About Leonard Slatkin’s New Book…

Years back, I had the pleasure of singing Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky with the Minnesota Orchestra under the direction of Leonard Slatkin. It was a pure delight.  Prokofiev’s music tells the story about crusading Teutonic Knights attacking Mother Russia, causing death and destruction until they are annihilated in the Battle on the Ice. One of the highlights is a choral scream, given when the Crusaders charge the Russian forces. Prokofiev doesn’t give the Knights real words (thus dehumanizing them); instead, their battle cry is just a jumble of nonsensical Latin words, belted out at top volume over the orchestra. The effect is staggering in the concert hall, and a bit ironic. It is a thundering sonic blast that sounds portentous, powerful, and authoritative, but for all that is ultimately a bunch of howling gibberish signifying nothing.

Which brings me to Mr. Slatkin’s new book.

Leading Tones, just released by Amadeus Press, is billed as “Leonard Slatkin’s reflections on music, musicians, and the music industry.” As a part of his reflections, Mr. Slatkin has devoted an entire chapter on the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, which spanned 16 months between October 2012 and January 2014.

To be blunt, this section is a wrong-headed analysis, given by the wrong person, at the wrong time.

Let me be clear… Maestro Slatkin has played an enormous role in the musical culture of this country, having served as music director for several outstanding orchestras, produced many highly-regarded recordings, and led many acclaimed music festivals. He created the Minnesota Orchestra’s long-running “Sommerfest” festival, which has made him something of a beloved icon in the Twin Cities, and he has many friends here. Given his experiences and stature, he has more than earned the right to share his views on any number of musical topics. And while we may disagree on this or that point, I have no problem with him sharing his reflections.

But regarding the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, I most certainly do have problem with his reflections. His ideas aren’t just mistaken… they wildly distort what happened, and the lessons everyone took away from the disaster. I don’t want to rock the boat at a time when everything is going so well for the Orchestra, but I think it is dangerous to let this false counter-narrative take hold.

A quick note. Although I was able to peruse the content online, I haven’t read the full and final text; therefore I hate to jump in with a full review.  And besides, I understand that blogger Emily Hogstad over at Song of the Lark is working on a full write-up, and I have every confidence that it will be definitive… and a fun read.  However, some of the material is public, and has been distributed through a variety of media—including this advance piece in the Star Tribune. Based on the Star Tribune piece, I have a few rebuttals for Mr. Slatkin.

* * *

“Slatkin criticizes management and musicians about equally in his overview. The former remained quiet for too long about its mounting financial troubles, and the latter failed to pose early questions about funding when times were flush.”

The fact that years later we still have to knock down these casually-made, false equivalencies is, quite honestly, mind-boggling.  For what I hope is the last time, there is no equivalency here.

Let’s dig in. The Orchestra’s previous management didn’t “remain quiet” about mounting financial troubles—they actively engaged in a wide-ranging disinformation campaign directed at the musicians, the community, the City of Minneapolis, Minnesota’s State Legislature, and beyond.  This isn’t me just being mean saying this, this was abundantly documented during the lockout, and clearly documented in the Orchestra’s actual board minutes. For example, when the Orchestra leadership was approaching the State Legislature to secure bonding money to refurbish Orchestra Hall, it shaded the numbers to create the appearance balanced budgets and overall fiscal health. Then, on the eve of contract negotiations with the musicians, management shaded the finances in a different way to report a large deficit and make it seem that financial collapse was imminent.

Along with this, management lied about the size of the reported deficit. This wasn’t an accident… in 2011, the board retained the public-relations firm Padilla Speer Beardsley to determine “what size of deficit to report publicly.” Once it determined the optimum number, leadership manipulated its fundraising, expenditures and draws from the endowment to match this pre-determined number. And that was the origin of the $6 million deficit the management kept touting.

Again, all of this was documented in the board minutes, and covered widely in the local media when the board minutes came to light.  The legislature was furious about the deception, feeling that former President and CEO Michael Henson personally lied to them under oath.  At least 10 lawmakers called him out by name and demanded his immediate resignation. Plus, a number of lawmakers began exploring ways to claw back the money, and at least 100 legislators demanded an immediate, independent audit of the organization. The City of Minneapolis was also furious about the deceptive finances, and as the lease holder for Orchestra Hall demanded a full report about what was happening and how the Hall was being used. When the management supplied a report that was obviously and demonstrably mendacious, Minneapolis demanded management submit a new one. And when that revised report turned out to be just as bad, the City began taking action to repossess Orchestra Hall—it was hours from doing so when the lockout ended.

All of this was extensively documented at the time.

And against this (and considerably more), Mr. Slatkin claims that the musicians were equally at fault because… they failed to pose questions about funding?


The musicians—along with everyone else—were actively lied to. Repeatedly. Over many years. Which is why the public, local government, state government, and funders reacted so harshly. The two sides are not equivalent.

But let me make a larger point about the trap of false equivalence Mr. Slatkin seems to be falling into. He seems to be arguing that both sides just needed to try harder, and since there was no resolution both sides were equally at fault.

Well, over the course of the 16-month lockout, many intelligent, well-meaning people started off thinking that way, too. They argued that the dispute was a straightforward negotiation involving rational people who could meet in the middle if they just put their minds to it. The two sides just needed to put in a good faith effort.

And time and again, they were burned for thinking this.

Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak and legendary Orchestra supporter Judy Dayton offered to host a celebration concert where the Orchestra could celebrate its Grammy nomination and lower tensions. The mangement refused their invitation. Orchestrate Excellence, a group founded to bring the sides together, created a report comparing the Minnesota Orchestra with the Cleveland Orchestra to help facilitate dialog and present a useful model for future compromise. Management dismissed it out of hand. Respected arts leader Alan Fletcher came to town with tough talk for both sides, and offered his views about surviving difficult negotiations. Management rebuffed him. Senator George Mitchell, who famously brought peace to Northern Ireland, was formally brought in by management to mediate a solution to the crisis. Management negotiated around him, and ultimately rejected his recommendations because to do so would cause them to “lose leverage” in the dispute. Outside observers called for an independent financial analysis of the Orchestra. Management instead hired its own firm to do a targeted analysis based only on information it provided. Concerned community members launched an “SOS Osmo campaign” to raise money specifically so that the Orchestra’s Music Director Osmo Vänskä could stay.  Management blithely suggested it would roll any such funds into its own general fundraising operations, and made callous statements that Osmo was free to move on. And so forth.

As a result of all this, the community came to the understanding that both sides were not equal, and both sides were not equally interested in a resolution. I’m not sure why Mr. Slatkin feels differently.


“The musicians’ side issued misleading statements, Slatkin charges.”

Oh for heaven’s sake. Again, all the points were extensively documented; and as noted, it was the management side that was repeatedly caught lying, and sanctioned for these lies. Here’s the full chronology of events and statements… I’m curious as to what Mr. Slatkin finds mendacious, and what his sources are. Perhaps he details them in some part of the book I haven’t seen.


“Slatkin, music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, includes a none-too-subtle scolding of MO’s longtime music director, Osmo Vänskä, who ditched his neutrality and eventually sided with the locked out musicians. Advises Slatkin: ‘If you are music director, stay out of it unless both sides ask you for advice. Even then, mostly listen.’”

This is… ridiculous. And patronizing. And insulting. Let’s start with the fact that Osmo held off on making a public statement as long as possible, only speaking out well into the lockout. His threat to resign came six months into the dispute, and only went into effect six months after that—a full year into the dispute. This was hardly a string of rash utterances. The only reason he spoke out was that the Minnesota Orchestra was literally in danger of collapse. His position was that that if the lockout continued, and the orchestra continued to shed players, lose cohesion, and be dropped from recording contracts and other important international commitments… if all this serious artistic degradation continued, then he would be forced to leave. In light of these serious threats, Osmo’s actions were responsible, and made responsibly. As the artistic leader, he was making a desperate stand for the artistic integrity of the arts organization he served, and professionally was not willing to serve as head of a pick-up band. Relative to what he could have said, his remarks were remarkably measured. In the end, quite nearly everyone in the community understood his actions and supported him for speaking out. Which explains the extreme pressure the organization faced to bring him back, and axe former President and CEO Michael Henson after the lockout was over.

Besides, it wasn’t just Osmo. Every other living Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra spoke out as well. Sir Neville Marriner, Edo de Waart and Stanisław Skrowaczewski attacked the management’s position in a letter to the Star Tribune. And Eiji Oue, Stan and Edo actually conducted wildcat concerts with the locked out musicians while the lockout was still going on. Stan made his outrage known to anyone who would listen. And during the encore of his concert, Eiji ran up and down the aisles whooping it up with audience members, throwing open his jacket to reveal a hand-made T-shirt saying “Minnesota Orchestra Forever!”

But of all this, Osmo’s statement alone was inappropriate?

One should note, by the way, that after the lockout, the new administration very quickly brought Osmo back, and renewed his contract. And brought back Stan, Edo, and Sir Neville to conduct during the regular concert series.  Seems like there were no hard feelings about these music directors “taking sides.”

* * *

All in all, I’m curious as to why Mr. Slatkin is speaking out, and why he’s doing so now.  During the lockout, a vast number of voices chimed in—including other music directors, arts writers, reviewers, community members, reporters, nonprofit managers and more.  These people weren’t just locals, but hailed from around the country and around the world. To my knowledge, Mr. Slatkin didn’t say a word… so why is he presenting himself as an authority on the lockout? Who did he talk to?  What were his sources?

But more importantly, why do so now? The dispute ended in 2014, and since then a whole sea change has taken place. The organization is vastly different now, with a vastly different sense of collaboration, shared vision, and purpose. Why stir the pot?

And finally, I’m baffled that Mr. Slatkin seems to be, generally, supportive of the previous management’s actions. But why? They weren’t just morally flawed, but ultimately ineffective. The “lockout model” of negotiations has repeatedly been shown to be a bust. In the wake of Minnesota’s lockout, similar hardball tactics were tried in a variety of other ensembles across the country, including the Metropolitan Opera, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, San Diego Opera, Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, and more. Again and again, the respective managements tried to shut down their organizations in order to impose the same financial model, focused on massive cuts for musicians and workers, and steep cuts to the artistic projects. And again and again, managements argued that such financial-centric models were absolutely crucial to their respective organizations’ survival.

But… they all failed. Facing blowback, these organizations were forced to abandon a “cut your way to prosperity” approach… and despite the threats that financial ruin was imminent, all have thrived.

Take, for example, the Metropolitan Opera. Three years ago, the Met was also in the midst of contentious contract negotiations with its unionized musicians and workers. At that time, General Manager Peter Gelb repeatedly told the press the Met was in a dire financial situation, and the company literally faced bankruptcy in two years. The only way to stave off financial disaster was to have the unionized workers at the Met agree to massive concessions with sacrificial pay cuts right that very minute.

The workers refused, and Mr. Gelb was forced to back down. His proposed cuts never went through.

Well, here we are, past the length of time until Mr. Gelb’s projected bankruptcy. And the Met has recorded two straight years of balanced budgets.

Just like the Minnesota Orchestra.

So again, I’m genuinely baffled about the lessons Mr. Slatkin seems to be taking away from the Minnesota Orchestra lockout. What does he think worked?

* * *

Again, let me state that Leonard Slatkin has every right to share his reflections on music, musicians, and the music industry. He’s a man with great talent, great experience, and a wealth of insights to share.

But in the case of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, he is dead wrong.




8 thoughts on “About Leonard Slatkin’s New Book…

  1. Well done, Scott. This is a reasoned and complete argument against Mr. Slatkin’s position. I wondered during the lockout why he hadn’t spoken up at all since he had such a history with the MOA as so many other musicians did (and some continue to do). I thought maybe it was because of the really painful experience in Detroit when he was music director and they had their own contentious labor dispute. But now, I wonder. Mr. Slatkin has been in the running for music director of the MO a couple of times (along with others, of course), and I wonder if he’s speaking from a disappointed heart that he was never chosen. Who knows. But I think it’s really shocking that he has taken such a wrong position about an orchestral organization he claims to support.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Unless I’m mistaken, Philly Atlanta and Ft. Worth have taken huge cuts or freezes. Philly is a “Big Five” orchestra in name only, having been far surpassed by the other four as well as San Francisco, LA and DC.


    • Hello Roger, and thanks for the comment. I’m not sure that I agree with your assessment—in part because the situations are much more complicated than your brief summary implies. And my main point wasn’t that there were no reductions of any kind, but rather that the the sacrificial cuts management repeatedly demanded or else the organization will collapse right this minute were belied by the fact that the managements repeatedly stepped back and agreed to far less punitive contracts. When push came to shove, the contracts were far less extreme.

      For example, In Philly’s case, management’s original offer was for five years and included no raises for the first two years of the agreement and a 1% increase over the final three. Under the deal the musicians ratified, they will receive a 2% increase in the first year of the deal, and 2.5% increases in the two years that follow. In the third year of the contract the annual base pay will be $137,800. It will also increase the size of the orchestra by one position during that third year. The musicians also agreed to put on two more Sunday concerts a year. The contract runs through Sept. 15, 2019.

      For Fort Worth, the new contract ultimately agreed to keeps the musicians’ pay at its current levels for the first two years—their minimum salary is now $54,953 a year—followed by a 2% raise in the third year and a 2.5% raise in the fourth year. They will continue to be paid for a 46-week season, but their vacation will be reduced to 28 days from 35. Management initially sought to reduce their number of paid weeks to 43 from 46, which would have resulted in a 6.5% reduction in annual pay, prompting the walkout.

      These and other examples also reveal that there are a number of other elements to the contracts besides salary that still very much have economic impact, such as weeks of service and number of musicians.

      And as an honest question, does the concept of “the big five” still have relevance? This was once a power marker of status, community pride and artistic excellence, but with the overall rising of musical standards and the mobility of talent I don’t know that we think in those terms any more. I’m far more concerned about community impact and relevance, which are for me the true markers of how well each ensemble will thrive in today’s world.


  3. Pingback: Following Up on Leonard Slatkin’s Book “Leading Tones” | Song of the Lark

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