The Minnesota Orchestra: A Conductor’s Musical Instrument Torn Apart?


Burt Hara with MO (credit: Nate Ryan LLC)

Burt Hara with MO (credit: Nate Ryan LLC)

Emotions have been swirling high around the Minnesota Orchestra (MO) this past week.  First came the news that their Principal Clarinetist (much beloved) Burt Hara had won an audition for Associate Principal Clarinet with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  Hara has been a staunch long-time member of the MO and an active member of the Twin Cities music community as a teacher and performer.  His departure is a wounding blow, but I don’t believe anyone blames Hara.  He commented that if there were no lockout, he wouldn’t even consider accepting the job offer.

Next came the news that Music Director Osmo Vänskä had written another letter, only his second during the lockout, to Jon Campbell and Michael Henson, his boss and Chairman of the Board, and the President and CEO of the MOA, respectively.  As Music Director and in that role, Chief Artistic Manager, Mr. Vänskä made it clear what the priorities need to be in order to maintain the artistic excellence of the MO, honor their invitation to Carnegie Hall in November and honor their recording commitments, especially in light of musicians’ departures.  He wrote that the Concertmaster had two offers from other orchestras but didn’t want to leave.  Mr. Vänskä underscored the direness of the situation by saying he would be forced to resign if Carnegie Hall canceled the MO’s concert because they had lost confidence in the MO’s ability to perform at a high level of artistic excellence.  The lockout needs to end and MOA management led by

Disappearing MN Orchestra Musicians

Disappearing MN Orchestra Musicians

Campbell and Henson have the power to end it, not the musicians.

I have to say, in my opinion, the MOA management has worked hard to blame everyone but themselves for the truly devastating situation they’ve created.  It’s the musicians’ fault for being union, having a contract that protects their working conditions and pay, and for Pete’s sake, not offering a counter-proposal to the MOA’s “final” proposal offered last year when one is not necessary for negotiations.  (That last is a “stalling tactic” if ever I’ve seen one.)  They blame the Twin Cities community for not supporting the MOA financially with enough donations that could sustain the orchestra and organization at the world-class level the community wants.  They blame rotten advice from an investment advisor (no longer advising them) back in 2007-08.  But they do not take responsibility for their fiduciary duty to the orchestra and organization, and the mistakes and miscalculations and misdirection in the past 5-6 years that has led them to the present moment in which the orchestra has begun to disintegrate and the Music Director is threatening to resign.   They blame others so that they can say it’s up to others to bring the parties back to negotiations so they do not have to own their responsibility in stalling, deflecting, going back on agreements, treating the musicians with disrespect, and in being untrustworthy.

As a writer, not a conductor/musician, I cannot know what Osmo Vänskä has been going through since the lockout began on October 1, 2012.  From my extensive research for the Perceval series into conductors, their education, training, jobs, and lives, I can say that it must be excruciatingly painful to watch MOA management destroy his musical instrument and everything he’s accomplished since he stepped onto the Orchestra Hall podium as Music Director in 2003.  I was a pianist years ago, and the analogy for me is if someone started to dismantle my piano, one key at a time, preventing me from playing my instrument.  I fear that it may become too much to bear and Osmo will resign anyway.  He will do just fine on his own – as a conductor, he’s in demand all over the world.  But not us, not Minnesota, not the classical music world and not the MO.  MOA management just doesn’t get it, and they don’t understand that they don’t get it.

In an interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune this past week, Board Chairman Jon Campbell said that in 2009, when Osmo signed his contract extension, they gave him a “heads-up that the business model was changing – in short, contract talks would be tough.”  What business model?  I feel like I’ve missed something because I don’t recall the MOA spelling out in detail what their new business model would be.  I hope they don’t mean the Strategic Plan 2012-15?  I thought that was under review and analysis by an independent financial analyst?  Plus, this comment also confirms that MOA management had planned how they would crow about the MOA’s financial stability and balanced budgets, even though neither was really true, until they approached contract talks, and then the financial situation would become dire to force the musicians to accept a completely gutted master agreement.

Has Mr. Henson and Mr. Ebensteiner accepted 50% cuts to their salaries?  No.  Instead, they have laid off staff until there are really not enough staff to support effectively the organization.  Instead, they have orchestrated a contract offer that cuts musician salaries by 30-50 percent, and deleted all the gains in establishing secure, safe, and positive working conditions since 1983.  Instead, they proceeded with the $50 million Orchestra Hall lobby and auditorium renovation which still needs more money.  Instead, they slashed  the orchestra’s season, shortening it and the summer season to such an extent that revenue decreased.  Instead, they have inserted into the musician master agreement sections that would transfer artistic decisions from the Music Director to MOA management.  And the Board of Directors does nothing?  They agree with all this?  Do they despise classical music so much?

If they weren’t so entrenched and rigid in their approach to negotiations, MOA management and the Board would probably agree that there are always several ways to resolve a conflict.  First stop blaming others for your mistakes.  Both sides need to be flexible.  No “final” proposals, in other words.  No need for counter-proposals.  End the lockout and enter a “play and talk” period.  That would go a long way toward giving the musicians reason to return to negotiations.  But don’t be surprised if they don’t trust you completely.  MOA management has the power and the control at this point to act.  What happens in the next few weeks will reveal their true intentions regarding the Minnesota Orchestra and its future.

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One response to “The Minnesota Orchestra: A Conductor’s Musical Instrument Torn Apart?

  1. Pingback: The Minnesota Orchestra: Dead or Alive? | Anatomy of Perceval

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