A Word about those Bonuses….

Recently, in a brilliant bit of detective work, fellow blogger Emily Hogstad discovered some fascinating information about Michael Henson, President and CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra (read it here).  It appears that in terms of executive compensation he had a very good year.  Over the course of 2011 President Henson received two bonuses of $100,000 each—these on top of his regular salary of slightly under $400,000.

Many people were appalled by this news.  The reason?  During this same year, Henson was publicly stating that the Orchestra was tottering on the brink of financial ruin, and drastic steps needed to be made immediately to stave off complete collapse.  He laid off staff and froze salaries for those who remained.  He demanded sacrificial pay cuts from the musicians, equaling 40% of their pay.  He attempted to eliminate seniority pay,  and proposed significant pay cuts for substitute players.  When the musicians balked at these demands, he locked them out and cancelled the 2012-2013 season.  The musicians remain locked out to this day.

It is important to remember that throughout this ugly labor dispute, the musicians have demanded that the Orchestra submit to a independent financial analysis to show if, indeed, the financial situation was as dire as Henson stated.  They pointed out that only a short time before he issued his ultimatum, he had actually bragged to the media and to the state legislature that the Orchestra’s finances were sound.

The Orchestra never agreed to a true independent analysis, but instead commissioned one of its own that was restricted to examining topics the Orchestra asked it to examine, using data the Orchestra provided.  This “independent” analysis was widely mocked.

Emily’s post gives some indication why the Orchestra had no interest in outsiders looking through its ledger books.

As infuriating as it was to read that huge bonuses had been paid out to a man who had simultaneously claimed the Orchestra’s finances were “unsustainable,” it has been even more infuriating to read the Orchestra’s response.

In an article appearing in the Star Tribune today, Jon Campbell, the Orchestra’s Chairman of the Board, gave a full-throated defense of the $200,000 in bonuses (appearing here).

After a week to prepare a statement, I’m astonished that this is all the Orchestra could come up with.

Again, I’m somewhat embarrassed to have to point out… by all accounts, the Orchestra was in rough financial shape.  Bonuses?  Seriously?  If—if—an organization is giving out bonuses in such a situation, there needs to be clear, hard evidence for why they are warranted.  A rock solid case.

But Mr. Campbell gives nothing of the kind.

First, Mr. Campbell attempts one of the weakest justifications possible:  that President Henson earned this due to his “exceptional” work at fundraising, and that he presided over a successful tour to Carnegie Hall and the planned renovation of Orchestra Hall.

Where to begin?

Well, staring with the last point—I’m sorry, but he got $200,000 in part due because he planned a renovation of Orchestra Hall?  One wonders what his bonus is this year for actually completing the renovation of Orchestra Hall.

That said, it’s likely that any bonus this year might be offset due to the fact that he cancelled this year’s Carnegie Hall performance.

But I’m stunned that he was rewarded for his skills as a fundraiser.  The Orchestra’s own documents show a steep decline in fundraising over the last few years.  In fact, President Henson justified the massive pay cuts to everyone else because, in his own words, it was impossible for the Orchestra to fundraise its way out its financial hole and lift itself into to balanced budgets.  Again and again he told us with seriousness and sadness that the community is tapped out.

So which is it—has fundraising reached new heights under his administration?  Or is it in steep decline?

Then there is the jaw-dropping statement that “President Henson agreed to accept the same pay cut as the musicians.”

Gentlemen, this statement so profoundly distorts the truth that I can’t imagine you’re being serious.

Yes, the board ultimately floated an idea that Henson would take a similar pay cut to that demanded of the musicians, but this offer was never fully fleshed out and had only been made after the lockout had dragged on for 11 months.  Moreover, this “concession” on the part of the administration was part of patently absurd proposal that was not made through the normal negotiating process… or even through the Orchestra’s own chosen mediator. Instead, it was made in a news story that appeared in the local press.  Therefore, it was never part of any official offer.  (My analysis of that “offer” can be found here.)  I’m sorry, but bringing up this last minute, sketchy, and ultimately unimplemented deal is an act of deflection, nothing more.

And besides, this mutual pay cut deal is nothing but hypothetical now; it surely played no part in the calculations of Henson’s bonuses over a year ago.

But more disturbing, one immediately suspects that Henson was given such substantial sums so that if and when he had to take a pay cut to show solidarity with the musicians or as part of a negotiated end to the lockout, he would start at a much higher base level.  A 40% cut is much more palatable if you first give yourself a 60% raise.  Or if you have the ability to give yourself any bonus possible, completely divorced from your base rate of pay, that would make up any “pay cut” you were forced to absorb.

At this point, Campbell tosses out what presumably is his major point—that other people in the organization make big money, too.  Therefore, criticism of President Henson is unfair and unwarranted.

This is not only an outrageous statement, it is deeply problematic.

For one, he causally tosses off Music Director Osmo Vänskä’s salary, implying it is even more unreasonable than Mr. Henson’s.  Really?  Is the administration really going to go there?  Over the past few months many members of the Orchestra’s leadership belittled the man, publicly threatened legal action for him making innocuous statements about the labor dispute, publicly treated him with contempt, casually remarked that he was expendable, and ultimately forced him to resign.

Are the Orchestra’s leaders really going to casually throw out his salary simply as a diversionary tactic and to make him look bad?

But this speaks to a larger point. Osmo actually performed the Carnegie Hall concerts that factored into Henson’s bonus, and it was his leadership that secured the invitation in the first place.  He also was critical to securing slots in other European tours, and lead the Orchestra to Grammy nominations.  These were concrete, measurable achievements.

Did he get a bonus?  Why not?

Expanding on this a bit, did President Henson personally lead any of the items for which he is now getting a huge bonus?  Did he do the fundraising by himself, or did he take credit for activities already in progress that were being conducted by a larger team of people?  Is he taking credit for Common Chords, which is essentially a re-branding of activities the Orchestra was already doing?

Another point.  I’m sorry, but it appears the administration is throwing out the salary of Doug Wright—one of the negotiators for the musicians—as a diversionary tactic to show how richly compensated the musicians are.  If this is the case, there is a serious problem at hand.  Doug’s “hugely overcompensated” salary is nearly the same amount of President Henson’s bonus.  And it doesn’t even take into account Henson’s base salary of $400,000.

Greedy musicians, indeed.

This statement brings up another potential problem.  In Jon Campbell’s quote, he makes reference to six musicians who are among the highest paid members of the organization.  But looking at the original tax documents that provided information about President Henson’s bonus, we see that many of those top musicians have since left the Orchestra, and done so (at least in part) because of the labor dispute.  Musicians like Burt Hara and Sarah Kwak, for example.  Is it possible that some of the extreme demands the Orchestra leadership made were done specifically to drive away highly-paid veteran players?

As an aside, management has repeatedly used “average musician salary” again and again during this labor dispute.  Specifically they’ve used as a key metric in determining pay and potential pay cuts.  This is bizarre.  The true measure of musicians’ salaries should be base pay—an absolute, contractually specified number that all others are based on—rather than a changing number that is not tied to anything specific.  I’m curious… with the removal of the most highly-paid musicians, what does “average musician salary” look like now?

But at the end of the day, Jon Campbell’s statements don’t answer a basic question:  if the Orchestra’s finances were in such terrible shape, why did President Henson get such substantial bonuses?  Couldn’t this sum—which, as you point out, is equal to the entire salary of one of the most highly-paid musicians in the Orchestra—be used for more productive purposes?  How many laid off staff members could have kept their jobs if the money had been used for salaries instead of one man’s extraordinary bonuses?

Conversely, if bonuses were indeed warranted, why did only the president receive them?

This “explanation” doesn’t explain anything.  There is no other way to say it—the actions of the board in this matter come off as reckless and irresponsible.



The Concert

This weekend, the Twin Cities experienced an extraordinary musical event that will most certainly pass into local legend—Osmo Vänskä’s farewell performances with the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra.  Originally there were to be two performances at Ted Mann Concert Hall here in Minneapolis, but due to overwhelming demand a third concert was added… a special matinee performance on Saturday afternoon.  I personally had the good fortune to work the Friday concert as a volunteer, and attend the final Saturday evening concert as an attendee.

I’d like to take a few moments to share my feelings, thoughts and impressions of the concert weekend here in my blog.  As Abraham Lincoln said in a far loftier setting, it is altogether fitting and proper to do so; but at the same time, I want to make clear that my own embarrassingly inadequate words will not do justice to the event.  Let me say in advance that for this posting I make no attempt to present a unified essay or comprehensive review, but rather a series of reflections from both performances over the weekend.  I suppose in this regard I’m following the model of Jean Sibelius himself, who famously used tiny musical fragments to organically build vast musical structures. My hope is that I can present an account of this experience that is both vivid and personal.

One thing from the onset.  Let me be absolutely clear that whatever other meanings were attached to the proceedings, in the end Osmo and the musicians presented a concert.  This is important; this wasn’t a funeral, rally, retirement banquet or a community organizing meeting—it was a chance for exceptional artists and an exceptional conductor to make exceptional music one last time.  The emotion was carried in the performances, not by any other medium.  I can think of no better tribute to Osmo’s career, no more honest indicator of our deep love for him and the musicians than to say that given so many options to express himself, he gave us a true concert that reminded us of the power of music, as well as the communal nature of coming together to experience that music live.

* * *

As the concert time approached I was struck by the cliché-like suitability of the weather.  A small detail, but it was perfectly fitting.  Despite the recent drought, this weekend began with skies as gray as Finnish granite, with mists rising up from the Mississippi River that winds its way alongside the concert hall.  Later as the evening wore on, the rains hit, punctuated by blasts of lighting raining down from the murky sky.  Yes, I think to myself—the weather gods certainly know what’s about to happen.

* * *

Arriving an hour before the concert, there was already a line of about 20 or so people lined up and huddled outside the door, many dressed in their Sunday best.  I learn that they don’t have tickets, but are lining up in the hopes that there will be turnbacks.  One gentleman states that even if he can’t get into the auditorium, this is where he needed to be tonight.  He is (was) a long-time season ticket holder who remarked he never got a chance to say goodbye to Osmo, and “even if the maestro doesn’t know I’m here, I’m going to say goodbye tonight.”

 * * *

Inside in the lobby, I’m struck by how it feels like old home week.  Every time I turn my head, every time the crowd parts, I see someone I know.  I laugh at seeing people I knew from many stages of my life… there are friends from college, dozens of singers from the Minnesota Chorale and other choruses, former work friends and even one or two people who used to work for me when I was on staff at Orchestra Hall.

Two figures stand out—two women I used to work with at Orchestra Hall.  The reunions were bittersweet, similar to meeting old friends at a funeral and being both delighted to see them and despondent about the circumstances that bring you together again.  I ran into them separately, but in both cases, they told a similar story… they had long been frustrated by the lockout and had slowly lost confidence with the management’s handling of the situation.  When Osmo was forced out, they concluded they could no longer in good conscience work for the Orchestra, and promptly turned in their resignations.  One of them remarked, “This is my retirement party. Tonight.”  These two have been valued employees of the Orchestra for years, and the loss of their talents and institutional memory is a huge blow to the organization.

* * *

Standing in a place of honor in the lobby were the paper cranes given to the musicians by Eriko Matsukawa (the story behind these cranes is beautiful—if you have not read about, click here).  There was a touching moment when a young Japanese mother was trying to make her way through the crowd to give her young daughter a chance to see them up close. I smiled and stepped out of the way for them to get a better view.  The girl was entranced as her mother explained about them.  A small, but beautiful moment.

* * *

There was an unusual energy in the crowd as we waited for things to get underway.  It was if the seven stages of grief were taking part simultaneously—and collectively.  But on top of those emotions was another one: excitement.  Again, we all knew that whatever else this event was, it was a chance to see world-caliber performers doing their thing.  The roar greeting the musicians as they took the stage was only surpassed by the one greeting Osmo a few minutes later.  From experience, I can say definitively that the effect of participating in that roar was much like singing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy—and in particular that moment where we the singers blast out the auditorium with the restatement of the main theme.  Judging by the musicians’ faces, I think they got a taste of what that moment is like for the audience members to hear that vocal blast.  Freude indeed.

* * *

A minor point, entirely personal.  I was delighted and sad to see Sarah Kwak take the stage with her former colleagues.  She was my mom’s favorite player to watch (“She always plays just like an angel!”) My mom wasn’t able to attend, and I know she would have loved to see Sarah one last time.

* * *

As part of a long-standing Minnesota Orchestra tradition, the concert began with a rousing rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.  One thing that struck me was the musicians’ eyes—generally in a performance they concentrate on the music, with glances around to the conductor or their neighbors as needed.  This was different.  Knowing this music by heart, as I’m sure they must, they were free to look out at the audience, and make eye contact with us.  I locked eyes with several, and the power and intensity of those connections was immense.  It was as if they wanted to hold onto that moment and that audience and burn it into their memories, to sustain them through the turbulent days ahead.  Wow.

Another note, I think the audience was deeply gratified by hearing our national anthem.  It was not just a mark of respect and tradition… it provided a chance, however small, for us as audience members to join in the music ourselves.  Many sang along, even if the words were choked with tears.  It made all of us there a community.

* * *

The concert properly began with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture.  It’s a great piece, and appropriate for the day, as it tells a story about the heroic sacrifice of a man taking a stand against oppression.  Well, it began, and not ashamed to say I fell apart.  Well maybe a little ashamed—who falls apart listening to the Egmont Overture?

I’m also immediately reminded about why live music is so different, and richer, than tossing in a CD.  You got to see the musicians, who were baring their souls.  The expressions, the intensity of their gestures—the fact that some were slightly getting out of their chairs to dig into those strings dramatically and repeatedly demonstrated just how passionate they were about their music making.  It was unforgettable.

* * *

A tiny moment, but one that perfectly captured the camaraderie the hall felt that evening, came right after the Egmont Overture.  As the musicians waited, a stagehand and the librarian came on stage to set up for the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3.  The crowd had given thunderous ovations for literally everything that had happened up to that moment, and saw no reason to stop.  Another exuberant ovation broke out as the two positioned the piano and set the music.  The roar caused them both to stop, shake hands and bow to the audience before continuing their preparations.  We heartily approved.

* * *

Emanuel Ax is an astonishing artist with deep layers of musical wisdom and experience.  He is a titan.  But watching him bustle across the stage to humbly thank the audience and beam at the musicians… he was so wonderfully human.  It was like your beloved grandpa just bounded into the living room to give you a hug.  I wanted to invite him over for dinner.

* * *

I think one of the most deeply affecting moments of the concert for me was the start of the second movement in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto.  It was early on in the concert, but there was already such high emotion, such a rawness to the evening… and Manny Ax responded in the most astonishing way.  Here at this moment, he was playing a gentle theme all alone at a piano.  It was like Beethoven didn’t exist at all—it felt like Manny was making it up as he went along, trying to think of some soothing words of comfort to express his sadness, concern, and care for all of the musicians.  As he played he didn’t watch his hands, he looked straight at Osmo, then surveyed the faces of the musicians around him.  He played that passage as a personal note of companionship and camaraderie given to each one of them.

* * *

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 was another inspired choice for the evening—one Manny offered to add to the performance for the delight in playing it, and as another gift to all those assembled.  Mozart has an astonishing ability to express deep emotions in a highly structured way.  The result captured the profound sense of loss permeating the evening without ever resorting to, say, Verdi’s thundering cries of grief and despair.  Again the slow middle movement of the concerto was a brilliant example of this.  The aching brilliance of Emanuel’s playing was so… humane.  The connection between him and the other musicians was so deep.

…I really don’t have the words.

* * *

In taking his curtain calls, Manny Ax was so self-effacing we collectively wanted to run up and hug him.  Osmo had to all but push him on the stage to get him to take a bow.  And when he did so it was with an embarrassed expression that suggested that he was mortified to be in the spotlight.  He repeatedly tried to deflect the applause toward the musicians and repeatedly applauded them.

I naturally went right home and downloaded his collected recordings of the Beethoven Piano Concertos.  He hardly needs my money, but such an artist must be supported.

* * *

There was an interlude at this point where Principal Trombone Doug Wright walked out and gave a speech.  He judged the audience perfectly, using light humor to break the somber mood while still laying out some important facts.  One key message—despite the gnashing of teeth that classical music is dead, he noted that the due to huge demand the musicians had agreed to perform a third concert (and again, Manny Ax agreed to perform a total of four hugely demanding concertos in one day?  I love him!) The 1,100 tickets sold out in under 30 minutes, and the concert’s box office webpage got 40,000 hits.  Doug was effusive in his thanks for all the support.  Doug, let me say personally that I wish we could do more.

Doug also gave a moving testimonial to Tim Eickholt, the Orchestra’s legendary stage manager who retired on September 1.  I can imagine how painful it must have been to retire at such a time, when the musicians to whom he had given everything for so many years were no longer even allowed in the building.  The audience responded with warm and heartfelt applause.  Among the many touching moments, this was a very special one.  I, for one, can’t imagine Orchestra Hall without him.  Tim will be greatly missed.

* * *

Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite was a different experience altogether, and offered us a rich banquet of musical color and excellence.  The full dynamic range of the Orchestra was on display—every group can play loud, but here we were treated to Osmo’s trademarked ppppppp.  When this happens, you have to hold your breath to hear if the musicians are still playing… and all the while the hair on the back of your neck is standing on edge.  I don’t know what it’s like exactly for the musicians, but he insisted on that same infinitesimal dynamic from us singers, too—and the work it took to achieve them was only equaled by the rewards of pulling them off.  The term “Osmo pianissimos” is used regularly by us in the Minnesota Chorale to indicate when we need to sing not just softly, but truly softly.

I will miss experiencing those nearly-silent moments on stage.

* * *

When we reached the Firebird’s “Princesses’ Round Dance,” it seemed that the reality of the situation was hitting the ensemble.  During this lyrical section, some musicians were in tears, and several more seemed on the brink.  There were a few moments where several musicians looked up and made eye contact with each other. A moment later they all stopped; it was clear they were digging into the deepest part of themselves just to finish the piece.

* * *

The Firebird’s “The Infernal Dance of King Kastcheï” was unbridled savagery.  I have to believe for the players on stage, the movement became “The Infernal Dance of King Henson.”  Violence uncoiled.  In light of everything else, it took our collective breath away.

* * *

The finale of The Firebird is richly heroic, and one would have expected to be lifted by the triumph of the moment.  It was strange to me, then, by what unfolded—Herb Winslow came in with the horn solo that signals the final section of the piece… and it was like nothing I’ve experienced in music before.  It was as if the whole catastrophe of the past year, and all the potentiality of the year ahead was contained in those few notes.  It was beyond devastating…

…and the memory is such that I had to take a moment to collect myself at my keyboard just to type that out.

…In fact, I don’t think I can really say anything else about it.

* * *

The applause at the end was beautiful and painful.  We were totally torn up inside but overwhelmed by the performance.  We were filled with joy and gratitude… and I hope that is the message that came through to those on stage:  joy and gratitude in being able to share that moment with them.

Tellingly, while the ovation roared around him, Osmo applauded the musicians, who were by now openly weeping.  He then stepped off the podium to embrace each member of the front row.  A deep, emotional embrace.

God bless him.

* * *

The encore was in some ways the most powerful statement of the evening.  An obvious candidate to play would have been Sibelius’s Finlandia—a piece that for the Finns served as a rallying cry for strength and unity in a country being crushed under the heel of Czarist Russia.  Finlandia is still revered by Finns on both sides of the Atlantic.  I’ve mentioned before that my mother’s side of the family comes entirely from Finland, and Finnish was the first language for many of my family members.  I remember going to visit family friends as a child and learning early on that Finlandia was considered by everyone to be “company music,” meaning that when company came over you quickly gathered up all the scattered music around the piano and put it way, and then set out a crisp, dress-white copy of Finlandia, reverently opened to the title page.  Music of such power and meaning would make a perfect ending for the evening.

Osmo went in a different direction, choosing instead Sibelius’ Valse Triste—“The Sad Waltz.”  It was an inspired choice.  Sibelius wrote the work for his brother-in-law’s play, Kuolema (“Death”), and when the play bombed sold off the rights for a pittance.  He had ample chance to regret this—Valse Triste became the hit tune of its day, and if Sibelius hadn’t sold the rights he would have died a very, very rich man.  Nowadays the work is somewhat neglected; so great was its popularity that the critics ultimately turned on it, dismissing it as a maudlin trifle.

The piece stirs deep personal memories for me.  It was the first piano work by Sibelius that I learned (the piano version is legit—Sibelius arranged it himself), and for years it was one of my standards.

Its effect as an encore was searing, for a variety of reasons.  To begin, Osmo took a microphone and thanked the audience and his partners on stage, and in a voice cracking with emotion told us that he would miss us so much, that he didn’t know what he would do.  Our collective anguish at that moment felt like a physical weight around our necks.  He then explained a bit about Valse Triste:  “It tells a story of a young woman who has a dream where she is welcomed to dance with a young man. As she dances, the tempo grows faster and faster. Soon she doesn’t want to dance anymore but can’t escape. Then there is this moment when she realizes that it is Death that she dances with and this is not a dream but her very end.”  Osmo then made a request of us: “Please do not applaud at the end. The situation the musicians face is terrible and the orchestra is in an almost hopeless situation right now. It is not a situation that deserves applause.”

After the piece’s end, he took the hand of Concertmaster Erin Keefe and left the stage in silence.

The starkness of this simple action can’t be described in words.

Bless you all.  Until we meet again.


A Response to Paul Cantrell (Part 1)

Recently, Paul Cantrell wrote a fascinating piece where he discussed the future of the Minnesota Orchestra (click here to read in its entirety).  The guiding image was that of a mighty tree blown down after a storm.  For a time the fallen tree clings to the illusion of life, with its leaves still green and subtle, but it is in fact dead.  It is best, he argues, to recognize the painful truth.  This metaphor guides Paul’s thoughts as he explains how in his opinion the Orchestra is in the same position—dead, but with the semblance of life.  In the end he invites others to convince him otherwise.

Let me attempt to do so.

Well, to clarify.  Paul’s overall question of the Orchestra’s survival, and his reasoning behind it, provides much food for thought and deserves a substantial response–more than I could provide in a single blog.  So let me start with this post that explains my reasoning about why the Minnesota Orchestra will survive in some form, and continue to flourish.  In future posts I will lay out more my thoughts of what the new model will look like… or at least should look like.

* * *

Paul, let me begin by pointing out that your question is valid, and your points make perfect sense.  I don’t think you are irrational.  But there are some other points that must be made that might suggest that the final chapter has not been written.

Let me first suggest a different metaphor for your fallen tree—our pot of basil.

Earlier this year in our late Minnesota spring, we planted our usual sprouts of basil with the eager anticipation of pesto, summer flavorings and my trademark mango-basil margarita.  It did not do so very well.  For a variety of factors including inattention on our part, the plants looked horrible and we resigned ourselves to the abject humiliation of being “those people” who couldn’t even grow basil.  Defeated, we essentially cut down the few pitiful remains of the plants and figured we’d just hit the farmers market this year.

And you know what happened?  Somehow those pitiful plants, cut off at the base, rebounded and took on new life.  Today we have substantial basil shrubs contentedly doing their thing.

Yes, the stalks I cut early on are no longer there, but the plant has recovered and other stalks formed, providing a myriad of leaves that we’ve used all summer.  And in fact we’ve continued to hack deeply into the foliage to make pesto and such… and behold! More appears.

I like basil as a metaphor more than the fallen tree for two reasons.  First, it gives hope that things rebound, renew, and live again through horrible adversity.  But also, I think it speaks more to what the Orchestra provides—flavor, food, scents and sustenance that nourishes me more deeply than the simple shade of a mighty tree.  Basil is useful, not just attractive.

So with that counter-metaphor in mind, let me share a few mitigating factors that I think will help the Orchestra survive the dark time it is in.

This is Minnesota.  Okay, so this may seem charmingly (or embarrassingly) naïve, but this state has repeatedly shown an astonishing commitment to civic responsibility, support for the arts, communitarian solutions, and a respect for heritage.  The people here know Minnesota a special place, and they’ve demonstrated repeatedly that maintaining this specialness is a top priority.  Obviously, we have allowed cultural assets to fail.  Just as obviously, we have cut off floundering organizations that  betrayed our trust.  And I recognize this commitment has faded since, say, 1987 when we came together as a state to turn back a corporate buy-out of our home-grown department store, Dayton’s.

But still.  In the election of 2008, with the stock market collapsing, recession taking hold and wide-spread panic about where the country’s finances were heading, we decisively chose to amend the constitution to support arts and other critical portions of our state’s heritage.  More people voted in favor of the amendment than for President Obama—in this, a blue state.  Articles have abounded showing arts organizations flourishing in the state, and many are having banner years as the economy continues to improve.  State legislators have gotten involved in this crisis.  A respected former governor—a Republican—has spoken in favor of saving the Orchestra, and harnessing civic resources to do so.  One hypothetical proposal raised by a music lover in our local newspaper brought in pledges of $350,000. In one day.  And in the wake of Osmo’s departure, a political trio announced plans to begin a larger effort to save the Orchestra (reported here).

This does not mean that Minnesotans will never allow the Orchestra to fail—I don’t want to promote complacency or inflate expectations.  But this deep appreciation for arts and a profound sense of civic pride serves as a buffer in the worst of times.  I don’t think Minnesotans are ready to give up.

Engagement. I am struck that despite talk of exhaustion, both sides are still engaged.  Yes, it’s of course possible that some are fighting simply to win… that happens all the time.  But the musicians are not behaving like cartoonish union thugs—they are fighting for their orchestra.  Not just their pay, but their orchestra.  They want it to survive.  They are deeply committed to the community, and each departing musician has mourned having to go.  They want to be here.  Their colleagues still here are fighting to stay here.  The commitment to the ensemble, even after all that has happened, is astonishing, and gives me hope that they will work to resolve the situation, and would accept a credible offer.  And yes, I am aware that they may not all feel this way… in any large group of people there will be a diversity of opinions.  But as a whole, I’m struck by how un-mercenary they are.

Similarly, board members have shown deep love for the orchestra and have shown a commitment to its heritage and place in the community.  Such families as the Leatherdales, the Lunds, the Lindahls and especially the Daytons have gone to extraordinary lengths to support the ensemble.  The list of life directors is astonishing.  I have been hard on the board in my various blogs entries, and I stand by my criticisms of many of their actions and their guiding principles.  But beyond this dispute, I think there is a solid core of support out there, even if the people themselves are feeling pretty raw right about now.  Paul, you yourself have mentioned that there are board members who feel this whole dispute has been a mistake—that’s an important point.  It doesn’t necessarily translate to concrete action, but there is something there to work with.  The real danger would be in apathy… and so far I haven’t seen that.

Finances.  I don’t want to be naïve about this either.  I concur that the economy has been hard on the Orchestra, and there are serious financial challenges ahead.  In other posts I’ve explained how I believe finances should have been handled, or proposed ways to bring the entire organization together to address them. I still recognize real problems exist in the here and now; but I have to say that looking over the Orchestra’s records, I’m not entirely convinced the situation is as dire as it looks.

For one, the minutes of the board meetings going back to 2009 tell a curious story. In that year the leadership developed a plan to show balanced budgets for several years while they tried to secure state bonding money to renovate Orchestra Hall.  Once those funds were secured, however, the plan was to pivot and show large deficits, which would demonstrate the need for a new business model.  With the consultation of a PR firm, the Orchestra leadership manipulated the endowment draws to achieve these ends.  This is hardly new information and has been widely discussed.

This sequence of events suggests to me that the management was willing to engage in hardball tactics to have the finances show different results at different times.

With this in mind, I have to wonder if the board members “helped things along” by reducing their own contributions during the “down” years—or more properly, delayed payments as long as the organization needed to show a deficit but planned to resume them with extra vigor after the Hall reopened. This would help create the “glow effect” of increased donations and general financial success referred to in the Orchestra’s strategic plan.

This is just a question in my mind, with nothing but the barest circumstantial evidence to support it.  But it would also explain why the Orchestra has absolutely refused—despite repeated requests from many different sources—to submit to a full, independent financial analysis that would independently look at donors’ capacity and gift-giving.  Also, it might explain the significant reduction of the number of orchestral events; the reduction of the number of events (which bring in earned revenue) has long surprised the musicians, who noted they were still being paid despite the fact that no concerts were taking place.  Some have openly wondered if this was a strategy to reduce ticket revenue… if you artificially depress income before implementing your new business model, the later upswing will look much more dramatic and “prove” the new model was a smashing success.

Again, these are for the moment questions I can’t answer.  But it would help explain why the Minnesota Orchestra has had such a disastrously bad run over the last five years, while orchestras in San Diego, St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Houston and Kansas City have done significantly better.  It also might suggest that the financial news isn’t quite as bad as it sounds.

* * *

So, there is at least a base of support—a damaged by still-intact root system in place.  What will the new sprout look like?

I believe that in its final form, there will be a new orchestra in place that will have risen from this debacle and has found a balance of three things that allows it to thrive:  artistic sustainability, financial sustainability, and community sustainability.  Not all of these things will be present in the same proportion, but the new group will not survive without a combination of all three.

Artistic sustainability.  This is central to any arts group—obviously—and has been one of the sticking points of the current dispute.  Without excellence in the artistic sphere, there is no reason for the group’s existence.  There has to be compelling music that enriches the musicians to keep them engaged, but also that speaks to the concerns, needs and deepest emotions of the audience.  Yes at times compromises will have to happen, but there needs to be a mechanism that continually refocuses organizational attention on the art.  I foresee a situation when musicians sit at the highest level of the board/organizational structure to reinforce this idea, and have a powerful voice in areas of marketing, publicity, and fundraising to ensure that no one loses sight of what the primary purpose of the organization is—to make music.

Financial sustainability.  There will need to be systems in place to ensure that the artistry is in alignment with the financial resources of the organization.  This is key.  And there will be challenges; donors, including major donors, no doubt feel burned by the dispute and will be highly skeptical of the organization’s finances going forward.  The new group will need to be relentlessly transparent with the community and upfront about all financial information.  This is not a bad thing—it will force the organization to be honest.

Community sustainability.  Another key part of the new plan is that the new Minnesota Orchestra will be, by necessity, much more closely aligned with our community than it is now.  In the new model, audience members won’t simply be passive ticket-buyers, they will demand—and receive—a seat at the table.  Audience members have been deeply involved in the dispute, and I see no way that they’re going to go away quietly.  Many of the artistic and financial decisions will be seen through the lens of how they interact with the community, and community members, including audience advocates will play leading roles in publicity, outreach, marketing and fundraising.  This while be a seismic shift for the organization and will make it more relevant and responsive than ever before.

This is just a skeletal outline of ideas, and I apologize that it still feels very hypothetical.  But this is just some initial thoughts to get the ball rolling.  In future posts, I hope to lay out my predictions of next steps, along with my thoughts of how these three areas can specifically be created.

But for right now, I have to get ready for a concert—one where we say good-bye to a musical hero.


No, We Don’t Have a “Few Months”

At a news conference on Tuesday afternoon at Orchestra Hall, Jon Campbell, the chairman of the orchestra’s board, said that attempts to reach a settlement on a new contract will continue but not anytime soon.

“The time pressures we were under are now removed,” Mr. Campbell said. “We’re probably in a pause for the next few months.” –New York Times

Well, nothing brings you back to reality faster than reading a statement like this.

Mr. Campbell, with respect, you are wrong.

I understand your frustration.  I understand that having Osmo and Aaron Jay Kernis leave the organization has created an uproar.  I totally understand the natural impulse to take a moment and try to take stock of things, particularly as the organization careens into uncharted territory.  I also recognize that this isn’t your day job—you are a volunteer board member.

But Mr. Campbell, we don’t have a few months.

I realize that as a tactic in a labor dispute, delaying might give you increased leverage, and I’m sure you’re loath to give up that power.  But there are larger issues at play here.

A delay will only extend the organizational chaos the Orchestra is in now.  Until the dispute with the musicians is settled, a search for a new conductor is folly—you won’t know even the basics about what kind of leader you want, what this person’s role will be, how much you can afford to pay… or anything else.  These questions won’t become easier to answer simply with time and reflection; they can only be answered in the wake of a resolution.

Moreover, a delay of a few months will directly lead to the cancellation of one of the busiest times on your performance calendar—the holidays.  It won’t just be the Orchestra cancelling performances, sympathetic groups will cancel as well.  And the optics of a lockout at this time of year would be terrible, particularly if it is resulting from an effort to simply collect your thoughts.  Or if it appears you are collecting your thoughts while you starve out the musicians.  The comparisons to Ebenezer Scrooge write themselves.  Plus, what good will it be to have the Holidazzle parade pass right outside your building, which will be standing dark and lonely amidst the Christmas lights?

There is also the collateral damage to other organizations.  News stories have documented the pain that downtown businesses have faced over the last year, such as the restaurants lining Nicollet Mall.  What does an extra delay mean to them?  Or to parking garages?  Or other partnering organizations that are left high and dry?  Yes I know that as Board Chair for the Minnesota Orchestra you have a primary duty to your own organization, but your actions have implications far beyond the walls of Orchestra Hall.  Waiting “a few months” will create greater harm, and serve to burn bridges with groups that you will most certainly need once the dispute is over.  Why make enemies out of allies?

And finally, what about the musicians?  You may “win” the labor dispute, but at the cost of further enraging the musicians.  Of course they will see this as a delaying tactic to starve them out—that you’re deliberately withholding health insurance, for example, for a few more months to make sure they’re really suffering.  That may not be your stated intent, but at this point how else would they read these actions? What will that mean once the dispute is over and you enter a time of rebuilding when you will desperately need their help?  Also this will most certainly convince many more musicians to leave.  You already have many openings on stage, how will it work to encourage even more?  The examples from places like Detroit and Louisville would suggest that replacing the musicians will be a long slog—why make a bad situation worse?

So why delay?  Particularly since these the events of the last few days were not entirely unexpected; Osmo, at least, made his intentions clear some time ago.  Why do you need to regroup?  Are there no provisional plans in play?

Yes, we all have wounds to nurse, but this is a time for bold action.

The departure of Osmo and Aaron are serious, crippling blows to the organization.  They are not fatal—not yet.  But the Orchestra is now in a very precarious position, and time for turning things around is in short supply.  What happens in the next few weeks will be of paramount importance for the organization as a whole.

More than ever, the Orchestra needs a leader to rally the troops—all of the them—to rise to the challenges of the next few months.  The grave situation the Orchestra is in affects all stakeholders at all levels. I don’t doubt the skills and abilities of the individual board members, but this is too big a problem to face alone.  As Chair, you can end this and start the rebuilding.  You can cut through the negotiating committee, you can cut through the lawyers, and any other clutter.

Instead of waiting, try doing the following four things:

1) Stop the lockout.  Immediately.  You need everyone back and working together to address this serious situation.  This isn’t about “winning” anymore.  This isn’t about fears of musicians smugly laughing behind your back or other orchestra managers out there fretting that the union is still too strong.  Everything else is secondary; the organization is in peril and you need to do what’s right to save it.  I’m sure in your heart of hearts you think the lockout will save the Orchestra, but it won’t—certainly not anymore.  It will only cause financial hardship for both sides, contribute to hostility between both sides, and create organizational havoc.  End the lockout with a ceasefire along the lines that Senator Mitchell proposed.

It will be tense working together, but working together is the best way to push through the tension.  Get everyone in the practice of being together again, working toward a shared end.  With time and practice at it, you will start to work together.  You have to.

2) Negotiate.  Negotiate long and hard and keep going at it.  Bring in whatever voices will be helpful.  Keep talking, and keep listening.  You don’t even have to finalize a resolution right away—just start talking.

3) Reach out.  Remember you are not alone.  There are many individuals and organizations that care deeply about the Orchestra and its future.  You may not agree with all their positions, but at the end of the day they are your allies.

4) And perhaps most important, let go of the old strategic plan and those planned-for numbers.  It won’t do you any good anymore, as too many of the variables have changed, along with most of the assumptions.  Look to the creation of a new one as you work things through.

You can get the ball rolling on all these things right now—they are critical, and do not need a substantial lead-in time to get started.  Rather than wait a few months to get started, why not bite the bullet and start now?  That way in several months we won’t be starting to plan for how we can begin moving forward—we’ll already be moving forward.

Please don’t delay when there is so much we need to do.


Nothing Stays the Same Forever

Can we find permanence here in the world?  

I know in my heart we cannot—we must enjoy the time given to us.

Nothing stays the same forever, but lasts on earth only for a moment.

     Be it jade, it will crumble

         Be it gold, it will bend and break

            Even precious quetzal plumes will wither, and shrivel like a cough.

Nothing stays the same forever, but lasts on earth only for a moment.

— Nezahualcoyotl, Aztec poet and ruler, 1402-1472

There are many musical quotes I could post here to express my feelings as Music Director Osmo  Vänskä is forced to leave the Minnesota Orchestra (including any of a number of scenes from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung), but in keeping with my blog’s theme I chose an Aztec “flower song”—a type of poem that was sung to musical accompaniment—written by Nezahualcoyotl, a brilliant poet, king and all-around Renaissance man from ancient Mexico.

This short poem, written about a century before the Spanish conquest, still packs a punch and covers a lot of emotional territory for me today.

It appears a glorious moment in the Orchestra’s history—one that I was privileged to share as a singer as well as an arts administrator—is over.

And I can’t stop reflecting on whether or not I fully enjoyed the moment that was given to me.

This is not Armageddon.  The Orchestra has lost great conductors in the past, and it has survived. Its list of former music directors includes some of the most famous, gifted directors of the 20th Century— Eugene Ormandy, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Antal Dorati, and Sir Neville Marriner are absolute titans in the world of classical music.  From my own musical collection, Ormandy’s recording of Sibelius’ Four Legends from the Kalevala, Dorati’s rendition of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances and Marriner’s version of Mozart’s Requiem are in heavy rotation.   These giants came to the Twin Cities, worked their magic for awhile… and ultimately gave way to someone else.  Heart-wrenching as each departure was, the institution survived.  In fact, it has done more than survive, it has thrived.

This moment is different.

In each of the cases I mentioned, a conductor on the make flew into town, built his credentials and reputation and ultimately left for a bigger ensemble with greater visibility and a higher reputation.  In a way, they were like star players on a small-market baseball team that ultimately made their way to the New York Yankees.  I don’t want to make them sound unduly mercenary—many of these leaders continued to have warm feelings toward Minnesota.  But however good it was, the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra/Minnesota Orchestra was a pass-through destination where people would stop by on their way to flashier futures in Philadelphia, New York or London.  That’s the way it was.

My impression is that Osmo’s tenure has been different.  He raised the stature of the Minnesota Orchestra, not just himself.  It was a mutual partnership that brought as much attention on Osmo’s skill as a conductor as it did on the musicians’ skills as performers … and people from all corners recognized this was a great partnership for all involved.  Ecstatic CD reviews followed, along with raves in the international press and invitations from prestigious concert halls and European festivals.  And through it all, Osmo continued to renew his contract and nurture ties here.  Obviously he was paid well, but I have to believe that he has had other lucrative offers dangled in front of him that he turned down.  But fortunately, he stayed.

His departure is different too.  Osmo is leaving because the management doesn’t want his fame, his reputation, his leadership or any of the accomplishments of the last decade.  They want someone with less stature because he or she will be cheaper.  All that orchestra building from the last decade is retroactively being written off as an embarrassing waste of time and resources.

He isn’t being lured away by a lucrative contract, he’s being pushed out

So now we’re at a crossroads, looking toward a future without a conductor that has worked with us, showed his loyalty to us, and has plenty music-making left in his baton.

I don’t buy the management’s logic in the dispute as a whole, and even if I did I’m still not sure if I understand their calculations regarding this specific point.  But let’s agree for a moment that the bottom line is the most important thing going on.  Does the board think a new replacement is going to be more likely to attract large crowds demanded by their strategic plan?  Will a cheaper conductor increase ticket sales?  Will an unknown name make it easier to sign sponsorship agreements?  Will an untried conducting talent be more likely to convince donors open their checkbooks to support?  Will a new face be able to truly sell the new business model to the community?

It is shocking that in this scenario the leaders of the Minnesota Orchestra are so casual about letting Osmo go.  Yes I know that famous line, “The graveyard is full of ‘indispensible’ men.”  I know that the organization will not crumble because Osmo isn’t at the helm.  But some thoughts:

Misplaced Priorities. The fact that the board would welcome—publicly—this development shows to me that their priorities are seriously out of alignment with every other group associated with the organization, including the community at large.  It is hard to credit a small cadre of people that unilaterally impose their own vision at the expense of all others, without allowing for input from these other stakeholders.

Battle Royale in the works. There’s going to be a huge battle for a long-term replacement.  Searches for a new music director take time—with such short notice there could easily be two years before a permanent replacement is in place.  Based on my observations, this will be a highly divisive time for the board and upper management as various people weigh in on the selection process.  How much should they pay the new conductor?  What should this person’s priorities be?  Do they appoint an interim leader?  Can they even set a wish list of desirable traits while the musicians are locked out?  Based on the toxicity of the situation, what will the applicant pool look like?

Administrative nightmares. My guess is there will be organizational chaos for the foreseeable future.  In the midst of trying to settle the dispute, the Orchestra’s leadership will somehow have to start making provisional plans to find a conductor for every remaining concert for the next couple of years.  Sure they could appoint a provisional or interim conductor, but schedules are probably fixed at this point, and there will be significant scrambling.  Again, this will have to happen concurrently while they are trying to resolve the dispute so they can salvage as much of the season as possible.  But at the same time, how do you effectively run a search when you don’t know any of the particulars?

Horrible optics.  I know the leadership has its supporters, particularly people who prioritize the bottom line over all else or have no use for unions.  But as I’ve mentioned before, Osmo is hugely popular, and people will be riled up about this.  Plus, coming days after the media tour of a newly-opened Orchestra Hall, this situation feeds the notion that management has its priorities wildly out of whack, and is willing let everything burn in its effort to win the labor dispute.  Scorched-earth tactics might make you look tough to your peers, but they certainly won’t endear you to community that above all else wants its beloved orchestra and conductor back on stage.

Long-term financial damage.  Since you prioritize finances above all else, let me point out the likelihood that prolonging the dispute and showing Osmo the door will have serious consequences for the bottom line.  Donors will be furious at the cavalier way Osmo was let go.  Many will question your competency as leaders.  I understand that these things happen in every labor dispute, and organizations recover.  But this doesn’t feel like a regular, garden-variety dispute, and more like a hostile takeover bid—and an ideological fight.  I wish I saw more evidence that you realize this and have plans to promote healing.

So I’m sorry to see Osmo go.  Beyond sorry, really.  I have loved the all-too-few chances I had to work with him as a singer.  I will miss future concerts as an attendee, too.  Among my dream projects would be to continue to work with him and the Orchestra on other Beethoven recording projects.  For example, I performed the Missa Solemnis with him some years back, but would love another crack at it—it is such a deep, complex and challenging work that as a performer I haven’t yet said everything I have to say about it. Similarly, Osmo has shown himself a master at one of my favorite musical period, the early 20th century.  I would love a full cycle of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ extraordinary nine symphonies (and obviously, his choral works like Sancta Civitas.  I’d also love to perform the Serenade to Music again, as it is one of my favorite works of music).  And I would kill for a chance to perform Rautavaara’s On the Last Frontier.  But these hopes and dreams just got a lot more complicated.

I wish I had enjoyed the moment more.

Sadly, the board has forced this decision, even as they try to place the blame back on the musicians themselves.  I have grown impatient with those who say, “But the musicians never made a counterproposal!”  First, several writers have weighed in on this, showing how and why a formal couterproposal could actually undermine the musicians’ position.

But that hardly matters.  It is entirely untrue that there never was a counterproposal.  The musicians have made many counters—the fact that management didn’t like them does not negate their existence.

And let me say this.  Even if what you say is true and the musicians had never offered an official, written proposal—you are all brilliant business leaders.  Would you have let this stop you in your own businesses?  Would you have let this stand in the way of making a deal if you had really wanted it?  I find it hard to believe that our state’s finest business minds could be incapable of making a deal verbally or with a nod and handshake.  Unless you didn’t want to make a deal, that is.

Osmo’s departure is the logical end of a destructive plan the management has been implementing for some time.

And one final point about Osmo’s leaving.  As the leadership has made it clear, their fight was with the musicians, not Osmo himself.  So it is particularly infuriating to have read the leadership’s astonishingly disrespectful statements about him in the press.  Board members, President Henson, and the lead negotiators have said freely and frequently that they were perfectly content for Osmo to leave.  The fact that the Orchestra’s leaders could say these things publicly about not just a valuable employee, but a man who brought international acclaim and world-wide respect for the Orchestra is beyond the pale.  If these statements could be readily tossed out in public, I can only imagine what kinds of comments were made behind closed doors.  Or what was said to his face.

There’s no way to be delicate here.  The leadership’s actions are disgraceful, and unworthy of the word “leadership.”

Kiitos, Maestro.