Tag Archives: Michael Henson


Photo by Jeff Wheeler

Photo by Jeff Wheeler

A week or so ago, the MOA Board floated an idea to bring back Osmo Vänskä as Principal Guest Conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra. They would give him 8-10 weeks for conducting and no administrative responsibilities. My first thought was geez, that’s a corporate trick. Hire someone to do most if not all of a manager’s duties and responsibilities but don’t give him the title or the pay. My second thought: who’d they have in mind for Music Director? Then my anger kicked in. This Principal Guest Conductor idea is essentially a slap in the face for Mr. Vänskä, who had been the Music Director for ten years before resigning October 1, 2013 when the Board and musicians could not reach an agreement, and truly an insidious, cruel move on the part of the MOA Board if they were serious about it.

I thought it might be interesting to compare the two positions so you can get an idea of what the Board’s offer truly means. When I researched conductors, one area I needed to learn about for Evan Quinn in the Perceval novels is the job of music director and if it was something Evan would want. First it means he’d have his own orchestra, his own musical instrument. But along with that comes duties and responsibilities that he might not want for a while as he settles in Vienna, Austria.






Primary conductor and artistic leader of symphony orchestra. He or she has three main areas of duties and responsibilities: Primary guest conductor of a symphony orchestra. He or she has one main area of duties and responsibilities:


1) CONDUCTOR: responsible for conducting the orchestra, developing programs for the orchestra, hiring musicians for the orchestra (or letting them go).  The Music Director must have the technical skills regarding the orchestra’s instruments, musical analysis, mastery of musical styles, and advanced aural skills.  He must also have advanced conducting skills including baton technique, rehearsal technique, podium presence, the ability to communicate with the musicians and lead them effectively and gain their respect. She must also have extensive and insightful knowledge of music as well as the arts and humanities in general including a comprehensive knowledge of repertoire, the history of music, language skills and knowledge of visual arts, literature and drama.


1) CONDUCTOR: responsible for suggesting her program(s) to conduct and to work with the Music Director and orchestra staff to finalize the program(s). Lead rehearsals and conduct the concerts.  In addition, since guest conductors could be candidates for a Music Directorship, they also must be able to be responsible for everything the Music Director is responsible for under all three areas of duties and responsibilities.
2) ARTISTIC DIRECTOR: as the artistic leader of the organization, he needs to possess qualities of personal discipline and integrity, and the ability to advance the orchestra’s and community’s needs over his own. He must be able to establish an artistic vision for the entire organization.  He must also possess the necessary administrative skills to be able to work with all departments and the musicians, the knowledge necessary about governance, unions, etc., and a thorough grounding in professional ethics.


3) COMMUNITY ARTISTIC LEADER: must understand how the organization works as an institution in the wider community, serve as an influential community advocate for music and music education, and have an aptitude for good public and personal relations.  


For a more detailed description of the duties, responsibilities, traits and skills necessary for a Music Director, please visit the League of American Orchestras website and the article there entitled “Traits and Skills of a Music Director.”  I have not listed everything here, only the major duties and responsibilities.

Now, Mr. Vänskä has already worked for the MOA for ten years as the Music Director.  He exceeded expectations in his performance of this job. He is, without a doubt, qualified to once again serve as the Minnesota Orchestra’s Music Director.  Why offer him anything else?

The only reasons I can think of would be 1) money and 2) another Music Director candidate.  I would add another reason if Michael Henson were remaining as President and CEO of the MOA, but he’s leaving in August 2014; i.e. a difficult working relationship between Mr. Henson and Mr. Vänskä, since that has been mentioned at times in the media.  Regarding that last point, the two men would have far less contact if Mr. Vänskä were a Principal Guest Conductor.

So, money.  The MOA paid Mr. Vänskä a little over $1 million per year before his resignation.  I think it’s reasonable to expect the MOA Board to balk at paying him the same amount considering the financial situation that they have.  The Board will want to save money wherever they can.  I am not privy to any discussions of pay and shouldn’t be.  But I would speculate that the Music Director’s salary will be an important consideration in whether or not the Board rehires Mr. Vänskä or not.

Is there someone else?  Rumors swirled for a while that there was someone else that the Board was considering, someone Mr. Henson favored, but I don’t know who that candidate might be.  Any candidate, at any time, needs to take a hard look at the organization’s governance, the people who serve on the Board and in executive management positions, as well as the musicians in the orchestra he would lead.  There could be three or four candidates who are wonderful musicians and conductors, but their personalities also need to fit the organization and the community.  I think Mr. Vänskä has shown during his tenure as Music Director that he fits the orchestra and the community.  I am not privy to his relationships with Board members or even with Mr. Henson.  As with any job, the people involved need to be able to work together.

In conclusion, to offer Mr. Vänskä the job of Principal Guest Conductor at this time would be a good way to offend and insult him professionally and personally after he has served the MOA as Music Director for ten years.  I hope the MOA Board realizes this, and they work with Mr. Vänskä to find a way for him to return as Music Director that meets both the MOA’s financial and artistic needs as well as Mr. Vänskä’s….

Osmo Vanska and MO, Nov. 2011

Osmo Vanska and MO, Nov. 2011

The Minnesota Orchestra: Dead or Alive?

Regular readers of this blog know that the Minnesota Orchestra plays a prominent role in Evan Quinn’s life.  Growing up in Minneapolis, he attended Minnesota Orchestra concerts.  After becoming a conductor himself, the Arts Council assigns him to lead this orchestra as its Music Director.  He still holds that post when he leaves in May 2048 for his first European tour alone but for two Arts Council watchdogs.

MN Orch in Orchestra Hall

The Minnesota Orchestra
in Orchestra Hall

For Evan, I had conceived of an orchestra very much like the Minnesota Orchestra of the 2011-12 season: at nearly full complement and playing at the top of the classical music world.  At the time I wrote the first novel, Perceval’s Secret, I envisioned a brilliant future for the Minnesota Orchestra.  Now I’m not so sure about that.

Since I last wrote about the labor dispute in early May between the musicians and the MOA (management), exactly nothing has happened.  At least, nothing has happened with respect to the negotiations.  Both sides remain far apart and deeply entrenched, the the Board of Directors isolated and apparently marching in lock-step behind President and CEO Michael Henson and Board Chairman Jon Campbell.  The MN Legislature Auditor reviewed the MOA’s financial health and the way they use public funds and found nothing amiss.  The MOA returned a MN Arts Board grant of $960,000 which had been earmarked for 2012-13 operating expenses.  Concerts scheduled in July, fast approaching, have a zero chance of actually happening.  The renovations on Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis have not been completed yet, and it looks like it could be the end of August or September before they are complete.  At the Mask of the Flower Prince blog, the blogger looked at the MOA’s FAQs regarding the lockout and found them wanting.  Song of the Lark works on a plan to organize patrons to picket Orchestra Hall this fall.  MPR News has posted an article in which those interviewed see gloomy days ahead for the MN Orchestra.  And Gina Hunter has given her view of what she’d do if she were in charge.  The Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra have told the Board that they will not return to the negotiating table until the Board lifts the lockout.  The Board continues to say that they need a counter-proposal from the musicians in order to get the negotiations going.  The last two sentences shows just how far apart these two are.

I have tried to remain optimistic.  We’re now in month ten of the lockout.  Both sides remain firm in their positions.  However, as Gina Hunter points out, it’s management that has the power to end the lockout and move negotiations forward, not the musicians.  Yet, they continue to claim the musicians have the power.  The musicians have asked for an independent financial review which the MOA pulled out of because they didn’t like the parameters of the review.  The musicians continue to say that they need more financial information before they can develop a counter-proposal — they are concerned about addressing real financial challenges in their proposal, not those claimed by MOA to make their case.  Who could step in and pull these two sides out of their respective trenches?

I agree with Gina Hunter that the MOA has made a terrible mistake in the way they chose to approach the musicians’ contract renewal.  They’re acting like a bunch of chickens running around in circles with their heads cut off.  It’s as if there was a plan with expectations regarding how negotiations would go, but the musicians have not complied with management’s plan.  Now, faced with new circumstances, they don’t have a clue what to do.  Nothing in their behavior since April 2012 has convinced me that they comprehend the real consequences of their actions, instead of how they want it to turn out.

They do not get that they don’t get it.  They have closed their minds to any other solution or approach that might get things going again, and that is their most egregious mistake.  At the beginning, the musicians tried to work with them, made proposals for “play and talk” and binding arbitration; but now, after being rebuffed by the Board time and time again, they have decided to remain where they are.  And so we have it.  No music.  No orchestra.

Orchestra Hall stage after lockout

Orchestra Hall stage after lockout

It breaks my heart to watch this situation play out.  I’m watching all my fears start to take a more concrete form.  This Board is destroying the Minnesota Orchestra, its reputation, and their own reputation. Suddenly, I’m wondering if I can even expect there to be a Minnesota Orchestra in the future that makes using them as Evan Quinn’s orchestra impossible.  I suspect that any orchestra that emerges from this mess will not be the Minnesota Orchestra the world knew in 2011-12 and should not even carry that name….

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.