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.”