A New Era of Promise for the Minnesota Orchestra

At 12:01 AM this morning, a new era will begin for the Minnesota Orchestra—in more ways than one. At the stroke of midnight, the last lockout-affected fiscal year for the Orchestra will finally end, and we will officially be able to close the books on the longest classical music labor dispute in American history.

But there is another key indicator that a new era is about to unfold. Again at the stroke of midnight, Michael Henson will officially step down as the President and CEO of the organization. His tenure has been divisive since before the lockout began, but during the lockout he became a lightning rod of criticism. Last spring, I posted an open letter laying out my case why he should leave—a letter that was covered extensively in the local media and discussed in the New York TimesI stand by what I wrote, and don’t have anything to add now.

Besides, it is completely irrelevant.

There is such good news coming out of the Orchestra right now, and that’s where our collective focus should be.

It seems nearly impossible to imagine based on what was happening a year ago, or even six months ago, but it’s true. Don’t get me wrong—the damage done by the labor dispute was real, and the effects continue today. There is still healing that has to take place.

But it is taking place.

Over the last few months a remarkable transformation has swept through the organization, leaving it almost entirely transformed. The road has been rocky, but let me say a few words about the astonishing new era that is about to unfold as the midnight bell dies away:

Artistic Flowering. We are about to embark on one of the most exciting seasons in years. And I say Hallelujah. One of my greatest concerns about the old regime was that based on its actions, words, and its planned 2014-15 season, it was leading the Orchestra to artistic extinction.  Leadership had decided classical music was a dead art form, and the Orchestra needed to be rejuvenated with pops concerts and special presentations.

No more.

In a remarkable turn of events, Music Director Osmo Vänskä and the musicians sat down and reconceptualized the season—pretty much on the fly. And their innate understanding of the art form shone brilliantly.  Within a few week they put together a spectacular season that included great works, great performers, and great collaborations with other arts groups from the community. I know when we in the Minnesota Chorale saw the wonderful choral offerings on the program we collectively gasped. And I ran out and bought a new tux.

There are so many wonderful, and wonderfully interesting events that encompass a huge array of styles, forms and themes… but all within a orchestral framework. Brand new symphonic works where the ink is still wet. Mighty war-horses. Festivals that reflect on spirituality. A musical Shakespeare homage, and a Richard Strauss festival. (My full thoughts on the season can be found here.)

This is what a season should be like—music that showcases the unique power of classical music, and speaks to the community.

I hear the same forces are soon going to work to hammer out the subsequent season, and based on what they’ve done this year, I am thrilled to see what they come up with. Wouldn’t that be fun to be a fly on the wall during those discussions!

Musical Engagement. Let me be clear that the musicians have long been an integral, important part of the community. They teach our children. They perform in churches and play in small ensembles. They are soloists and guest performers in community groups. And they are our neighbors and friends.

But in the wake of the labor dispute, they have done even more. Because an orchestra is such a large ensemble, sometimes the individuals can get lost in the crowd. But the musicians fought against that, and began speaking as individuals.  It was wonderful to watch as during the course of the lockout they broke down the labels of “the union” or even “the musicians” to remind us that they are individual people with unique gifts. Through social media, their own website, interviews and speeches from the stage, they broke down the wall that separated them from the audience… and that was incredible to watch.

And the community is hungry for this kind of personal interaction.

I know that the Orchestra’s marketing department has been exploring ways to bridge the gap between the performers and the public at large, and several ideas are in the works. This is a crucial step—that connection will make people more eager to attend concerts and to give money.

But the musicians have put their money where their mouths are, too. Rather than to take a passive approach to the rebuilding, nearly 50 musicians came forward and donated money to the various challenge grants to help rebuild the Orchestra’s finances. I can’t think of a more powerful testament to their level of engagement right now.

As I’ve said, the musicians have always been engaged with the community. But it seems that connection is closer than ever. That is a powerful development.

Community Engagement. On the flip side of my above point, the community has never been more engaged with the Orchestra… and that, too, is a new and powerful development. Whatever the financial or administrative problems faced by the Orchestra (or any orchestra, for that matter) there has always been a solid base of support for classical, orchestral music here. This is evidenced in so many ways, from students taking up music studies to adult participation in community orchestras. As the lockout unfolded, many people were forced to re-evaluate the importance of music in their lives, to rethink what it was that spoke to them and how they wanted to support it.

And support it they did.

I’m sure many observers thought the community would, in the disparaging words of one local writer, take their pitchforks, go home, and forget all about the Orchestra after the lockout ended. But they did not. Community members continue to be deeply engaged at all levels of the organization.

For example, Karen Himle, a board vice chair, convened community groups to join musicians, staff and board members on discussions about the Orchestra’s future. I was part of those discussions, and cannot praise Karen’s leadership enough. And let me say that we didn’t just offer to help the Orchestra… we rolled up our sleeves and provided help. Community members organized and implemented a CommUnity Challenge grant that raised nearly $290,000 in small donations from the public at large. Yes, I recognize that since the Orchestra’s budget hovers between $25 and $30 million, this is a relatively small amount… but these gifts were made in addition to people’s regular donations, and shows extraordinary commitment from the community. It also built excitement about the new season, and helped create a sense of “ownership” in the Orchestra; now, a much larger group of people have a real stake in its success.

But there were other community-led initiatives that came out of these meetings, too. Ken Huber led a series of focus groups with young audience members, to see how the Orchestra might better interact with a new generation. Paula DeCrosse built ties to senior groups. New cross-marketing plans developed between the Orchestra and other community partners. Audience advocacy group SOS Minnesota convened public meetings with interim president Kevin Smith, and has continued to be a clearing house for vital information about the Orchestra’s goings-on.

As a result, ticket sales are up, donations are up, and interest in the Orchestra is up.

I am thrilled to see the community step forward and take a more active role in the Orchestra. It really does now feel like our orchestra.

Financial Promise. As has been detailed in the media, the Orchestra seems to have also turned a financial corner. Skeptics claimed that in the shakeup surrounding Henson’s resignation (which infuriated many of his supporters on the board), the Orchestra would lose donors and hit a financial crisis. Plus, the old administration had told anyone who would listen that the Orchestra had a “structural deficit” and could never support itself without abandoning that pricey classical music focus and adopting a more pops-friendly structure.

Patently false.

As I’ve said many times, the Minnesota Orchestra—and pretty much every performing arts organization—does indeed face financial challenges. But the idea of writing them off as some sort of “structural” problem afflicting all classical music groups is embarrassingly simple-minded and ignores the fact that many orchestras are having great success with ticket sales and donations. Michael Kaiser, the legendary arts administrator formerly with the Kennedy Center, has also shot the idea of “structural deficits” down.

The truth is the matter is that people will support an orchestra when they are engaged, inspired… and have confidence in its ability to do its work.

This has certainly been the case here in Minnesota.  The fact that the Orchestra engaged its musicians and scheduled a drool-worthy season of great music, the fact that the community came together and started taking an active role in the Orchestra’s success, and the fact that the Orchestra was changing for the better inspired more and more people to support it. In addition to the small-scale donors providing $290,000 in community gifts, several big donors came forward and contributed a jaw-dropping $13 million to the organization.

These new monies will go toward the endowment, but also go to several initiatives in the here and now. For example, new marketing initiatives are being launched. New tweaks to the freshly-refurbished Orchestra Hall are being developed to improve audience experience. New tweaks to the Orchestra’s branding.  And more.  Collectively these will all snowball, and help increase ticket sales and donations. They are investments that will post significant dividends in the future.

And none of this would have been remotely imaginable six months ago.

Future Needs. Despite the good news, there are still areas of concern that I would like to see addressed in the months to come. For one, I would like to see the community involvement continue, and to continue in a helpful way.  To this end I would love to see regular meetings between the upper administration and audience advocacy groups like SOS Minnesota or Orchestrate Excellence. I don’t advocate this as a way of punishing, ham-stringing, or scolding the incoming leadership—but many of the tensions between the community and the old administration were caused by the fact that it felt that information was not being shared freely… or honestly. I would propose these meetings as a good way to rebuild trust, and to help keep the public engaged in a positive way.

Something else I feel must be addressed, although I recognize it may be beyond the ability of the Orchestra to manage directly. We need better arts writing here in the Twin Cities… particularly in regards to classical music.

Don’t get me wrong… Pamela Espeland is doing fantastic work over at MinnPost, and I was thrilled that there was a successful community grant challenge to expand her arts coverage. I love Ron Hubbard’s reviews in the Pioneer Press, and Brian Newhouse is a treasure over at Minnesota Public Radio. And I was particularly happy that non-arts writers such as Doug Grow (again over at MinnPost) were able to illuminate important developments over the course of the lockout, and to give the lockout the attention it deserved.

But for being an arts-crazed community like ours, we need more. It has been particularly discouraging to watch the arts coverage from the Star Tribune, the state’s largest media outlet, spiral down from being irrelevant to disrespectful, to snarky… and finally this week to become (forgive me) bitchy. And worse, it’s reporting is factually questionable.  The Star Tribune’s “coverage” of the Orchestra’s new era this weekend was so embarrassing that I can’t bring myself to link to the stories.

There is enormous interest and involvement in classical music here. Where are the human interest stories, the backstories, and interviews? I don’t want wide-eyed boosterism—we’re too sophisticated for that. But there are real stories to tell…real stories of why the music is so interesting. Emily Hogstad over at Song of the Lark and I have been trying to do more in this regard, to try and explain why people should experience one of these concerts for themselves. From Ken Huber’s focus groups (and my blog’s stats) I know that there is a real hunger for these kinds of stories and information, and I wish more could be done.

But these are minor concerns.

This is a thrilling time to be part of the Minnesota Orchestra, and to get swept up in the experience. Back in January when the lockout ended, I was cautiously optimistic that things were going to get better. But I could not believe in my wildest dreams things would have gotten so much better so fast.

Want to see what I mean? If you don’t have tickets, try the Create Your Own series, available now at a savings of 25% off individual ticket prices by using the code SUPPORT15.

And allow me to pass along a special offer if you’d like to sample the new season before committing. On  September 13, the Orchestra will present its “Season Sampler Concert.” First-time concert-goers can get up to four tickets at only $5 each!  To order, click here.

Tomorrow is the start of a new fiscal year for the Orchestra… and it has never, ever seemed so full of promise. Come join me at Orchestra Hall to experience it for yourself.



2 thoughts on “A New Era of Promise for the Minnesota Orchestra

  1. Like a bad family quarrel, the lockout and conflicted relationships will need some healing; I am not suggesting how, but the feelings on both sides are real and, while noone wants to focus on the negative, it is important for everyone in management on the board and orchestra side to understand that you can’t just say -‘the argument is over, lets just forget about it.’


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