Now composer quits Minnesota, blaming both sides

Now composer quits Minnesota, blaming both sides


norman lebrecht

October 01, 2013

Aaron Jay Kernis, the distinguished US composer, resigned today after 15 years as director of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute. ‘I admit total bafflement and dismay at what has been done to dismantle this superb orchestra at the height of its powers,’ he told its president, Michael Henson. ‘The tactics of a lock-out have no place in the life of any artistic organisation.’

But, in an equal swipe at the musicians, he added: ‘I have personally never seen two sides that show such unwillingness to sit down together and attempt to tackle the major challenges that confront the orchestra.’ The trigger for his resignation was the decision to quit by music director Osmo Vanska.

Read the full letter below.




It is with great sadness and a heavy heart that I submit my resignation as Director of the Composer Institute at the Minnesota Orchestra.

I admit total bafflement and dismay at what has been done to allow the dismemberment of this superb orchestra at the height of its powers. The tactics of a lock-out have no place in the life of any artistic organization. The artistic and economic flourishing of a community of musicians cannot be ensured by essentially destroying it, nor by avoiding significant compromise on both sides.

I have personally never seen two sides that show such unwillingness to sit down together and attempt to tackle the major challenges that confront the orchestra. The collaborative spirit that is the essence of music-making has been completely absent this past year, and little can be forged without a modicum of trust and good will. In all of this, the audience of music-lovers, who most appreciate the orchestra’s extraordinary gifts have been forgotten and their voices disregarded. They have been left bereft.

Throughout this year I continued to hope for a resolution so the performers could return to Orchestra Hall and the Composer Institute program resume. The program has always put artistic education and collaboration above business models and branding, encouraging highly talented young creators in a generous and fulfilling way, with camaraderie and a strong sense of collaboration between artists and administrators being crucial to the effort. I can say confidently that the Institute had grown into one of the jewels of the Minnesota Orchestra’s programs.

But with not a shred of those sentiments left at the Minnesota Orchestra, I see no point in continuing my work there. Minneapolis has been a second musical home to me. The musical relationships and world-class performances I’ve encountered there have altered the course of my own creativity and path in the most transformative ways.

Over the 15 years of my tenure as New Music Advisor and Director of the Institute it has been one of my great pleasures to collaborate with its orchestra members, many of the finest musicians in the world. The program has been fortunate to receive gracious and passionate support of musicians, audiences, board and administration over the years. I also deeply honor the vision of former Artistic Director Asadour Santourian in the initial shaping of the Institute, unwavering dedication of previous co-director Beth Cowart, and recently Lilly Schwartz has been a joy to work with and has continued that deep engagement. The many wonderfully generous partners offered their experience and expertise to hundreds of participants. They offered an inspiring and true vision of a future for music that stands in the starkest contrast to the rancorous behavior shown during the last year.

I will greatly miss working with Osmo Vänskä, whose leadership and extraordinary, galvanizing and deeply inspiring performances raised the level of a superb ensemble to one of world class. I can speak for the nearly one hundred composers who have taken part in the Institute: their lives have been changed through working with the orchestra and this superlative music director. President Michael Henson’s critical support of the Institute has been greatly appreciated, but I cannot in any way condone the actions taken this year by the board and administration toward the musicians, nor can I see the point in the musician’s intransigence and sense of violation. At a certain point one must seek a way to move forward, and now Osmo’s departure is a heavy penalty for the choices made by both sides this year.

This is a great loss for American culture and the Twin Cities. The endgame that has been played out creates a diaspora of musicians and a deafening silence for countless music-lovers. But I will not lose hope that eventually some resolution can be achieved that will allow the Minnesota Orchestra to continue to play a vital role in American arts and culture.


  • Tom Foley says:

    Some issues are black and white. Such is the case with the lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra. There is no equivalency in blame here. Blame goes to the MOA Board of Directors.

    • Anon says:

      And some issues, such as this one, are clearly not black and white as you would wish. Unless you are in the orchestra or on the board, dare I suggest that Aaron Jay Kernis is closer to the situation than you are, and it appears that he doesn’t find the problem to be wholly one-sided.

    • Amy says:

      Yes. There will be those who think wisdom means the middle of the road…One of our friends said recently that if a man is beating his wife, neutrality is not a desirable virtue in the neighbors.

      (“Oh, but she was asking for it…!!”)

    • meerkat says:

      That’s how children think.

    • DrewX says:

      Great way to move forward and find common ground! I have said this many times during this entire debacle, but it is very clear to me that people are far more invested in affixing blame than solving the crisis, and I see this attitude over and over and over again.

      • Amy Adams says:

        Hey, if my very small opinion helps articulate fault and “affix blame” in this dispute, I am satisfied. I am not charged with solving the MOA’s financial woes…The Board Is. And instead of doing so, they’re cutting off the institution’s nose to spite its face.

        You’re going to “see this attitude over and over and over again” from me, because I feel strongly about this injustice. And someone else may help themselves to the middle of the road. Not interested.

        (Now, imeerkat wanted to move forward and find “common ground”…perhaps meerkat shouldn’t make remarks like “That’s how children think”…)

  • PK Miller says:

    Yet another nail in MN’s coffin. I assess the blame–just on what I’ve read on Norman’s Slipped Disc, NY Times, etc., 90/10 management & orchestra. I still think the orchestra was willing to negotiate in good faith but management seems UNINTERESTED in good faith negotiations. The lock out proved that. There’s such deep-seated profound acrimony here I cant see any plausible resolution. Perhaps the musicians should have been more flexible. It’s hard to say. As readers of my posts knows, as do my friends, Facebook & real (is there a difference?) 🙂 I’m not fan of unions. But again negotiations have to be from a position of mutual trust. No, management couldn’t take funds earmarked for the hall & use them for payroll. You can use encumbered funds. only for that purpose.

    At this stage of the game, it seems the only logical option is for the musicians to resign en masse and let management try to cobble together something of an orchestra. I cant imagine who would play when they know the circumstances. If they did this to established orchestra members, how would they treat a young person just out of college/grad school. And what you they sacrifice to play under such management. No happy endings here, kids.

  • MWnyc says:

    I think Aaron’s gonna catch a bit of hell from colleagues and musicians for trying to make the two sides look equally at fault.

    Maybe (I speculate here) he’ll tell the people giving him that bit of hell that he felt he had to throw that in there so as not to alienate other orchestra managements who might give him jobs or commissions in the future.

    Maybe he might even have a little bit of a point. Or maybe he hasn’t been following this fiasco all that closely. (That would be odd for someone in his position, but not impossible.)

    But really, he did not need to go that far.

    • DrewX says:

      Do you really think that you know more about this situation than he does?

    • MpR says:

      Good question, DrewX. Rather unnecessary speculation.

      Just like Vänskä, Kernis’ job was essentially dormant with this organization since the lockout began. I’m not sure what everyone expected those two to do, but they had no say in the mess to better anything, yet they are both hungry artists who want to work.

      Both of them did the right thing, behaved like proper artists, and any self-respecting musician wouldn’t blame them one bit.

  • Another appalling shame. Aaron Jay Kernis is an excellent composer whose first year in Minnesota I witnessed when I was living in the Twin Cities (well, in one of them). In those days, Minnesota’s music scene seemed to be the benchmark for how to do things properly: the MO’s reputation was rising fast, Margo Garrett was Head of Collaborative Arts at the university and the city was regularly used as a reliable tryout for shows destined for Broadway, due to the intelligence of the audience and the excellence of the local musicians and facilities. Minnesota Opera was run innovatively yet sensibly, producing high-quality productions without incurring debt.

    I sincerely hope this worthy city which has left me with so many fine memories will find a way out of this current miasma.

  • Allen says:

    sorry if this seems ‘off subject’, but on a related note (“it seems the only logical option is for the musicians to resign en masse and let management try to cobble together something of an orchestra”) could someone please summarize briefly what the end result was of the recent similar incident with the Louisville orchestra? Is that what they ended up doing??

  • Stereo says:

    Get rid of Henson and just maybe the two sides could sort this nightmare out. He is the problem and quite why he is still presumably getting paid is a mystery. He was and still is a boring,self centred CEO. He totally fussed up our pension scheme in Bournemouth.