said, I think, that they’d also lose their recording contract with BIS and this was also a deal-breaker for him. So, no, it wasn’t to “get on with his own career.” It was to take a stand about what the Board was doing, i.e. destroying the orchestra Osmo had so lovingly built up.

    • Submitted by Tom Foley on 03/10/2014 - 06:58 pm.

      Not true.

      No. Not true. Your suggestion is sort of like Michael Jackson dying as a good career move.

  8. Submitted by Amy Adams on 03/10/2014 - 02:29 pm.

    Not true.

    I don’t know what memory you’re referring to. Osmo was upfront about his resignation being tied to the board’s support of Michael Henson, and the long, punitive and unnecessary lockout of his Minnesota Orchestra musicians.

  9. Submitted by Gina Hunter on 03/10/2014 - 02:39 pm.


    “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.”

    In the quote above, the Board does not say “artistic leadership.” They were talking about leadership for the organization. I have strong suspicions about what this means and they’re not good.

    Furthermore, the work that they say they need to do before going public could very well be the scenario that Arthur Horowitz describes above, although I’m not as certain of the outcome. As long as SOSMN keeps the pressure on, and the public continues to express its views about Osmo’s return, that’s all that can be done. The Board will work as they choose. Given that there are at least two movements afoot to oust the entire Board in one way or another, I would hope that they would be more responsive and open to the public than they’ve been in the past. So far, however, that has not been the case.

    To Doug Grow: your analogy with Griffith and Martin is inaccurate. Henson did NOT hire Osmo, the MOA Board did. It is one of few direct responsibilities they have, i.e. hiring the Music or Artistic Director. Henson was not even here when the Board hired Osmo.

    Also Doug Grow: the interest in the MO has always been there and is not new. The lockout just brought everyone out and made them more vocal about it.

    It is also worth repeating here: the Minnesota Orchestra musicians produced a unanimous no-confidence vote in Henson in November 2012. Osmo is not the only musician at Orchestra Hall who wants Henson to leave.

    Gina Hunter

  10. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/10/2014 - 02:57 pm.

    Griffith scenario

    The problem is that the board might be more inclined to identify with Calvin Griffith, and one wonders what that might mean for Osmo Vanska. These folks really aren’t Billy Martin kind of guys.

    • Submitted by Ben Munroe on 03/11/2014 - 08:44 am.

      Stewards, not owners

      I’m sure they identify with Calvin Griffith. But the main difference is that as board members of a non-profit, they are supposed to be stewards of the organization, not owners. A fundamental problem in this whole disaster is that they seem to have assumed an ownership role, with no accountability to patrons and other donors.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/10/2014 - 03:10 pm.

    Yeah, the sports analogies are a fail

    I don’t know why people keep thinking they can compare complex realities to sports. And I’ve never figured out they they feel compelled to do so.

    • Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/11/2014 - 05:37 am.

      Sports analogies

      It’s very easy for me to compare sports to the orchestra. They are both entities that engage in public performances, to which they have to sell tickets. Both have highly talented labor forces that the public will pay to see. Neither makes a sufficient amount of money without substantial subsidies from the outside.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/11/2014 - 09:42 am.

        Yes Hiram…

        I know you keep saying this but your wrong 🙂

        Believe it or not there ARE some things in this world that sports cannot explain.

        Seriously, I have lingering doubts as to the real severity of financial crises. I don’t trust this management team or the board because we have some pretty decent evidence that they’ve been dishonest regarding their financial disclosures. For instance apparently they were telling people that they actually lose money producing concerts and that turns out to be untrue according to their own disclosures. We never actually got a good look at the financials because they always backed away from a mediation process that would have opened them up. Just eyeballing the figures they provide one has to wonder why it costs them so much more to produce a concert in their own hall than it would cost anyone to rent it and produce a concert?

  12. Submitted by Carolyn Carlson on 03/10/2014 - 05:16 pm.

    Return of Vanska

    I hope like mad that the Board will do the right thing–get rid of Henson and rehire Vanska! I’m convinced the MO will only return to its level of greatness with Vanska at the helm.

    I will be sorry for any other conductor appointed as music director because he/she will be hard to accept after Maestro Vanska!

  13. Submitted by Michael Wunsch on 03/10/2014 - 05:31 pm.

    Vanska’s return is critical

    Vanska’s return to the orchestra is critical. If Henson is retained and Vanska is not rehired, the board should expect an open revolt from patrons, with sharp drops in both donations and ticket sales. I understand that Vanska’s salary is higher than that of a young, inexperienced conductor, but why does the board not consider opening a special pledge drive specifically designed to support Vanska’s salary? I find it infuriating that the board has never asked patrons to help meet the financial challenges.

    If Vanska is rehired for an extended contract (to allow him to rebuild) and Henson is fired, I will donate generously, purchase a subscription, and urge relatives to donate. Otherwise, I will do none of the above.

  14. Submitted by Michael Wunsch on 03/10/2014 - 06:13 pm.


    I apologize for the second comment, but I think it is important to add that the opaque and non-democratic manner in which the MOA board operates must end. When middle-class patrons such as myself donate, we are donating a much higher percentage of our incomes to the orchestra than the wealthy individuals sitting on the board. Consequently, we are making a much greater sacrifice. We deserve a voice in the future of the orchestra, and we also deserve to know the details about the finances. Given the obvious manipulation of the finances in the 5 to 6 years leading up to the lockout, no one who is reasonably well informed believes the financial numbers that the MOA produces.

  15. Submitted by Sandra Peterson on 03/10/2014 - 06:33 pm.

    Buying Tickets

    My husband and I will NOT buy tickets NOR support the Minnesota Orchestra in any way whatsoever until this is resolved. And I guess the resolution will simply have to be the resignation of Michael Henson and perhaps even the board of directors. What an incompetent bunch!

    • Submitted by Manny Laureano on 03/10/2014 - 08:29 pm.


      Sandra: would you accept tickets if they were a gift from a musician? I’d love for you and your husband to come hear us. We’re no good without a public to play for.

  16. Submitted by David Therkelsen on 03/10/2014 - 08:50 pm.

    The imperative of governance

    All other considerations aside, the responsibility of governance is to do what protects the perpetuation of the institution in the long run.
    By this standard, Vanska comes back, Henson goes.
    Henson should get a good severance package. He led the organization as the board wished him to do.
    But the Minnesota Orchestra will do far better over the next five years with Vanska there and Henson gone. I believe Henson would readily understand this logic.

  17. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/11/2014 - 07:50 am.

    Reverse Godfather

    From what I gather, the board is making an offer to Vanska which he would find very difficult to accept. What this amounts to, is an effort by the board to shift the blame for a Vanska departure, or reduced role, to Vanska. What that suggests to me is that someone here is putting their personal concerns, and maybe their ego, ahead of the interests of the orchestra and the community.

  18. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 03/11/2014 - 08:10 am.

    If Henson loved the orchestra…

    he would resign for the good of the orchestra or at least make that public offer. I can see the board not wanting to abandon one of their own over an “ultimatum” but Henson has always had the power to decide his own fate. It should be obvious to him what his continuing in his position will cost the orchestra in artistic terms and public support. That he hasn’t resigned is another black mark on his leadership.

  19. Submitted by Gina Hunter on 03/11/2014 - 09:07 am.

    Osmo as Principal Guest Conductor?

    An article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/music/249370181.html this morning suggests that the Board wants to bring Osmo back but as Principal Guest Conductor, not Music Director. Who are they thinking of for Music Director? Why are they dithering? My vote is solidly for Osmo as Music Director, and I think it’s the only solution for the Board to insure the future of the MOA. They risk losing donors, patrons, and national support if they don’t bring back Osmo as the Artistic Leader. And why are they giving Henson votes of approval? Have they learned nothing? It is so sad that otherwise intelligent and well-meaning people who have volunteered their time to sit on the Board would be so closed, unplugged from reality, and not listening to the community.

    Bring back Osmo as Music Director! Show Henson the door!


    • Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/11/2014 - 10:09 am.

      The Strib

      What that article said to me is that the board doesn’t want Vanska back in a leadership role but they don’t want to be seen as taking public responsibility for not rehiring him. It’s very interesting to me, that the board is taking that stance. The natural thing to do would be to fire Henson and rehire Vanska. As a practical matter, there is nothing simple about doing either one of those things, but that is clearly what the broader community wants, and yet the board is resisting that. Why? Does the feel that Vanska betrayed them? Do they feel that bringing him back would be an admission of defeat, something that might come very hard for the board’s assorted captains of industry?

      • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/11/2014 - 11:36 am.

        “an admission…might come very hard”

        Rather than admit a mistake or poor judgement, this Board would rather swallow a live snake or commit mass seppuku.

        Remember, we’re talking about the self-image of the 1% here.

        This is an outfit who know how to circle the wagons and understand discipline in the ranks, from all that cumulative corporate experience. There seem to be no squeaky wheels on the Board, no cracks in the armor – a testament to their selection and qualification process !! Has any member spoken out against the direction the Board has taken the Orchestra ?

        Fool pride is near the top of this Board’s list of most important considerations. The popularity of Vanska’s suggestion about Henson makes him a danger to the Board.

        • Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/12/2014 - 06:52 am.

          The board

          We don’t know a lot about what goes on within the board. They seem to be a close mouthed bunch. The cool attitude we have seen toward Vanska and the possibility of his return is interesting, and a bit surprising to me. My totally uninformed speculation, was that historically, the board has been very comfortable. with the Minnesota Orchestra being firmly placed in the second tier of America’s orchestras. It’s a comfortable place to be. Maintaining second tier status is easier, it requires less maintenance, and financially it’s more stable. Somewhere along the line, somebody made the decision to bring in this promising Finnish guy, who against some fairly long odds, and without the board realizing the consequences, managed to launch the MO into the orchestra into the first tier, at least according to the odd critic. Being a new first tier orchestra isn’t a comfortable place to be. Musicians will want to be paid more. The soloists and guest conductors must be better. First tier orchestras do expensive, money losing things, like go on tour to remote areas of the world where dollars are cheap. First tier orchestras retire first tier boards. Folks who were on the board, because they enjoy the social amenities without being asked too much in return, are now the target of all sorts of demands, particularly for money. Orchestra managers, hired from second and even third tier orchestras, are now expected to provide the high level management skills needed to maintain a world class orchestra, skills they may, or may not have. Is it any wonder that confronted with the dizzying challenges of the orchestra’s new status, the response was to retreat? To find a way to return to the much easier status quo ante, where nobody expected or demanded very much? And, no matter what their public statements might be, hasn’t that what the MOA been doing by trying to hold salaries to a second tier line, and by trying to find a face saving way of getting rid of the conductor, who whatever his merits, has made their lives so difficult?

  20. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/11/2014 - 09:45 am.

    Hansen shmansen

    I hate to say but when the lockout unwound it seems we discovered that the top board members were actually more involved than Hansen, and I wonder if they were actually more responsible for the policy decisions than Hansen. In other words, I wonder if Hansen isn’t a fall guy of sorts. If that’s the case the Orchestra could simply end up without Hansen or Osmo. I thought the big board members were resigning, did that happen yet?

  21. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 03/11/2014 - 10:43 am.

    Not just Henson and Vanska

    It’s sad, but this is not just about Vanska and Henson. There are lots of possibilities here, but many of them won’t work. The problem is, the MOA has to do something that results in all the former donors to return AND MORE. Here are some possible options and likely outcomes (from my point of view).

    1. Vanska returns and Henson goes–decent scenario, but one in which I would not financially support the MN Orchestra other than maybe with ticket purchases. As noted above, Henson isn’t the only questionable character on the Board. I would not donate until the Board has been substantially replaced. That being said, this may be enough for enough people. I doubt it.

    2. Vanska returns and Henson stays–this is not a viable option for many MN Orchestra supporters. It’s not just about a great director–if the organization fails due to poor leadership, it doesn’t matter that Vanska’s brilliant.

    3. Henson stays and Vanska doesn’t return–I think this would be the stupidest of all possible decisions by the Board. I would hazard to say that most MN Orchestra supporters would fail to return to their giving state of mind if this should happen. No one cares what position he’s in, either. He might no longer lead, but it’s still not palatable if he stays at all.

    4. The Board goes and Vanska doesn’t return–this is highly unlikely, but I would actually still consider returning to my MN Orchestra giving. I would be very sad to see Vanska not return, but I’d have more faith that my dollars would be used wisely in this scenario.

    5. The Board goes and Vanska returns–this is the best, but most impossible scenario. Even though it would put the MN Orchestra on shaky ground to have a full replacement of the Board, I think that it’s not any more shaky than it’s already on with the Board as it is. I recognize that there are plenty of people with the spare change to get a position on the Board, but if that was sufficient to keep the Orchestra afloat, the Orchestra wouldn’t be what it is. It does require the support of the public at large, and I think that many supporters that fund the Orchestra at a lower level might be willing to up the donation to put together a sustainable fund. You know–like the current Board failed to do. Personally, I might be satisfied with a few members to remain. Maybe even most of them. But with the current makeup and the lack of transparency, I can’t even guess what anyone on the Board actually does at their meetings.

  22. Submitted by David Markle on 03/11/2014 - 06:19 pm.

    Henson should not stay

    The board should realize that it would be a big mistake to keep Henson. Henson has made foolish, ignorant sounding statements to the press, has done a dismal job at audience building, and is despised by the players. The relationship cannot be allowed to continue, even if Vanska does not return.

  23. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/12/2014 - 09:38 am.


    Before the point is reached as to whether Henson should be kept on or Vanska should be asked to return, the board needs to determine what it’s goals are, and how the decision to retain Henson or bring back Vanska helps achieve those goals. At this point, I see little evidence that the board has a governing consensus as to where it wants to go. Without that, we are all at a loss in trying to advise them how to get there.

  24. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 03/12/2014 - 04:17 pm.

    It is now mid March

    As I look at the websites of the various performing arts organizations I’m interested in, I notice that many, if not most of them, have already announced their 2014-2015 seasons.

    We haven’t even heard a hint of what is planned for next year.

    In fact, how can the Minnesota Orchestra announce a season when no one has official artistic control?

    How can it sell tickets for next season when renewing for next season is equivalent to signing up for a year of blind dates?

    The Minnesota Orchestra needs a Music Director NOW, and we happen to have a fine candidate who lives in the Twin Cities, has a good rapport with the musicians, and is popular with audiences.

    The decision should be a no-brainer.

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