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Bringing Down the Sky: From Great to Good in Minnesota

3 Michael Manley

MNHAllI. The Tornado and the Plow Horse

I recently plugged the words “Salieri” and “Festival” into Google, which limped back with a meager Salieri Opera Festival of 2010, presented by Fondazione Fioroni in Verona, Italy. Curious, I added “2013” to the search, and Google came back with only three results, none of which led to a Salieri Festival. When I replaced “Salieri” with “Mozart” in the three-word search, however, Google lit up with 88,100 results.

The difference, of course, is in the degree of their respective artistic success: Salieri was a good composer, but Mozart was a great one.

I have been thinking about this paradigm of Good and Great, as I have been following the labor dispute between the Minnesota Orchestra Association and their musician employees. This labor dispute has seen an unprecedented year-plus “lockout”- in which the management does not hire or pay its workers to perform their work (here, the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra), as a way of pressuring them to accept (usually) less favorable contract terms.  This lockout has resulted in the cancellation of at least one entire season by the Minnesota Orchestra Association, and has seen a newly-renovated concert hall sit silent.

I recalled a stirring keynote address, given to the four thousand attendees of the 2008 National Performing Arts Convention, by Good to Great and Good to Great in the Social Sectors author James C. Collins. The subtitle of his latter monograph: Why Business Thinking is Not the Answer. 

Artistic excellence is often “messy,” it requires a certain amount of risk and chaos. At times it is foolish and irresponsible. Mediocrity, on the other hand, is highly responsible, predictable, and reliable. Mozart was the messy, unpredictable tornado, and Salieri the dependable plow horse.

The Minnesota Orchestra Association has been conducting a year-plus campaign to, among other things, eliminate risk and chaos; they have expressed that financial responsibility and sustainability, which they predicate (not entirely rationally) on draconian cuts to musician compensation, are their sole priorities and goals. If this last year is any proof, the Minnesota Orchestra Association wants a plow horse, or they want nothing at all.

I confess that this business of artistic greatness caused me to throw out the whole first draft of this article. In it, I had focused on the bargaining strategy of the Minnesota Orchestra Association, and what I perceived were miscalculations and errors on their part, and which are harming the organization as a whole. This laundry list included: excluding the musicians from planning and governance; substituting financial austerity for institutional vision; and going on strike against one’s own patrons, donors and mission (because this is what a long-term lockout of their musicians amounts to). I hoped this list would be useful, in a kind of “You’re Doing it Wrong” way. But I realized my arguments were built on false assumptions.

A lightbulb went off in my head, while I was reading what seemed like the hundredth article on “Bonusgate.” These articles detailed the handsome bonuses paid to Minnesota Orchestra Association President and CEO Michael Henson, at a time when the Minnesota Orchestra was busy, well, not putting on concerts at all. The unison forehead-slap from the online chorus of bloggers, journalists and commentators was deafening-really, how could someone who has so flamboyantly, brazenly and publicly driven the wagon over the cliff receive such lavish reward? The Music Director has walked, engagements in the US and Europe have been cancelled, the new hall sits empty, and the artistic reputation of the ensemble is in a shambles. Forget bonuses, how does Mr. Henson even have a job at this point?

But I realized this question was flawed; it presumes that cancelled engagements, an empty hall, a fleeing Music Director, and a diminished artistic reputation are negatives for the Minnesota Orchestra Association. But what if they aren’t negatives at all-what if they are the goals? In this context, Mr. Henson’s tenure is not a failure, but an unqualified victory.

But why would an esteemed orchestra intentionally diminish it’s brand, court all kinds of bad PR, and, crucially, not fulfill its mission for over a year? Why would its stewards work so hard to go not from Good to Great, but from Great back to Good? And what is gained when “sustainability” becomes the only value an organization strives for?

A great deal, actually. Having a star conductor like Osmo Vanska raise the orchestra to internationally-respected artistic excellence means having to tour and record, both of which are expensive, as is the salary of Maestro Vanska. And there are the overscale-laden salaries of in-demand star performers, such as former principal clarinetist Burt Hara (who has already decamped to the Los Angeles Philharmonic). The Minnesota Orchestra Association has been relieved of these financial burdens now. The artistic damage is acknowledged, perhaps, but also seen as irrelevant-the aspiration to maintain or build on their artistic brand, which took decades to achieve, is not part of the Minnesota Orchestra Association’s plan for the future; financial sustainability and ‘having the orchestra we can afford’-which means, in this context, the orchestra which the board decides that it will pay for-is the only real goal. And if that orchestra is a mediocre shadow of its former self, well so be it.  Great is high-maintenance and chaotic; Good is predictable and ‘sustainable.’

II. ‘The New Model’ and The Status of the Sky

There is much talk in the orchestra field of the need for a new paradigm. Flat ticket sales, aging audiences, year-round employment contracts, donor fatigue, a depressed economy-all these pressure points require, in the minds of many, a need to reinvent the wheel. Let us call these folks “The Sky is Falling” camp. This camp, of which the Minnesota Orchestra Association is a Gold Key member, believes that all their woes are encompassed by their musician labor contracts; if they could just pay musicians a third or half of the salary at which they hired them, cut their weeks of employment down, pay less or nothing for benefits such as healthcare and pension-these modifications will magically make fundraising a walk in the park, and magically grow the audience, and magically make the orchestra a vital asset in community service. At least that is what I believe the optimists in “The Sky is Falling” camp believe. The pessimists just want a cheaper orchestra, and when it comes to cheaper orchestras, any orchestra will do. By all evidence, the Minnesota Orchestra Association is a “Sky is Falling” pessimist.

On the other hand, we have “The Sky is Not Falling” camp. These are orchestras who, despite the same set of challenges listed above which are faced by their “Sky is Falling” counterparts, manage to marry administrative talent with creative vision to achieve success in spite of these challenges (as I write this, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is reporting record fundraising and ticket sales).

This is not to say that “The Sky is Not Falling” folks haven’t faced tough negotiations, or even short-term work stoppages, or that they have never asked their musicians for cutbacks. The difference is that “The Sky is Not Falling” orchestras settle their disputes quickly and move on. Musicians in San Francisco, Cleveland and Chicago have fought with their administrations over money-but these fights are confined to the bargaining process, and neither side has let them seriously interfere with the larger missions of their respective orchestras. But with “The Sky is Falling” orchestras, cutbacks are the mission; there are no other ideas.

Another major tenet of the new paradigm for orchestras is greater community interaction and engagement. In “The Sky is Not Falling” orchestras, their esteemed artistic reputations are leveraged to support these initiatives, not sacrificed for them. In “The Sky is Falling” camps, however, community service is viewed as a replacement for artistic excellence as the orchestra’s chief value. And there is some logic to this temptation-it is easier to fund projects which have a positive social impact, such as free music lessons to at-risk youth, than it is to fund next year’s Beethoven cycle. But while having a Burt Hara on clarinet for an Osmo Vanska-conducted Beethoven cycle would be ideal if not vital, there are plenty of lesser clarinetists and conductors perfectly fine for the outreach program at the Boys and Girls club, or the side-by-side concert with the youth orchestra. And this is the problem: in this new service and engagement-centered paradigm, the orchestra needs good musicians but not great ones. At least that is how “The Sky is Falling” crowd sees it.

I am inspired by the efforts of the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, self-producing concerts as the Minnesota Orchestra Association attempts to starve them into submission-they have certainly won the moral battle. But when it comes to the war, it is hard to see this as a failure for the current Minnesota Orchestra Association; they are deaf to the artistic argument the musicians are making, which is a Good to Great argument. The Minnesota Orchestra Association’s aim is to go from Great to Good; to replace “The Minnesota Orchestra” with “An Orchestra In Minnesota.” This isn’t exactly hard to spot, and the blogging chorus has been urging the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra to form their own ensemble, and ditch the Minnesota Orchestra Association completely. So far, the musicians have said they prefer to settle their differences with the Minnesota Orchestra Association and get back to work.

That is achievable, if the right leadership can be put in place. But it feels to me that the current Minnesota Orchestra Association leadership has crossed a Rubicon, one which no other major US orchestra administration has dared bridge: they have shown indifference toward artistic excellence as a core value.

With recent pressure from legislators and community leaders, it’s possible that the endowment and assets of the Minnesota Orchestra Association might be put into the hands of new stewards. The Minnesota Orchestra Association would survive as the necessary administrative infrastructure, but the musicians-and audience members, donors, and supporters-would at least have advocates who cared about the art form.

Has Minnesota Orchestra Association President and CEO Michael Henson earned his lavish bonuses? Well so far he has saved the organization more than a years’ worth of concert production expenses and musician wages, and he has erased a million-dollar annual Music Director expense from the budget. He has also  unburdened the administration of several hefty first-chair musician salaries. He isn’t merely proclaiming “The Sky is Falling;” he is yanking on the rigging, watching it come down, and exclaiming “See, I was right all along!” His board, in turn, has rewarded his efforts to make the orchestra more “sustainable” (and perhaps forgetting that the most sustainable annual budget is zero; doing less or nothing is always the easier path). The problem is, audiences don’t clap for “sustainable,” and donors don’t give to “sustainable.” The plow horse is a ride to nowhere;  the tornado sweeps us off our feet.

So much has happened during the year of silence in Minnesota. A new concert hall sits empty; invitations to perform at major European festivals are rescinded; gifted musicians in key principal posts resign to take work elsewhere; the music director most linked to the orchestra’s artistic growth resigns; recording contracts are cancelled. And in the face of all this, the Minnesota Orchestra Association shows no enthusiasm or urgency for returning to their one-time core mission, nor any real sense of loss at not having produced a concert in over a year. Instead, they drone on in their dull, BusinessThink voices about “sustainability,” “the orchestra we can afford,” and the financial “health and well being” of the orchestra. One measure of how far the Minnesota Orchestra Association has drifted from its artistic mission: they view CEO Michael Henson as vital, and Music Director Osmo Vanska as expendable.

So what, really, is the mission of the Minnesota Orchestra Association? Under the well-compensated leadership of President Michael Henson, it has been to tame the tornado and feed the plow horse, and to reverse the artistic trajectory of the orchestra from Great back to Good.

It has also been to bring the sky-the lofty source of those messy tornados-crashing down.

So far, it has been a smashing success.

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3 comments feed top ↑

  1. Pingback by Polyphonic.org - The Orchestra Musician Forum - 2013 Recap: Top 10 Most Popular Posts!
    December 31, 2019 at 1:45 PM

    […] Bringing Down the Sky: From Great to Good in Minnesota By Michael […]

  2. Michael Manley Comment by Michael Manley
    November 1, 2019 at 4:00 PM

    Thanks for commenting Timothy. Pure competency, as you point out with Salieri, doesn’t really get you there. And brilliance is often unstable.

  3. Comment by Timothy Judd
    October 30, 2019 at 3:38 PM

    The Minnesota situation can be seen in the larger context of what may be happening to the United States. Decades of wealth and progress are being “harvested” by greedy global interests and the country is being (and has been) sold out. In a global era, maybe business leaders who sit on boards have forgotten what it means to serve LOCAL interests. There no longer is any pride in having a great institution which serves the community.

    I agree with your Mozart-Saliari reference. Recently I made a similar comparison: