Musicians end talks with Minnesota Orchestra

Musicians end talks with Minnesota Orchestra


norman lebrecht

November 10, 2013

An attempt by two board members and two musicians to end the 13-month lockout ended on Friday with no progress on either side. The board members proposed a ‘reconciliation task force’, having previously shot down the mediation efforts of Senator George Mitchell. The musicians said the talks were going nowhere.

Outsiders now regard the Minnesota Orchestra as deceased. It may well take a new organisation to restore music to the stricken Midwest.

musicians for minn


  • The American midwest also includes Chicago and Saint Louis.

    • Ludwig says:

      And Milwaukee!

    • Terry says:

      Absolutely correct, Jeffrey. We usually refer to ourselves as the Upper Midwest (Minnesota’s northern border is with Canada).

      I would also add that many observers now refer not to a “labor dispute” but rather a “hostile takeover” of a once-great cultural institution.

    • Sarah says:

      Well, Norman is the guy who a few years ago said that Wisconsin was far away from “professional opera” (hint: Madison Opera, Milwaukee Florenting, MN Opera, Chicago Lyric, and Chicago Opera Theater w/in a matinee’s day drive, not to mention Des Moines and Ravinia in the summer).

  • Steven Honigberg says:

    The National Symphony Orchestra is currently hosting several Minnesota Orchestra musicians as subs. Not only are they fine musicians, they are incredibly nice people. They did not deserve this treatment. This is painful for every alive musician. Whoever is in charge of this debacle should be thrown out by its ear never to be seen and heard from again.

  • GW says:

    Need it be pointed out that, should the orchestra be over and the players shut out terminally, the endowment and the concert hall remains in the hands of the board. With this starting capital. they can create their own concert and events series using all guest artists without the burden of the payroll for an entire orchestra and its artistic staff. Perhaps this is exactly what the board had in mind all along. Think of it as an unfriendly takeover.

    • Terry says:

      That is why the musicians refuse to resign. Technically, they are still the musicians of the orchestra, and the group of players with which the board must negotiate. By resigning, they would hand the endowment fund, the name, and the hall to the board to do with as they please, as you suggest.

      Better to get rid of the board and management.

    • Sarah says:

      The City of Mpls now owns Orchestra Hall as a result of the $14 million bonding. People are looking into whether they can throw the MOA b/c they are not fulfilling the purpose of the building.

  • PK Miller says:

    GW & Terry are absolutely right. The Board and Management have not played fair at all. And what they want is to rid themselves of the albatross of an orchestra, union and all, and hire freelancers,. No need to set aside funds for pensions, fringes etc.. You pay them a per diem rate, far below what you would have to pay the regular orchestra members, call them the Minnesota Orchestra–they own the corporate name–and pay themselves 6 figure salaries. And Terry is absolutely right in saying this is exactly why the musicians of the MNO should NOT resign. Hang tough, friends. Don’t give the bastards the satisfaction of quitting. This is NOT a case of the NY City Opera going broke after years of living beyond their means, fiscal mismanagement, etc. This is a clear case of a power grab on the part of management. I only hope orchestra supporters understand exactly what is going on here and what is at stake.

    • cztph says:

      PK, I agree with you completely. I would say the majority of Twin Citians and patrons everywhere in the state also agree. Just a question of how long the musicians need to stay on as employees or rather can legally stay on as employees so the pseudo profound management and its board can de unionize the whole state and for that matter the whole country!!

  • Sarah says:

    The musicians are smart enough to know that even with lipstick, it’s still a pig. And as for “outsiders”, they are exactly that – outsiders.

  • Thomas Thoreson says:

    Very Ominous-Could have happened to Atlanta Symphony last time around.

  • V.Lind says:

    Surely the endowment is for the Orchestra? Not these musicians but AN orchestra. Can the board jsut run a presentation series using endowment money?

    How they have the face not to resign is beyond me. Although the board leadership, at least, has surely made itself utterly unemployable in any similar function in the United States.

    • MWnyc says:

      Michael Henson, the CEO, is the only one of the people you’re referring to who is employed as such. (And yes, I agree that he’s unlikely to get another job with a professional orchestra.)

      The Board of Directors is all-volunteer. They’re destroying the Minnesota Orchestra for free; in fact, since Board members are expected to be donors, they’re paying for the privilege.

  • I’m sure that better minds than mine are working on this, but isn’t there some sort of remedy involving an investigation into the (mis?)use of endowment and operating funds possible here? The Board has spent as much on the past non-season as they would have in a typical operating year. Where did that money go?

  • John Cornell says:

    Well, folks, just by way of clarification: management’s game plan here has been carefully “orchestrated” (sorry) over a period of many years, advised every step of the way by our fine local union-busting law firm (the Felhaber firm (who, by the way, truly needs to be boycotted.)) While management’s actions appear to any normal person like they must be illegal (not to mention immoral), you can be absolutely certain that not one action has been taken, nor one word uttered, without, as we say in the industry “ädvice of counsel.” As a result, on on the whole front of suggesting intervention by the attorney general, or a law suit concerning mismanagement of the endowment–well, in the words of this generation: “good luck with that.” And, in regard to the Felhaber firm–just how much of the millions of dollars spent on not putting on any concerts (or, really, doing ANYTHING consistent with their public-entrusted mission) might we expect went to the Felhaber firm–at what hourly rate?

    And according to what we hear, management is so calcified in its arrogance that Davis and Campbell cannot in their wildest imagination entertain the idea that their “business plan” in the context of the 110-year legacy of the Minnesota Orchestra–is wrong. And, Davis and Campbell hold such power in the corporate world that, apparently, other potentially moderate (dare I say cogent) board members quake in their Italian boots whenever Davis shakes his U.S Bank stick.

    As for the musicians’ forming their own permanent new orchestra–while that is artistically an excellent idea, and they have proven themselves beyond question in their remarkable self-produced concerts, it is more than obvious in the industry that ticket sales and routine donations cannot sustain an orchestra of the caliber of the Minnesota Orchestra. Without a hall and an endowment, it is next to impossible to build and maintain the finances of a full professional symphony orchestra.

    Oh, and if I may, for all the trolls and cretins who post that an orchestra is not worthwhile to the community unless they can sustain themselves with ticket revenue–please, either crawl under a rock, or move to Omaha or Des Moines, where you won’t have to be bothered with any questions of culture. With any luck, Davis and Campbell will soon be packing their bags and joining you there, where they can listen to a fine pick-up orchestra (paid, shall we say,$10 an hour) play Glenn Miller tunes and selections from “Phantom of the Opera) In the meantime, let’s close all the parks, art museums, children’s museums, etc.–I mean, what good are they anyway? Just as long as we have professional sports in the Twin Cities, which truly enrich our lives, expand our minds, and make us better citizens of the world.

    • Thank, you, John. I could not have said it better myself. The power of the US BankStick is truly disheartening. Obviously it will be difficult to get other movers and shakers in the business community behind any alternative effort. Maybe the best we can hope for is the Association’s attempts to hire a scab orchestra will fail and the association will wither on the vine. That’s little comfort for the musicians, though…

    • cztph says:

      John, your words resonate I trust with many people. Although your point is well taken, your comments about Omaha being an uncultured place is wrong. They have a very good orchestra there, not on the level of Minnesota, play serious music and are on the up and up with their community. But again, thanks so much for your well articulated points… also interesting is how little one hears about the smaller orchestra across the river that had a similiar plan as MN orch and to some degree got a away with it.

    • MWnyc says:

      John, thanks for a good post.

      Except, of course, for the potshot at Omaha and Des Moines, at which the good people of those cities could quite reasonably take offense.

      As it happens, both Omaha and Des Moines have a professional symphony orchestra and a professional opera company, though they are not – as I’m sure people there would graciously concede – at the high level of the Minnesota Orchestra or Minnesota Opera.

      I just wish you hadn’t ended such a worthwhile comment with insults to other towns.

    • “Trolls and cretins”. Thank you for calling them out for what they are.

    • Vaquero357 says:

      You were doing so well in the first 3 paragraphs – and I heartily agree with your invitation to the “trolls and cretins”. Then ya just had to insult my adopted home town, Des Moines, didn’t ya? Let’s not be killing some solid, cogent arguments with hasty generalizations…..

      I love the Minnesota Orchestra and I dubbed them “on a good day quite possibly the best orchestra in the country right now” shortly before this slow-motion train wreck began (so yes, I was probably the jinx). But on any weekend the Des Moines Symphony and Joseph Giunta are performing, I’m not gonna drive all the way up to the Twin Cities for a concert.

      If you ever go to a DM Symphony concert, you’ll be amazed at the quality of the music-making. You may even pinch yourself, as I still do after 8 seasons, and wonder “Am I really in Des Moines.” Same goes for the opera company.

      It’s not surprising that the DM Symphony isn’t in the same league the Minnesota Orchestra was in. What IS surprising is how close it comes. And at least our orchestra had a 2012-2013 season and is in the middle of another season…..

      I’ve only sampled the Omaha Symphony once in person and caught a season’s worth of concerts on webcasts, but they’re mighty impressive too. And their concert hall is certainly the envy of many much older top-rank orchestras.

      So c’mon down for a visit – we’re only 4 hours away – and if the orchestra is better than you thought it would be….well, you don’t have to admit it to anybody.

      Lately, I’ve been thinking about arts institutions that have failed over the years, and I realized that I couldn’t name one that died from the lack of an audience. It was always bad management.

  • Good question, Rob. I also want to add that the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra have put on 26 sold out performances with no help from the MOA. The MOA as stated above, spent somewhere around $14 million dollars and did not put on one concert last year. Let’s see– Who are the competent ones here?

  • Saul Davis Zlatkovski says:

    Mr. Cornell, you forget that the Minnesota Orchestra is the same orchestra as the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra that was developed and built up by performing at Northrup Auditorium on the campus of the University of Minnesota. I firmly believe that is where it belongs, “protected” by the academic environment and supported as an instrument of learning and of art. Perhaps the Ted Mann hall is preferable now, but the campus is a good home for the orchestra. It is probable that they never should have left it. Having a concert hall to support is a burden, and Orchestra Hall has been no blessing with it’s stereophonic echo chamber acoustics. I agree that this orchestra sounded like the best orchestra in the country or the world. Why? Because you do not perceive a mass of egos on stage, you see a disciplined, focus unit thinking one thought only, to make great music. What other orchestra anywhere outside of a school does that? You don’t need the most virtuosic players to achieve this. You need great minds and people. You need honesty and simplicity as well as sophistication.

    And this orchestra is composed of graduates from the finest schools, predominantly the Curtis Institute, which accounts for its rather Philadelphian sound. The orchestra has rarely, if ever, had appropriate management. The Thatcherizing of the orchestra by a Brit is an international act of sabotage. I have suggested probing Henson’s immigration status, because he is clearly far from an exceptional person, except as a thug in a suit.

    The decision-making Board should never be composed of the biggest donors. They are not wealthy because of their talent and good taste. It should be made up of respected artists, minds, and members of the orchestra. The donors should be quietly supporting from the sidelines. Perhaps now that will be the situation as the government is forced to step in. Well, if the board wanted to buy themselves a fancy rental hall, they have done that. Good luck filling the calendar. If you never saw it, it was a monstrosity from day one, with a lobby inspired by the Poseidon Adventure. The ugliness of the hall is now typical of so many. The acoustics leave the sound positively dripping around you, with a crystalline clarity that becomes painful when the brass and percussion sounds bounce off the walls. The “great” Cyril Harris who designed the interior went on to ruin every other hall he worked on.

    A Beaux Arts auditorium may not always have perfect sound, but it will always be perfectly inspiring as a place to experience music. It is sad that in my musical life, I have yet to hear a symphony concert in a “perfect” acoustic setting. I found none in New York City, and the best in Philadelphia, the Academy of Music, no longer hosts the orchestra. At least they did it right in Nashville.

    • John Winder says:

      While I agree with most of your post, I have to disagree with your comparison to Philadelphia. There is very little in common there, as the Philadelphia sound has been oriented around lush strings, with a fairly soft attack, partially as a result of playing for most of their time in the Academy of Music, which is not a “perfect” acoustic setting by any stretch, but rather a very dry place for a symphony orchestra. Carnegie Hall may not be perfect, but it is far better as a traditional orchestra venue, even if there is some bounce of the brass and percussion (but only when you sit on the sides of the floor, under the overhang).

      One of the hallmarks of the Minnesota Orchestra is the clarity and wide dynamic range, particularly in the soft dynamics, and this has more in common with the Berlin Philharmonic than any other orchestra (and is the opposite of the lush sound that was cultivated by Ormandy that still exists to some extent in Philadelphia).

      I have yet to visit the Twin Cities, so I can’t comment on the halls there, but most of what I have heard about the acoustics of Orchestra Hall there are positive. Incidentally, my model for fine acoustics would be Symphony Hall in Boston, as I have yet to get a chance to visit the most renowned halls in Europe, i.e. the Musikverein, Concertgebouw, etc.

      • Saul Davis Zlatkovski says:

        I was thinking of the color of the string sections, but the sound I was thinking of was Stokowski, the Philadelphia Orchestra has not had that same coloring for decades, though I have heard it in the Curtis Institute orchestra. The Minnesota Orchestra string coloring is particularly dark and sumptuous, in that quality not at all like Berlin. It is perhaps very Nordic.

        • John Winder says:

          I have to base my observations on what I hear in concert, and for me, the tremendous dynamic range that I hear the Minnesota Orchestra play with reminds me of Berlin. When I have heard Philadelphia in the last 15 years or so, the string sound has been very full, but a bit dense and bloated as well, with a hard edge at times. This observation might sound harsh, but we are talking about comparisons on a pretty high level.

          In any case, I think we can both agree that Minnesota has a pretty wonderful string section.

          • MWnyc says:

            The Minnesota Orchestra’s extraordinary playing at soft volume levels isn’t a Minnesota thing so much as it’s an Osmo thing – something he’s been known to work very hard on at other orchestras as well. (I think I’ve read one British critic refer to it as an obsession of his.)

            I don’t know if the Minnesotans do it under other conductors; I suspect most other conductors don’t ask it of them.

      • Derek Castle says:

        Please include Symphony Hall, Birmingham, UK, in your list. Visiting orchestras positively drool over it (and we are so grateful to them for coming, e.g. San Francisco with MTT this season).

    • Pamela Brown says:

      SDS says, “Mr. Cornell, you forget that the Minnesota Orchestra is the same orchestra as the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra”

      The significance of the name change of the Minneapolis Symphony to Minnesota Orchestra in the 70’s cannot be over-emphasized. Without anyone realizing it, it seems the orchestra was taken into a different dimension, so to speak, that has resulted in nothing but turbulence.

      For anyone interesting in thinking a clue, all they need do is look to Mozart’s last major opera and a character with a name that is quite similar to “Minnesota”. Of course, there was no “Minnesota” in 1791.

      One might also consider Mahler’s last words…:-0

      • Saul Davis Zlatkovski says:

        Excuse me for quoting from Wikipedia, but: “The orchestra first began recording in 1924, and produced some landmark records. Among these was the first electrical recording of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony with Eugene Ormandy, who recorded extensively with the orchestra for RCA Victor in the 1930s. In the 1940s, the Minneapolis Symphony was contracted to Columbia Records and made a series of records with Ormandy’s successor, Dimitri Mitropoulos. These included the premiere recording of Mahler’s First Symphony.[9] In 1954, the group made the first complete recordings of Tchaikovsky’s three ballets: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker under the baton of Antal Doráti. That same year, they also made the first recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture to include actual cannon fire, again under the direction of Antal Doráti. These recordings were made for Mercury Records as part of the Living Presence series.”

        The Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra was considered the sixth most important in the USA, after Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia and New York. It was internationally known through its highly regarded recordings and toured extensively. After Mitropoulos, if anything, they were in something of a lull, and the name change was very much debated and far from immediately successful. It was only the release of the respectable LP set of Ravel’s music under Skrowaczewski that the orchestra’s reputation was somewhat restored. Meanwhile, other orchestras had risen in quality and the ranking was not secure, perhaps until Vanska. The discord over the name change was not solely about losing a recognizable “brand” but also over the orchestra’s role and the other existing orchestras in the state.

        • Pamela Brown says:

          With all due respect, you seem to be missing my point. If I am correct, this is no longer an orchestra belonging to any city or state. It is becoming part of something extraordinary.

          Ironically, at least the long-term of the players are probably aware of this, just perhaps in denial…

          And once again, look for a “Monostatos” in the Minnesota Orchestra…

          And reflect on Mahler’s last words…:-)

          • Saul Davis Zlatkovski says:

            I am definitely missing your point entirely. Your response doesn’t make any sense to me at all. What the orchestra will likely become is a state government-sponsored entity, or possibly a collaboration of city and state, as the city will apparently be in a position to own Orchestra Hall. This is a very real situation, not a dream state of a psychosis.

          • MWnyc says:

            The city of Minneapolis already owns Orchestra Hall, which it leases to the Minnesota Orchestra Association for the purpose of presenting orchestral concerts. (The MOA is not currently presenting such concerts, which is why the city might have grounds to evict the MOA.)

            This arrangement is not uncommon among large cultural organizations in the U.S. For instance, the City of New York owns the land and (I believe) the buildings of Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, Carnegie Hall, and several other major entities; the City leases the properties to the independent not-for-profit organizations that operate those institutions.

            Very unusually, the city of Detroit is the official owner of the art collection itself as well as the building at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the city’s and region’s major museum (and one of the best in the country). As you may know, the city government of Detroit is bankrupt and in enormous debt, and the city’s emergency manager (appointed by the state of Michigan) has suggested that the DIA’s art is thus a city-owned asset that could be sold to pay creditors. Quite the kerfuffle ensued.

          • Saul Davis Zlatkovski says:

            Yes, that does seem to be emerging as a real possibility, along with a state takeover of the MOA, or at least a curtailing or reseating of the board. It would be interesting to know, given the major executives who are on the board, what it is they know that is informing their decisions. Is it really a clash of values, or are they more aware of certain things? It is notable that there were no Daytons, Pillsburys, Washburns or Crosbys on the board. Perhaps some of them need to come back and restate their founding values… On the other hand, if executive pay is sure to continue rising, why should the musicians pay not also rise, if they could see that these musicians are equivalent to a corporate board? And Henson’s pay can be explained by the fact that he will likely never work again, and will get quite a golden parachute when he departs. He is the fall guy in this. Aside from here, where can one best keep up to date on the strategies and developments?

          • MWnyc says:

            State takeover of the Minnesota Orchestra? I don’t think so, unless you mean something different by the word “takeover” than I understand it to mean.

            There evidently exists no legal mechanism for the state government even to replace board members, let alone take over operation of the orchestra and title to its assets. (Unless the MOA were to enter liquidation bankruptcy with the state as its primary creditor.)

            Besides that, I think that there’s very little appetite among voters anywhere in the U.S. – even among those strongly in favor of government funding of the arts – for a city or state government actually to operate a performing arts organization (as opposed to simply giving funding grants).

          • Saul Davis Zlatkovski says:

            We are talking about Minnesota, a whole different ball game from the rest of the country. There is a bill in the State Senate leading to some kind of takeover. Any nonprofit is chartered by the state, and if they are found to be violating their charter, it opens the door for some kind of action to take place, what, I don’t know. Whatever the outcome, the more leverage there is on the board to bend to the will of the people, the better.

          • Pamela Brown says:

            With all due respect, once again, you seem to be thinking literally rather than artistically.

          • Saul Davis Zlatkovski says:

            I am an artist, and if art does not have a literal foundation and structure, it cannot exist in reality. Perhaps you are thinking this can become an orchestra of the world, freely floating with no specific home. That is impossible unless you have an orchestra of single people with no other life but playing in the orchestra. How utopian that would be. A utopian nightmare, quite possibly.

  • Old Man and the C says:

    sorry about the cheap shot at Omaha and Des Moines. I was on aroll . . .

  • Old Man and the C says:

    Excellent post, Mr. Zlatkovski. I heard my first Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra concert in Northrup in 1968 as a high school student from a small Minnesota town. I imagine that Maestro Skrowaczewski was conducting. The concert closed with the 1812 overture, augmented by a University of Minnesota brass choir, and Rostropovich was the featured soloist. I will never forget Slava’s encore, my first exposure to the Bach cello suites. The whole experience was, in fact, life-changing.