Osmo? Who Needs Him?

Just in case you had any hope that the Minnesota Orchestra Association (MOA) would reach an eleventh hour agreement with its musicians to rescue the 2013/14 season, retain music director Osmo Vanska, and the upcoming Carnegie Hall performance, they made it clear to Graydon Royce in the 9/3/2013 edition of the Star-Tribune that all of those items and more are worth sacrificing in order to achieve their goals for a new collective bargaining agreement.

ADAPTISTRATION-GUY-017The MOA’s trifecta of board and executive leadership, negotiation chairman Richard Davis, board chairman Jon Campbell, and President & CEO Michael Henson, reportedly clarified their line in the sand during a meeting with the Star Tribune’s editorial board.

The newest talking points include an analysis by AKA | Strategy that casts a bleak forecast on fundraising potential and endorses a strategy that the organization can, and should, cut its way to success (download the report).

The Orchestra has prepared a thoughtful and analytically reasonable Strategic Business Plan that seeks to promptly balance its operating budget and achieve financial equilibrium and thus reverse a recent pattern of growing and unsustainable annual operating deficits funded through ever larger exceptional draws from its endowment.


Having exhausted other courses of action, the Orchestra’s Strategic Business Plan calls for a substantial decrease in musicians’ expense to balance its budget. While this decrease may appear to be draconian in size and timing, the Orchestra has no other recourse but to bring that cost element in line and construct a smaller operating budget that can be supported by a realistic view of fundraising and earned revenue.

Musicians, none of which were interviewed by AKA | Strategy, assert that the report is the latest tactic in an effort to avoid bargaining in good faith as well as work through solutions presented by the mutually agreed upon mediator, distinguished diplomat George Mitchell.

For those who may not recall, earlier in 2013 both parties in the dispute agreed to pursue an independent analysis of the institution but that effort quickly fell apart when the MOA refused to include board governance and executive oversight in the review. Instead, the MOA rejected the notion of a mutually agreeable firm and hired AKA | Strategy to conduct an analysis within their parameters and without broader stakeholder input.

For now, it may be difficult to see much potential for an amicable resolution and by this time next week, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if Vanska is the Minnesota Orchestra’s ex-music director.

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 “Osmo? Who Needs Him?”

  1. My personal experience suggests that the analysis of fundraising potential was biased to under-report potential donations. In the spring, the MOA sent an e-mail to patrons advising that they would be asked to participate in a study of fundraising potential. I don’t know if the MOA actually conducted such a study, but I know that my family and I were not included. The MOA black-listed us in March, cutting off all communication (e-mail, letter, marketing, etc.), after I refuted some of their talking points during a fundraising call. This black-listing is significant: My relatives and I have donated nearly $11,000 to the musicians since the start of the year, and we would donate generously to the orchestra if the focus on artistic excellence were maintained. I’m sure that my experience is not unique.

  2. The strategy document identifies (1) the recession and (2) the 2007 contract as the primary causes of the current financial woes. Doesn’t that mean that a return to the previous salary trajectory (per the musicians’ 2010 proposal), rebuilding the endowment with the “building the future” campaign, and riding out the recession would have more or less brought finances back to their 2006 state?

    Drew, can you comment?

  3. Read the MOA “Strategic Plan.” http://www.minnesotaorchestra.org/pdf/strategic_plan/ It’s a quick easy read, almost like a kid’s picture book. It is based on data that was outdated at the time of its Nov. 2, 2011 publication date, and they have not seen fit to revise their viewpoint, regardless of the current condition and direction of the economy. It seems more of a
    Hair-brained Scheme” than a “Strategic Plan.” It might have been interesting if they’d used their plan to try to start up a new orchestra somewhere else, but it’s terrifying to see their attempt to raze the Minnesota Orchestra to make room to raise their unproven alternative.

  4. The board has decided it does not want a professional orchestra of quality. They would rather have one they can push around and pay very little.
    The Minnesota Orchestra may not need Vanska, but they will need someone who has the respect of the musicians, which Vanska seems to have. After this horrible debacle, it seems unlikely that any conductor of international standing would ever come to Minnesota again,
    Most likely, the board hopes he will leave because he has standards. They would prefer a nobody who owes them his life. Or perhaps a discount Andre Rieu?
    Whether or not Vanska is a great conductor is debatable. In my career, I have seen very few good ones. Mostly, conductors depend on the orchestra to figure out what they want by some means other than interpreting his gestures. Vanska is in that category, at least to me. That does not mean he can’t get a great result, but the musicians have a lot to do with any success he has with them. Great orchestras make bad conductors into superstars. The MO is a great orchestra– or it was.
    Many great artists have devoted their lives and energies to the Minnesota Orchestra– including Osmo Vanska. He is a victim here as well. He can move on, but the chances are he has taken a hit financially and career-wise. If he leaves, he will have the same human issues everyone else will have, like finding a new job, home, schools, etc.
    When one considers the history of this orchestra, all the little, difficult steps to greatness, the disgraceful actions of the board are even more disgusting. It is hard to believe.
    I wish I could see a good end to this sad story, but I believe the board is determined to show who is the boss. Of what?

      • If he is good at his job, someone will hire him. There are many orchestras is other parts of the world. It will be hard for him to find an orchestra to pay him what he has been getting in Minnesota, though.
        If he is smart, he will move back to Europe and stay there.
        It is clear that the MOA board and management has no idea what kind of people they are dealing with. The musicians have sacrificed everything to achieve what they have in life and music, and sacrificing this job, while not easy by any means, is less than than the sacrifices made to get where they are. Dignity, self-respect, and will-power are qualities lesser people can never understand, and they would have to give those up to accept what the board want here.
        More likely, the board and managers will be pariahs in their clubs, and in the business as well.

      • Um, “if” Mr. Vanska is good at his job? While he isn’t necessarily the greatest thing since sliced bread, conductor-wise, he is most definitely good at his job, as the Lahti Symphony Orchestra will tell you, for one. 30 years ago, virtually no one outside Finland had heard of them. Thanks to Mr. Vanska’s work, they’re widely respected via their Sibelius recordings.

        But that aside (and I realize that deep down, you’re more with Mr. Vanska than not), he is highly respected in Europe, as witness regular guest-conducting relationships with groups like the London Philharmonic Orchestra. I know that when he guest-conducted in St. Louis years back, the SLSO musicians thought very well of him indeed. Also, when Mr. Muti had to pull out of the Chicago SO tour last fall, the CSO management called on Mr. Vanska as one of the pinch-hit conductors. I can easily imagine that Mr. Vanska may well be sick and tired of the power games that the MOA have played here enough to be done with music directorships in the USA. But given his reputation and record with orchestras, I’m not too worried for his career. At least 2 major posts are open in Europe, in London (the LSO, not the LPO) and the Berlin Phil, and if they had any brains, they’d be extending invitations to him ASAP. There’s even one post open in Finland that I’m aware of, the Helsinki Philharmonic, I believe.

        I wish that I could agree with you about the MOA board and managers being pariahs, but I sincerely doubt that this is the case. I would think that they’ll move among like-minded people, who will applaud them for sticking it to those “d–ned bleeding heart pro-union greedy scumbags” (I exaggerate, but not by much). The board and managers are pretty much pariahs among the Twin Cities general public, it seems to me. Unfortunately, the general public doesn’t roll in money the way the board and managers’ social circles do. And all the board and managers care about is money, not what the ‘little people’ think.

      • You don’t have to defend Maestro Vanska to me: when he came to Philly years ago, I liked his work overall. I merely answered Drew’s question based on my own experience and knowing the realities of orchestra life.
        I define a good conductor as one whose gestures transmit directly, without explanation, the composers wishes to the orchestra, in such a way that the players know exactly what the conductor wants.
        Ask any orchestra player how many such conductors he has known– not many.
        In Philly, after the strike, all of the managers lost their jobs, even the executive director, eventually. And none, to my knowledge, has resurfaced to poison another orchestra.
        The chairman of the board was voted out as soon as it was possible. However, the orchestra has been a toxic place ever since, in my opinion.

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