A Stunningly Bad Idea, Handled Badly

Well, there it is.  In a surprisingly mushy article in the Star Tribune, it was revealed that the board of the Minnesota Orchestra Association (MOA) has sort of expressed a strong but not yet definitive preference for keeping Michael Henson, the Orchestra’s controversial President and CEO, in his current position.  And at the same time, the board seems to be trying to keep Osmo Vänskä, the much-respected former music director, at arm’s length.  Or maybe closer, but probably not.

Wow.  Just… wow.

I don’t know if I can fully explain the myriad problems with this article, but let me point out a few things.

“Vänskä might be asked to take a limited role as a principal guest conductor, leading perhaps eight to 10 concerts a season, but without administrative duties, two sources within the orchestra’s board of directors said Monday.”

The fact that board is leaning toward this option shows serious lack of judgment, and is quite frankly embarrassing to read.   Let us assume that the entire concert season lasts about 40 weeks, with some of those weeks taken up for Sommerfest, pops presentations and other non-classical concerts.  At 10 concerts, the “guest conductor” position would nominally be in control of somewhere between a quarter to a half of the remaining season, depending on what the MOA puts together.  Would the incoming “real” music director want to give up this amount of control?  And to give up this control to a beloved conductor who has a large, rabidly loyal fanbase—whose members still shout for his return at concerts?  Plus, who gets to do major “event” concerts, or larger works that require more resources? All this plan would do would be to create more instability in an already volatile situation.

So why even float the offer?  Maybe you think this is a good idea because it will soften the blow for Osmo’s supporters.  Or are you doing it simply to save time and money on a conductor search?

In the end, the rationale doesn’t matter—this offer is astonishingly disrespectful.  You’re asking him to become a guest in his own house, one that he was instrumental in building.  I’m sorry, but if I have to explain to you how fundamentally wrong this is… well, you just won’t understand.  The rough equivalent would be to force Michael Henson out, but then to try and mollify his supporters by having him come back as a consultant to run eight to ten initiatives over the year, such as redrafting a marketing or development plan.  How well would that go over?

So all in all, this is a horrible idea.   Plus, even if Osmo did agree to take this new position, it would in fact cause all sorts of new headaches for you, leading to perennial clashes about vision, mission, finances, and priorities.

“Another board source, however, said the notion of Vänskä returning as music director ‘is still not off the table.’ ”

Wait a minute… the board is still fighting this out?  Good heavens… make a decision, and own it. Look, I want Osmo back and Michael Henson gone.  But reading this doesn’t instill me with some last bit of hope; instead, it makes me think that the board is completely dysfunctional, and incapable of strong, decisive action.

“The board voted strongly in favor of Henson at a Feb. 28 meeting….”

This line is equal parts comedy and tragedy.  Really?  The board voted strongly in favor?  What is your rationale?  What are your criteria?  What is your evidence for “great leadership?” Is there anyone outside your boardroom who would be willing to back you up on this?  Given the overwhelming evidence that donors, audience members, lawmakers, arts writers, arts administrators, and board members from other orchestras characterize Henson’s tenure as an unmitigated disaster, how can you possibly take this position?  Would anyone care to go on record as to how you reached this decision, and take follow-up questions?

Or more bluntly, would any of you care to take the stage with Michael Henson before a concert and see what happens?

The fact that this “strong vote in favor” of Henson occurred tells me everything I need to know about your priorities, values, goals, vision for the organization, and thoughts for the future.  Or lack thereof.

“Sprenger reportedly is seeking a meeting with Vänskä to determine whether the former music director would consider a different role that would include program selection and conducting.”

Wait, wait, wait.  This confirms something that was implied above… Mr. Sprenger, you haven’t even discussed this with Osmo yet?  You haven’t discussed this incredibly important issue with a key member of the organization in the ten days since the board meeting?  And, you in fact waited until Osmo read about this offer in the local paper before approaching him? With respect, is this how you handle other business negotiations?  This is monumentally insulting.  In fact, my immediate impression is that you were trying to insult him so thoroughly that he’d be forced to decline simply to maintain his dignity, so you could wash your hands of the matter and say, “Well, we tried to bring him back.  It’s not our fault.”

“That should not be taken as a reflection on Vänskä’s statements during the lockout or after, the sources said. There is still a strong appreciation on the board for Vänskä’s musical ability and the work he has done with the orchestra, said one.”


Well, I suppose we should grateful that you included this polite line at all.  It doesn’t take away the fact that board members repeatedly denigrated Osmo in the press over the course of the lockout, and publicly threatened retaliation against him for making statements of any kind.  Plus, through their actions and statements the MOA leadership is actively repudiating his entire legacy and vision for the orchestra right now.  All of these previous negative statements were made to the press and widely discussed, especially here on my blog—does leadership think we forgot about them?

All in all, this article is a disappointment.  And I don’t say that simply because I advocated that Michael Henson should be removed and it looks like he’s staying on.  Nor because I advocated that Osmo should be reinstated, and it looks like he won’t.

The real problem is that this article reveals just how dysfunctional the Minnesota Orchestra’s leadership is right now, and signals some of the serious, long-term consequences of this dysfunction.  For one, the MOA leadership is determined to retain a leader widely pilloried as being toxic and ineffective—but can’t (or won’t) articulate a reason why.

Moreover, they can’t even commit to that decision.  It’s like the board is testing how the public reacts to possible outcomes to determine which one it gets the best traction.  And worse, they’re doing so at an incredibly delicate moment of the organization’s healing, when the organization needs unity and steady leadership. Let’s say that based on the community’s reaction, you decide tomorrow that no, you better bring back Osmo instead… will that decision still hold at the end of the week?

And of course, the various factions of the board are talking to the press instead of the principal players (some months ago, I warned you the board would break into factions).

As a result of all these things, the MOA leadership is losing momentum, credibility, and a great deal of good will.  And the situation still isn’t resolved.

I  know there are good people on the Orchestra’s board of directors.  I know there are people who love classical music on the board, who have worked tirelessly to support the Orchestra.  And I know there are board members who continue to work towards reinstating Osmo. I appreciate all they’ve done over the years.

But this article paints an incredibly unflattering portrait of the board as it tries to put the organization together again.




13 thoughts on “A Stunningly Bad Idea, Handled Badly

  1. Until the structure of the Board and their role and membership change, this will continue to be an entirely dysfunctional crew! As was pointed out in another article, the lock-out at its most fundamental level isn’t over because, essentially, nothing has changed!


  2. Is it possible that the board WANTS the orchestra to leave? It sure seems like the board is doing everything in their power to chase them away…


  3. Minnesota Attorney General Hatch in announcing the settlement with Allina; including both the replacement of the board and the “retirement” of CEO Sprenger, cited the total lack of leadership at Allina. It seems that the intervening decade has not sharpened his skills.


  4. Barring a sudden and unexpected retraction/reversal from the MOA board, MPR may want to be ready with the “mute” button this Friday evening; shouting and chanting is sure to commence (as usual) and, this time, no “stern voice in the first tier” will stop it, methinks.


  5. When they talk about offering Osmo ten concerts, aren’t they talking about ten actual concerts (equivalent to about three weeks), not ten *weeks* of concerts? That changes your math a bit.


  6. This doesn’t seem to have posted the first time, so I’ll try again: When the article refers to offering Osmo ten concerts, I think they might literally mean ten concerts, not ten *weeks* of concerts, which is fairly close to how many weeks of a season music directors typically conduct. This would mean Osmo would be here for three weeks per season.


  7. Once again Scott, you put it all out there in plain language. The conspiracy theorist in me believes that:
    1)Sprenger was named Chair of the Board of Directors because he could easily be manipulated by the rest of the Board.
    2)There are fighting factions on the Board, and the only way they know how to deal with their issues is to leak things to Graydon Royce (as happened during the lockout).
    3)Board members don’t really care about having classical music here, they would just as soon have big name pop artists come into Orchestra Hall.
    4)$$$$ they have donated to the Orchestra and especially the renovation of the lobby leads them to a sense of entitlement. They want to be able to host fancy parties in their glorified bank lobby, and the orchestra is just background.
    5)Henson is being kept on because he has dirt on some influential people on the Board, or who previously served on the board. If they try to oust him, he will publicize this “dirt”.
    6)Osmo is not appreciated by the Board as a talented musician and Music Director, he is just viewed as a man with accented speech and curly hair.


      • How sad that as the remaining members of the band play on, others have left or plan to do so. The departure of Burt Hara, the most recent, is unforgivable. I naively thought that somehow great art was above partisan politics. We need the HOUSE BILL 1930 by Rep. Kahn more than ever. Something is rotten on the board of directors. Scott, what do you know about the legislative bill now?


  8. Why fire Henson? He’s done exactly what the board wanted: saved lots of money (albeit by not giving concerts, but is that a bug or a feature?), successfully pared back the orchestra’s, and the community’s, expectations about artistic quality from top-tier to mid-level, and with that, took a lot of pressure off the board in terms of fund-raising (a board has to work damn hard, and damn smart, to support an internationally known entity like the Minnesota Orchestra USED to be). And what’s the downside? Hurt feelings and thwarted expectations among the community, big deal; if the board cared about the community’s fee-fees, neither the lockout nor the loss of artistic integrity would ever have happened. The only thing that really troubles the MOA is the potential loss of their control over the hall and the endowment, which is why they folded so fast when their stewardship of the hall came under pressure. The community’s impressive and moving show of support for the orchestra counted for nothing, to THEM, next to that perceived danger. I’m sorry to sound cynical, but I’m afraid the MOA can keep stalling and stalling, and diminishing the orchestra by inaction and a mere pretense of good faith, and get 85% of what they wanted all along, which is a third-rate, cheap orchestra that’s less of a burden to run–plus, use of a posh facility in which to throw splashy corporate parties. One question at this stage would be, what leverage if any does the orchestra have to keep that from happening? I’d say, sadly, ‘not much.’


  9. Hi, Scott,

    As usual, you’ve taken the words right out of my mouth. Especially the way in which this Board has treated and continued to treat Osmo. The principal guest thing is like the corporate trick of having someone do the job of Music Director but with the title Principal Guest Conductor and the pay. Corporate America loves this trick. It saves them tons of money each year.

    I agree with you that the MOA Board is showing its true colors and its disunity. Is Michael Henson encouraging the factions in order to keep his job? I wouldn’t put it past him. As for how he’d fare on stage at Orchestra Hall…well, where is the guy anyway? He’s the President, the person who’s supposed to be the MOA’s official spokesperson on every topic possible. He’s supposed to be demonstrating decisive leadership and deft conciliation, helping to mend the huge rifts between management and the musicians. Where is he? I have seen him sitting in Tier 1 at the concert I attended. He was alone. I was sorely tempted to ambush him but I was not quick enough.

    Scott, I’ve been writing more about nonprofit governance at Eyes on Life, and MinnPost published an article by me last Friday proposing membership governance at the MOA in contrast to Rep. Phyllis Kahn’s H. R. 1930. I’m beginning to thing that governance reform really needs to happen sooner than later at the MOA.

    Thanks for your excellent posts!
    Gina Hunter


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