What’s A Music Director To Do?

The 11/15/2012 edition of the Star-Tribune published an article by Graydon Royce which examines a letter written by Minnesota Orchestra music director Osmo Vänskä and addressed to the orchestra’s board and musicians. The Star-Tribune generously provided a copy of the letter, which contains a great deal of heartfelt anxiety from Vänskä about the current work stoppage and the orchestra’s future.

Read the Osmo Vänskä letter.

November 12, 2012
Dear Members of the Minnesota Orchestra Board and the Musicians of the Orchestra:

In the last few years, the Minnesota Orchestra has truly established itself as a world-class orchestra. Critics and audiences around the world praise what we have achieved together. The national and international attention we have attracted through our Beethoven and Sibelius recordings, our Carnegie Hall and BBC Proms engagements, as well as our crucial work at home is the result of the invested talent, energy and commitment of an exceptional group of artists, not merely competent professionals.

The Board is justifiably proud of the results which the Minnesota Orchestra has achieved; many other Boards would be delighted if their own orchestra achieved anything like the level of the Minnesota Orchestra. This is all the more gratifying when you compare our costs with our peers in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles.

The Twin Cities is such a special place. No metropolitan area our size can boast the award-winning cultural offerings that we do. We are the home of several Fortune 500 companies as well as many other innovative businesses. Our downtown is thriving, our unemployment low. Smart, creative people choose to live here because of all the Twin Cities has to offer. No other market our size has an orchestra such as ours, playing at the same level as the greatest orchestras in the world. A metropolitan leader as cultured as this must protect, preserve and cultivate such an asset.

But now I fear we may be on a path to diminishing greatly, if not destroying, the Minnesota Orchestra as an artistic and cultural leader. While there in no progress in the contract negotiations; while players are unable to rehearse and perform together; while some are obliged to seek jobs elsewhere–I am desperately anxious about the risk posed to the quality and spirit of the orchestra for the future. I become deeply emotional when I listen to our latest Sibelius recording edit of the 1st and 4th Symphonies, first because the music is so moving and superbly played in the hands of our musicians, and second because I fear that to preserve our reputations I may need to consider letting go of the remaining recording projects we have planned. I will also be in the position to think seriously about the viability of bringing a diminished or compromised orchestra to Carnegie Hall for our four concerts in the 2013-14 season, plus international touring thereafter, including a re-invitation to the BBC Proms.

It is difficult to imagine that the current negotiation process will sustain the orchestra’s future. Rather, the process may rob us of the chance of having a world class ensemble for years to come. When the lockout is over, the Twin Cities may have a “professional” orchestra, but inevitably not the same one, nor a highly respected one. Will anyone–either the Board of the Musicians–be able to reflect back with pride at what was accomplished during this season? The Association and the Musicians must come together to mitigate any more damage.

It is clear that the orchestra’s finances are deeply troubled and finding a solution must balance business and art. I urge the Board and the players of the MO, from the bottom of my heart, to seek new and creative ways–with insulting or demeaning–to pursue these negotiations, to re-establish a common vision, to identify a path forward, in partnership, to a financially and artistically sustainable future. There must be some way to re-establish trust and bring both parties to negotiate once again.

The Twin Cities is a unique and great place to live. The 109-year-old Minnesota Orchestra is a great orchestra. We are all proud of what we have achieved here. The world-class Orchestra Hall this orchestra needs and deserves is only months from completion. Once again, many other orchestras envy our significant accomplishments.

Nine years ago, you brought me here and entrusted me to lead a world-class orchestra, which I have enthusiastically and faithfully done. It is my responsibility as Music Director, and one that I take extremely seriously, to maintain and develop the artistic level of this great orchestra. If the orchestra does not play, its quality will most definitely diminish. Please, do what it takes, find a way, talk together, listen to each other and come to a resolution of this dreadful situation.


Osmo Vänskä

What’s interesting about the Vänskä letter is how quickly both sides jumped on it for their own communication purposes and the selective excerpting speaks volumes.

But before you continue, it’s crucial that you first read Vänskä’s letter in full to form your own frame of reference; then come back to this section and continue.

The first stakeholder out of the gate was the Minnesota Orchestra Association (MOA) which distributed an electronic communication to supporters on 11/14/2012. Their message excerpted the following passage (complete with selective editing):

“It is clear that the orchestra’s finances are deeply troubled and finding a solution must balance business and art. I urge the Board and the players of the Minnesota Orchestra… to pursue these negotiations, in partnership, to a financially and artistically sustainable future.”

The musicians posted an announcement at their website on 11/15/2012 which focuses on this passage from Vänskä’s letter:

“But now I fear we may be on a path to diminishing greatly, if not destroying, the Minnesota Orchestra…”

shrugPerhaps the real irony here is the selective editing practiced by both sides does more to underscore the anxiety Vänskä expresses over how confrontational the dispute has become than it does to help find solutions.

I contacted the MOA and the musicians to inquire if they attempted to secure permission from Vänskä to excerpt his letter for the purpose of public relations efforts and at the time this article was published, neither side has provided a response.

In the end, using Vänskä’s letter this way cheapens the sentiment while simultaneously making its bittersweet poignancy that much stronger.

But from a comparative perspective, the MOA’s e-blast was far more egregious by using the Vänskä excerpt to segue directly into extended posturing and finger pointing. If nothing else, the race to the bottom that is the Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute shows no sign of slowing down, Vänskä’s efforts notwithstanding.

[ilink url=”https://adaptistration.com/wp-content/uploads/osmocombined.pdf” style=”download”]Download a copy of the Osmo Vänskä letter.[/ilink]

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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12 thoughts on “What’s A Music Director To Do?”

  1. From management’s quote, I think they left off the most important sentence in that particular paragraph: “There must be some way to re-establish trust and bring both parties to negotiate once again.” I wonder why they cut that out?

    I used to write ad copy and such, and I’m familiar with the use of excerpts, but it’s also kind of important with letters like Osmo’s, where he had no expectation it would be published — or did he? — that they get his permission in writing to reproduce the letter in its entirety or in part. He owns the copyright on the letter. If they did not, I believe it’s not a good sign how they regard him.

    The same goes for the musicians, of course. Did they get his permission to publish the letter on their website? I suspect they did, but I don’t know.

    I agree with Amy on the presentation. The musicians respected Osmo’s words, his thoughts and his feelings. By chopping up his letter to suit their own purposes, the MOA did not.

    You are a sane voice, Drew, in this whole mess. Thank you.

    • Those are good observations and I find myself wondering about the ownership issues. I am not certain off the top of my head if Osmo is a MOA employee or a private contractor and that difference might have some bearing on permissions. But it would be surprising if Osmo raised any public objection, but from a sense of maintaining public trust and mutual respect, asking for and obtaining permission would have been a recommended high road in this instance.

      And at this point in time, still no official word from either party vis-a-vis my inquiry.

      • Thanks, Drew. I inquired of the MOA at Facebook and received the answer here: http://www.facebook.com/minnesotaorchestra/posts/10151130910018045?comment_id=24162004&notif_t=feed_comment. It wasn’t helpful. As I wrote in my response, I suspect their defensiveness, or what I interpret as their defensiveness, means they did not obtain permission.

        I had not thought about the employee vs. private contractor issue. I know that if he had written the letter in his office on equipment owned by MOA, they’d probably own the letter. If his intent was a business letter vs. a personal letter, that might also make it hard to hold MOA accountable for not getting permission. But I suspect he may view the letter as a personal letter from him to the parties involved. He sent it to them, not the media, too. I’ve worked as an independent contractor writer and used to include in my contracts specific steps to the client owning my work. They usually didn’t own it until I was paid, for example. Otherwise, they could not change the writing willy-nilly without consulting me.

        It will be interesting to see if you receive responses….

        Thanks, Cinda

  2. Osmo is listed as an employee, not a contractor, on the Orchestra’s 990.

    The most important line to me was “”Find new and creative ways – without insulting or demeaning – to pursue negotiations.” It’s a message to both sides. I have a bias towards the musicians but compromise (which we desperately need!) is in the middle.

    I’m also wondering about hindsight, but I’m thinking more about orchestra business plans. Should the larger community (donors? subscribers? other partners?) should be engaged in those conversations? How? I’m clear they can’t be in the negotiating room, but possibly in looking at the future and where to go.

  3. It’s entirely possible I’m so far in the bubble that I’ve lost perspective, and I’ve said as much many times while covering this story. However, I personally don’t feel as if these two actions are that comparable. Management sent an email blast without any link to the full letter, and they edited it selectively to make it sound as if Osmo supported 100% of what they wanted. The musicians posted the entire letter on their website, while choosing one sentence to use as a hook, and they added no commentary. Maybe I’m going insane (totally possible after three months of covering this absurd garbage day in and day out lol) but those two things strike me as being fundamentally different.

    That being said, I appreciate your outside perspective so very much, Drew. Because I do get concerned I’m going crazy.

    I’m almost certain that Osmo knew this would be made public, or knew there was a very good chance that it would be made public. Everything else has been; why not this? He’s not a naive man. But that’s just my opinion; I don’t know for sure.

    In case you haven’t heard, Mr. Campbell basically admitted that members of management were not the ones who gave the letter to the Strib…


    Interpret that as you will. I read it as management felt the letter was more damaging to their cause than they let on in their email blast, but of course I could be wrong. I don’t know how to read them anymore. I have literally zero idea what their motivations are.

    Mary, I think you have such a wonderful point about how the larger community really needs to be more involved. It would be so amazing if members from management realized they’re not working with just musicians; they’re working with an audience, too. Right now they’re treating the orchestra like some bizarre business venture, where the only *really* important thing is their ability to be “fiscally responsible” (check out the drastically altered mission statement for an example of what I mean). It’s like a company obsessing over their finances without ever once asking its customers what they want or what they could do better. We’ve shown our willingness to engage in an intelligent passionate dialogue. We’ve proven how devoted we are to our beloved orchestra. We’ve sold out all three concerts the musicians have given / will give in 2012. We probably could have sold out more. We’re not dumb. And yet management continually dumbs things down for us, obfuscates, leaves out important points (the edited letter is one example). Which leads me to believe they don’t care what we think at all. I can’t begin to express to you how angry and betrayed patrons are feeling. I understand that I’m likely meeting a skewed sample because I run a pretty anti-management blog (heh), but look at their Facebook page and read the strongly-worded condemnation after strongly-worded condemnation. I would say at least 90% of the online public blames management for the stalemate, whether rightly or wrongly. Yet management keeps acting as if 90% of the public was behind them. They make no real move to reach out to include us in any way in the dialogue. And that frustrates me, because…isn’t this our orchestra? Didn’t our community build it? Aren’t $14 million of Minnesotans’ tax dollars paying for the hall? Sure, Mr. Campbell and Mr. Davis gave a lot, but as a community we gave WAY more. So I don’t understand why they’re acting as if they hold a monopoly on wisdom.

    The musicians actually listen to patrons. They have a Facebook page where they’ve addressed questions; there’s an email address on their website; they held a concert in October where during the show they asked if anyone had any questions to wait until after the show and they’d all come out to the lobby to talk to us (and they did, for an hour or two afterward). Management? They haven’t asked for our opinions once. They put up a page on their website regurgitating the same things they’ve said before, framing it in new ways. They only speak a couple sentences here and there to major media outlets, and when they do, they say incredibly dumb insensitive things. When they reply to the letters of concerned patrons, they reply with stock answers that don’t actually answer their questions. They say on Facebook that they will pass our words along to leadership, but the massive outcry there over the last few months doesn’t seem to have done tiddly-wink, so I can’t imagine they really want to hear our opinions. I’m not sure what else we have to do to prove our worthiness of being listened to. It’s frustrating.

    Now I feel like I’m going on a rant, which I don’t mean to do, especially on Drew’s blog, which is a refuge of sanity and respect and professionalism and level-headedness, so I will stop now. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

    • Many thanks for your thoughts Emily, and I think the distinction you make regarding how the musicians and the donor letter use excerpts from Osmo’s letter is apt, but in the end, both sides approached their respective communications from the same perspective: present an excerpt that aligns most closely with one or more of their positions.

      What followed is the differences you are pointing out. Whereas the musicians published the letter in full and did not include any editorializing, the donor letter signed by the MOA board chair and President & CEO used an edited excerpt as a starting point for extended posturing.

      Perhaps unsurprisingly, neither side presented the letter (in part or in full) without attempting to influence a reader’s perspective.

      Ultimately, patrons and supporters will need to determine for themselves whether or not those efforts influence their feelings and perhaps inspire action.

  4. The Osmo/Musician relationship is keen, profound, subtle, intuitive, interdependent. The difference in how they used Osmo’s words can be understood through that lens. Management has an inherently business-oriented, public and apparently political vision.
    Reconciliation between these two sides would be a blessing indeed. Can’t see who’s making that happen, but Osmo came closest, I think.

    • To be clear here, no one but Osmo is in a position to speak about his relationship with the musicians. Any other observations are perspective, but not definitive. So as a reminder to everyone, please resist the temptation to speak on behalf of others or in universal absolutes; there’s certainly nothing wrong with providing your own observations just be certain to phrase them that way.

  5. This post and the previous one about hindsight have been rattling around in my brain beginning with Sun morning coffee and the full paper.

    Organizations in all sectors now talk about messaging discipline. Your link to Holly Mulcahy’s blog seems to endorse that in some way. Everyone should be clear, be succinct and stay on message. Perhaps I’m the one adding “stay on message” which assumes there is a messaging strategy and/or PR consultant.

    So how can two groups begin to move toward and eventually find the middle once a situation reaches the “play it out in the press” stage? The truth is usually more complicated than succinct letters can address. Compromise happens in those grey areas, and I’m not sure it can or does happen in statements.


    • Mary, I’ve really enjoyed your examination of MOA’s financial statements at Emily’s blog and thank you for the effort that took. You raised some really interesting questions that would never have occurred to me at all!

      For negotiations to proceed in good faith, it is my understanding that each side needs to trust and believe the other side is negotiating in good faith and honesty. You cannot really have productive negotiations otherwise. An example, the Israelis and Palestinians. They each have far more at stake than the other gives it credit for.

      The MOA’s strategy seems to be, from my vantage point, a “let’s hold the line and not give an inch. They’ll give in eventually or all leave. Then we can start over.” You can see this attitude in the new Mission Statement in the Strategic Plan. I was shocked to see on mnorch.org’s “artistic vision” page, that Michael Henson has elevated himself to the same artistic leadership position as Osmo Vanska by his name appearing next to Vanska’s. Moves like that do not help. The MOA needs to see the musicians as people, not labor costs; respect them as people, and make an effort to connect with them. IMHO, they’ve done none of this.

      The musicians, in contrast, have really done almost the opposite. They’re flawed in believing that their strategy will get through to this management team. But I believe they are totally open to ideas, new approaches, and truly want to negotiate and settle. But they want their questions answered first, and I don’t believe their questions are unreasonable.

      My 2 cents (smile)

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