Garrison Keillor breaks silence on the Minnesota Orchestra

Garrison Keillor breaks silence on the Minnesota Orchestra


norman lebrecht

November 05, 2013

The veteran broadcaster and popular writer had this to say on Sunday’s broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion, live from the State Theatre, Minneapolis:


The bad news is that the Minnesota Orchestra is not playing. They’ve been locked out of Orchestra Hall now for more than a year. After Orchestra Hall carried out a $50 million renovation project and the year after their CEO was paid $619 thousand in salary and bonus, they didn’t have enough money left to pay musicians, and so they’re not playing, and we miss them in Minneapolis.

Today is the 110th anniversary of the orchestra’s formation.

Here’s Keillor’s audio:


  • James Brinton says:

    One might have hoped for more. Still, maybe he is active behind the scenes.

  • R. James Tobin says:

    What is the board’s excuse for paying the CEO all that money when they want to squeeze the players?

    • The same rationale used by many big corporations. It’s all about management, and the people who create the product, whether that’s great art or toasters, are at best a necessary expense — and expenses are to be minimized.

  • PK Miller says:

    I wish Garrison had been a little blunter, more forthright. He IS a native of Minnesota whatever his shtick about the mythical Lake Woebegone! (We have friends who live in a Montana town so tiny it’d make Lake Woebegone a sprawling metropolis.)

    How sad that the 110th anniversary of the MN Orchestra passes with no orchestra. I truly despair of any happily ever after here. Even if there were a settlement tomorrow, there’s too much rancorous estrangement for their to be any “happily ever after.”

    I hope the musicians can regroup under their own legal entity and the community will support them as such. The CEO of the MN Orchestra can be CEO of nothing. Who would work under that banner knowing the history, knowing of the lockout. I mean other than someone who would make Rip Van Winkle utterly omniscient. I’m sure the Carthusian Monks (In Great Silence) in their cloistered monastery, know of this sordid mess. Even the most neophytic recent grad knows of this unfairness thanks to the Internet.

  • Harold Stover says:

    The Leviathan Maunderer of MN carries a lot of clout even if not at this address. A welcome statement.

  • Yes, maybe he could have been more blunt, but remember how many millions of people listen to this program For those who have not been following carefully, I’m sure Michael Henson’s $600,000 paycheck, including bonus was a shock and might be enough for those listeners to realize what completely callous, arrogant, and out of touch the MOA actually is.

  • MacroV says:

    I can see that he wouldn’t say a lot about it on Prairie Home Companion, but it would be nice to see him do a show with the Musicans of the Minnesota Orchestra; good fundraiser and attention-getter. Glad to hear him say something, anyway.

  • MWnyc says:

    It’s disappointing that Keillor wasn’t more blunt, but he may have said everything he feels able to say publicly.

    I don’t know what the details of his contract with Minnesota Public Radio are, but he is by far that network’s highest-profile figure.

    Minnesota Public Radio has a longstanding – and almost certainly contractual – broadcasting relationship with the Minnesota Orchestra Association.

    Whether Keillor wants it or not, whether it makes sense or not, anything Garrison Keillor says about the Minnesota Orchestra fiasco will be taken by some people as a statement of Minnesota Public Radio.

    The possibilities for unintended consequences are legion, so I can’t blame Keillor for limiting what he says on this unhappy subject.

    • Keillor is definitely classic old-school Minnesotan, the Norwegian-American, Lutheran rural personality. That he brought this issue up at all and was so direct in his wording – no matter how understated it seems on the surface – says much more than you might realize. Having grown up around the remnants of the real world Keillor parodies as Lake Wobegon, his statement was quite pointed. I think you’re accurate in noting what this must mean from MPR which has had to suffer from the lack of MN Orch and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra as well.

  • Tony says:

    I agree with MacroV, he should help the band out with a show. A performance would show solidarity.

    Hopefully this group can return. The management needs to go away.

  • Alan Penner says:

    Apparently the air has gone stale at Lake Wobegon.

  • V.Lind says:

    Isn’t there such a thing as an investigative journalist in Minnesota? A school-leaver could put together a story about an Orchestra Manager getting paid that kind of money when there is no Orchestra to manage. It’s Carrollian.

  • robcat2075 says:

    What are they going to do? Fire Garrison Keillor? I suspect they spent the last two years begging him to not retire after he announced he would retire two years ago.

    I think he said what he wanted to and didn’t say more because he didn’t want to.

    I believe PHC is done under the auspices of American Public Media of which MPR is only one player. The show tours the country so much of the year that if MPR did drop it he probably wouldn’t have to make more than four phone calls to find a new home base.

    • MWnyc says:

      MPR wouldn’t fire Keillor, but if there’s a contract and a possible breach of it, they could complicate his life quite a bit. And he could move the show if he really wanted to leave Minnesota, which I very much doubt he does. (He still has a school-age child, and the two times I know of that he tried to live elsewhere, he came back after a few years..)

      They didn’t have to beg Keillor not to retire, I think. The minute he announced that “retirement”, the head of Minnesota Public Radio said that he had known Garrison Keillor for 40 years and that retirement is not something the man he knows is capable of. It seems he was right.

      Just because Keillor’s job is secure doesn’t mean there couldn’t be unpleasant consequences if he said something Minnesota Public Radio really, really didn’t want him to say.

      But that’s assuming that Minnesota Public Radio would really object if Keillor spoke out forcefully on the Minnesota Orchestra conflict. Maybe MPR wouldn’t object.

      My point is just that, if people wonder why Keillor has said so little on the subject before now, his relationship with Minnesota Public Radio (and MPR’s relationship with the Minnesota Orchestra Association) could be a plausible reason.

      • Terry says:

        Garrison’s show is produced by American Public Media (and broadcast on many public radio stations, including Minnesota Public Radio). Already, one of APM’s other programs, “Symphony Cast” has on its Facebook page the question: “was it his place” to comment on the lockout. So, the corporate types at APM are after his hide already.

        • MWnyc says:

          American Public Media basically is Minnesota Public Radio, only expanded.

          Minnesota Public Radio created American Public Media a number of years ago because MPR had started distributing enough programs nationally that they needed a separate, non-Minnesota-focused entity. (I suspect that wanting to minimize the rampant confusion nationally between MPR and NPR was also a factor. Even today, many people, including journalists and editors whose job includes getting the differences straight, get NPR, MPR, APM and PRI confused.)

          APM was and is based in St. Paul. (I remember that when NPR dropped SymphonyCast, Performance Today and almost all of their other classical programs, APM picked them up, and the staff on those programs had either to move from Washington, DC to Minnesota or find other jobs.)

          If I’m reading this page correctly, American Public Media is the legal owner of Minnesota Public Radio (as well as regional networks in California and Florida).

          So if SymphonyCast‘s Facebook page is already going after Keillor for speaking up, that would suggest to me that he really did have issues with the network that restrained him from talking about the MinnOrch debacle sooner, despite the pressure he was getting from Minnesotans to say something.

  • CSOfan says:

    Garrison Keillor’s comments are no more relevant on this issue than Sid Hartman’s would be.

  • Patrick says:

    As a regular PHC listener, I am surprised he didn’t mention this sooner. As for the orchestra, I think the best thing now is to regroup under a different organization/management. The current MOA is bent on destruction of the orchestra. This suggestion leaves the big question of then endowment unanswered, but perhaps to pols can convince the MOA board to just let go, go away and let a new organization (controlled by the musicians) take over.

  • Still, all over the USA orchestra’s management keep on asking, begging, cajoling, cheating, etc., etc., more money from credulous donors/patrons. The donors keep on giving and with few exceptions they never know what their precious money is for. In my own experience, I learned that donations from donors go for the most part to “general expenses.” Which is just another word for ADMIN purposes and to pay these inflated salaries to their management. Here in Pittsburgh I wanted to donate some $$$ to the PSO about 4 years ago. Wanted my $$$ to go to the players’ fund and was told NO. That my $$$ was going to go for expenses, i.e.: salaries, limos, and nothing to the players. In the end I gave nothing to nobody.

    Lets be frank, orchestras such as those in the USA that rely on patrons for more than 50% of their funding are a failure no matter what they say. The orchestras exists for the benefit of those characters that profit by being in charge of the ADMIN. Producing music is a secondary mission. ADMIN primary mission is to get paid a lot and use players as the medium to get there. There will a day in the USA when orchestras will consists of ADMIN and contract players for the particular occasion. IN MY NOT SO HUMBLE OPINION!!!

    Lets face it. The USA does not support ART. The USA supports management of the ARTS.

    I wonder if this will pass the censors???

    • MWnyc says:

      Well, Dr. Némaric, the category of “general expenses” at most U.S. orchestras usually includes the musicians’ salaries, which are usually the largest item in the budget.

      (If you used the term “players’ fund” with the person(s) you spoke with at the PSO, I’m guessing they assumed you meant the musicians’ pension fund; since musicians’ pension funds usually involve the musicians’ union, it may or may not be a simple matter to steer donations from the general public to those funds.)

      And “general expenses” that go towards administration aren’t simply going into the pockets of the senior executives. They’re paying the salaries of the people that put together the season brochures and sell you concert tickets from the box office and clean the concert venue and rehearsal rooms and operate the collection of scores and parts the musicians use to play. “General expenses” also include things like utility bills.

      You don’t want the Pittsburgh SO musicians to be playing in a dark and dirty hall with no electric light or heating or sheet music, do you?

      • “since musicians’ pension funds usually involve the musicians’ union, it may or may not be a simple matter to steer donations from the general public to those funds.”

        Very true, although I doubt that the union would turn down a direct donation.

        • MWnyc says:

          But that direct donation would need to be made to the AFM and not the Pittsburgh Symphony, wouldn’t it?

          • John Arbo says:

            By law, the AFM/EPF (American Federation of Musicians and Employers’ Pension Fund) is funded exclusively by employer contributions that are specified as a percentage of wages in the various collective bargaining agreements. Musicians can’t make contributions on their own behalf and it’s not set up to take donations.

  • Stereo says:

    Sack Henson it’s the only answer.

    • MWnyc says:

      Except that the only people with the power to sack Henson – the Board of Directors – have been his allies in this whole mess.

  • steve simmer says:

    When one works with a very sharp knife, fewer cuts are needed. His comment was sharp and to the point.

  • Ken Weiss says:

    Hasn’t GK been spending more time in NYC for many years, than in the Land of Lakes?

    • MWnyc says:

      He spends considerable time here, but not more than in Minnesota, I believe.

      He tried living here full-time a number of years back (I think it was after his ill-fated sojourn in Denmark), but he ultimately went home again. (I believe he did hang on to his apartment here, though.)

  • Lexi says:

    Pay at the Minnesota Orchestra reminds me of that episode of Yes Minister when Hacker was shown round a hospital with no patients but 400+ administrators talking about how it was the most efficient hospital in Britain, and how equipment didn’t depreciate as fast and doubtless laundry bills were lower, etc. Thinking on that man’s pay and what has been reported throughout the lockout, I am so reminded of Hacker sputtering to some uncomprehending admin officer,”But-but-but- there are NO PATIENTS!!!”

  • luanne says:

    Can’t anyone force the current Board to “retire”, install a new Board and Chair, and have a good old-fashioned fund drive (LOTS of folks will be more than happy to give) to get the Orchestra itself back on a solid footing?? -And quick! before more days are lost, get back the conductor who worked so brilliantly to put this orchestra on an amazing footing!

    • MWnyc says:

      Legally, no, I don’t believe anyone other than a majority of the Board members themselves can force the Board to step down. At least not unless Board members or officers are caught having committed actual criminal offenses.

  • george says:

    What can happen though is that the Board can be evicted by the City of Minneapolis from Orchestra Hall on the premise that they are not using the space for it’s intended purpose. Orchestra Hall can then be re-leased to the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra. Also State Auditor Rebecca Otto or Attorney General Lori Swanson could initiate a public financial audit of the Minnesota Orchestra Association. If it is determined that MOA misused Legacy Amendment funds, then Campbell, Davis and Henson could be prosecuted. There may not be anything explicitly illegal, but making this information public would shine a HUGE spotlight on Jon Campbell, Richard Davis and Micheal Henson. The people who can actually get rid of these three are the board members themselves. I find it a little fishy that all members who disagreed with the board’s actions were forced to resign.

    All if would take would be the political will to push this. Unfortunately, Gov. Dayton has “pledged to remain neutral.” There are days when I miss Arne Carlson..and even Jesse Ventura.

  • Thanks for this info, George. Let’s hope that Betsy Hodges and Rep Kahn can do something along these lines.