A Momentary Respite In Minnesota

On Friday, 2/1/2013 the Minnesota Orchestra came together again to play as an ensemble under their music director, Osmo Vanska, for the first time since the lockout that has obliterated the 2012-13 season started. There are numerous reports about the sold-out and emotionally charged concert but after the applause, all that remains is the reality of a continued work stoppage.

violinThe fact that Vanska conducted the concert is nothing short of a miracle and was made possible due to the neutral event setting, which was sponsored by Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and long time orchestra angel Judy Dayton. Officially, the event was to celebrate the orchestra’s Grammy nomination for their recording of Sibelius Symphony No. 2 and Symphony No. 5.

MPR News published an article by Euan Kerr on 2/1/2013 that includes an interview with Vanska following the concert’s rehearsal. The fact that Vanska granted the interview is surprising given that insider scuttlebutt says the orchestra’s leadership told Vanska in no uncertain terms that if he spoke out again about the work stoppage, it may rise to the level of just cause dismissal and cancelation of his work agreement.

This unconfirmed human resources event was purportedly in response to Vanska’s 11/12/2012 letter where he expressed a number of heartfelt concerns about the impact of the work stoppage on the orchestra along with the organization’s mission based future.

And given that the animosity between the Minnesota Orchestra Association (MOA) and its musicians hasn’t exactly abated and in an environment where tempers run high and emotions run deep, even an unintentional pregnant pause from Vanska can be easily misconstrued.

Speaking of animosity, the latest bit of acrimony emerged last week when the musicians cried foul against the MOA for violating a press blackout when they released details that were not yet finalized. An article by Graydon Royce in the 1/30/2013 edition of the Star-Tribune reports that the MOA disputes a mutually agreed upon press blackout existed in the first place.


We are pleased today to share with you an update on our ongoing discussions with the Musicians’ Union.

As you may recall, our teams met on January 2, agreeing to a fresh start in our talks. At that time, the Board outlined a four-point plan that was designed to remove any remaining barriers to the musicians offering a counterproposal. We have now followed through on each of those points, by sharing future financial forecasts with the Union; altering our mission statement to address musician concerns; offering additional meeting dates; and agreeing to the independent financial review that the musicians have long sought. Our agreement did not include a media blackout, and we have continued to receive media coverage through the month.

With regard to the financial review, we’ve suggested the following specific parameters:

  • The review should be jointly funded by the Orchestra and the Union;
  • The review should test the accuracy of the Orchestra’s Fiscal 2012 financial position;
  • The review should test the forward-looking financial assumptions upon which the organization’s strategic plan for 2012-15 is based.

We’ve also noted that we are willing to include a fundraising feasibility study in the joint review in order to gauge whether any levels of new funding exist in the community to support the musicians’ contract. Currently our community supports the Orchestra through our Annual Fund, our Symphony Ball and our comprehensive campaign. As part of our strategic plan, we have implemented several new fundraising initiatives, including a 20 percent increase in Board giving, ongoing endowment fundraising and an artistic projects campaign to support touring and recording.

Our fundraising professionals have a good sense of the realistic fundraising capacity of our community, and we think we have accurately reflected this in our strategic plan, but this issue is at the heart of these negotiations, and we are willing to hear the musicians’ strategy around new funding and to test its feasibility and sustainability with an independent expert.

We still face a challenging road ahead—these reviews will require time and effort—but we hope that the independent analysis can bring us to a common understanding of the Orchestra’s financial position and the fundraising capacity of our community. We hope this will serve as the foundation upon which the Union can create a counterproposal, so we may begin the two-way negotiations that will lead to a settlement that assures a healthy Minnesota Orchestra for many years to come.


Jon R. Campbell
Minnesota Orchestra Board Chair

Michael Henson
Minnesota Orchestra President and CEO

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 “A Momentary Respite In Minnesota”

  1. Hi, Drew,

    Thanks for this post. The MOA statement makes my blood boil, the tone is so patronizing. I wish I had the power to dissolve the Board and fire Henson, and then start over with people who do not buy their way onto the Board but have nonprofit management experience.

    What is your experience regarding orchestra boards in America? Are they usually volunteer? Do any pay their directors? The only one I’ve looked at recently, for another reason, was Chicago’s. I liked that they separated professional advisors from the Board, and I think it would be a good idea in Minneapolis. To whom is the Board accountable? It seems to me that there needs to be some mechanism or procedure to follow that might keep ’em humble, as they say.

    I was at the concert. It was awe-inspiring. I’m proud of my hometown band and its music director. It was such a joy and relief to have them playing music together again. Very intense evening of music and emotion.


    • Boards are supposed to be accountable to the public interest. But that, of course, is a subjective term, and there aren’t specific mechanisms for enforcement of serving the public interest, other than IRS review of tax exempt status and things like that.

      And specific financing decisions come with additional layers of fiscal accountability (debt covenants might require you to pay everything you owe at once if your deficit gets too high or your cash flow too constrained).

      Ultimately, funders, patrons and stakeholders decide if the Board is doing a good job. They vote with their feet, as they say.

  2. If the attitude of the MOA towards Vanska is indeed “shut up about the work stoppage or you’re out the door”, then that’s another (yet another?) indication of how utterly stupid the MOA’s behavior is. They seem oblivious to the fact that several other major orchestras are looking for music directors or principal conductors, or will put Vanska even more on their radar. There’s a reason that the Chicago Symphony called on Vanska to help out with their Far East tour in place of Riccardo Muti, and it’s not just because Vanska was available, namely that Vanska is a very, very fine conductor with an excellent record as an orchestra builder and recording artist. It’s not hard to envisage the management of the Boston Symphony getting on the phone to Vanska’s agent to try to book him for dates in Symphony Hall, or maybe even ensembles like the London Symphony Orchestra eyeing him for their future. Boston is looking for a music director currently, of course, while Gergiev’s recent acceptance of the Munich Philharmonic post may well open up the LSO’s principal conductorship. Vanska is too diplomatic to say so, but in terms of conducting opportunities and Minnesota, he’s in the driver’s seat. If the MOA is dumb enough to try to muscle him like that, Vanska can easily get another leading conductor post elsewhere, not to mention continue guest-conducting.

    I don’t live in the Twin Cities, so I can’t comment on the concert or the atmosphere. It’s not hard to imagine it from a distance, though.

  3. We in the Twin Cities are enormously happy with Osmo and the work he’s done with the MO. He has achieved great things here, & I have to think that he is on a few short lists for music directorships. I also suspect that Michael Henson and the MOA have shot their credibility if they think they can “blackball” Vanska elsewhere.

  4. Drew–Regarding the “skuttlebutt” that management told Osmo that further public statements could be reason for dismissal: How good is your source for this information? First thought would be that the story is far-fetched given the public relations disaster such an action would bring. But then the MOA management is remarkably clueless about public relations. They effectively cancelled the season, which will have repercussions for quite a long time. So, as I think about this whole fiasco, it is not seem much of a reach to guess that they would not mind getting a cheaper conductor than Osmo. They did exactly this in the mid-1990s when Eije Oue was hired to replace Edo de Waart. (I have that on very good authority.) Most observers agree that Eije’s tenure did not go well.

    • I promised the sources that they would remain anonymous, which is something I rarely do but they are all in positions to suffer considerable retribution if they are known. This is rarely done, regular readers know how prickly of an issue this is but in this instance, the sources were reliable enough and the subject of such gravity that it was worth making the exception.

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