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Where no orchestra has gone before

0 Robert Levine

The Minnesota Orchestra has once again made history; this time with a public threat by its music director to leave unless things are settled very soon:

Osmo Vänskä says he will resign as music director of the Minnesota Orchestra if the ensemble loses a prestigious engagement at New York’s Carnegie Hall because of the current musician lockout.

In a letter to board chairman Jon Campbell and chief executive Michael Henson, Vänskä said he believes the orchestra needs to be playing by late May or, at the very latest, early September to achieve the proficiency needed for the Carnegie appearance — which he called one of the most significant goals of his tenure.

“I must make it clear, that in the case Carnegie Hall chooses to cancel the Minnesota Orchestra’s concerts this November, i.e. if they lose confidence in our ability to perform … then I will be forced to resign,” Vänskä wrote.

While Vänskä didn’t explicitly place blame on either side, the MO board reacted as if they’d been bitten by the largest mosquito in Minnesota history:

Campbell said that when Vänskä signed a contract extension in 2009, he was given a heads-up that the business model was changing — in short, contract talks would be tough. Minnesota is one of many orchestras nationally that have been pinched financially.

“I’m disappointed because he agreed to the new business model and he’s in a way not really able to stick with the plan we all had,” Campbell said. “We’ve been pursuing a strategy to get serious negotiations going and I don’t think there’s anything in the letter that alters the plans we’re working on.”

2009, of course, was a year in which the orchestra reported a balanced budget, as well as two years before this:

In 2011, after choosing to balance its budget the previous two years, the board retained the public-relations firm Padilla Speer Beardsley to determine “what size of deficit to report publicly, between $2.9 million and $4.3 milion.”

It must be hard to keep all the stories straight. But Campbell’s calling Vänskä a dirty rat - in the nicest possible way of course, this being Minnesota - is a little unfair. Vänskä may have known about “the plan we all had,” or at least about the tough negotiations part, but I doubt very much that whatever he “agreed to” included shutting down the orchestra for a season, losing a bunch of the orchestra’s best musicians, and forfeiting any future Carnegie appearances. And I suspect that “agreement” was not really what the board asked for; “silence” is probably more accurate, hence the anger at his speaking out.

It can be hard to remember just how far outside the lines this “negotiation” has strayed. Orchestras have lost seasons before; it’s rare, but it’s happened. Orchestras have been locked out before, although I can’t bring to mind the last time it happened outside of the Twin Cities (oops - see below). And music directors have protested about what their board was doing in other places, although that’s just about as rare; slavish adherence to the Music Directors’ Code of Omertá is the norm (although fortunately the enthusiastic public support for institutional self-mutilation that Leonard Slatkin showed in Detroit is not).

But none of these things have ever happened to an orchestra like Minnesota. The Minnesota Orchestra was a paragon of institutional excellence for decades. It was not always the great orchestra it’s become, but in terms of governance and management it was right at the top of the class. To have an institution with that recent history of artistic and institutional excellence go through this kind of trench warfare is unprecedented in our industry.

I thought a few months ago that the Twin Lockouts posed an existential threat to the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, but that it was beyond impossible that the Minnesota Orchestra wouldn’t somehow get through this board-imposed ordeal in one piece. I think it’s time to realize that this board may truly be capable of burning down the orchestra in order to save it with its “new business model” - killing it, not just as a great orchestra, but as any kind of orchestra.

At the end of the day, who can stop them?

 Correction and addendum:  I must have been trying to say that “orchestras have been locked out before this season, although I can’t bring any to mind… ” as of course both Atlanta and Indianapolis were locked out for several weeks in the fall of 2012. And I missed the point of my own post, which was that the lockouts are only a consequence of the real problem, which is the depth of the cuts being demanded by management. What’s unprecedented in Minnesota is the demand that the musicians of an orchestra that had been financially healthy for decades, and at the top of its game artistically for the past few years, give up all the real salary increases they’ve received since the early 1980s. Everything that’s happened since is simply a result of that demand.

On re-reading this post, I realized that I missed the single scariest line in the original article, which was this quote from the board chair:

We’ve been pursuing a strategy to get serious negotiations going and I don’t think there’s anything in the letter that alters the plans we’re working on.”

The musicians show no signs of caving, your shiny $50 million hall renovation will open in July with no musicians, your place on the very select list of orchestras invited to play at Carnegie Hall is at risk, and the music director who has led the orchestra to international acclaim is threatening to leave - and none of this causes you to rethink what you’re doing?

 

 

 

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