Minnesota musicians put a brave face on the deal

Minnesota musicians put a brave face on the deal


norman lebrecht

January 15, 2014

Here are explanatory extracts from an open letter from musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, explaining why they’ve signed off on a big pay cut:

Keeping salaries in the top ten was a critical issue as it allows the orchestra to attract and retain the finest musicians in the country, building on the tradition of excellence that has been cultivated by the community over many generations. The agreement achieves this priority.

With this agreement in place, we look forward to working with new board leadership to rebuild our relationship and the trust within the organization. We take heart that our treasured relationship with our audience will continue at Orchestra Hall.

Reading between the lines, the musicians appear to have accepted the deal in exchange for a board commitment to get rid of its hardball negotiators, including the president, Michael Henson.



  • Anonymous says:

    Where have you heard that Henson is leaving? That would be news to me. Richard Davis is stepping down as immediate past chair, but that has been known for a long time.

    • GEORGE JAQUITH says:

      Some take the position of certain MOA BOARD MEMBERS, including the CEO and President, who got tired of fund raising and decided it was enough for the MN ORCH to be merely a good regional orchestra that could derive much of its income from pop concerts and renting out party rooms in the new 52 million addition to the HALL. Though monetary compensation was important, there were much larger issues for the musicians.

      As someone who considers music to be sacred and has faithfully supported the ORCHESTRA through subscriptions to the full 24 concert series for many years and given to the Guaranty fund consistently, I do not agree. Since the 1930s Minneapolis has had an orchestra which ranks in the top ten nationally in terms of budget and artistic accomplishment. The musicians play as if we were in the top five, and many Eastern and European critics maintain on certain nights they heard the orchestra, that there was none finer in the world. The Minnesota, more than any other cultural insitutuion in the State, has brought the greatest recogniton to the Twin Cities as indeed an artistically rich place. Under OSMO VANSKA we received more invitations to play in the world´s greatest musical capitols than we could handle, including 2013 and 2014 residencies at Carniege Hall and London. With the recordings, tours and home concerts, this was a source of pride in a state dominated by a long, cold winter and a growing emphasis on subsidized professional sports teams.

      The following article appeared in the NEW YORKER on 12/16 which explains my philosophy and why some of the truly great things in our civilizations don’t fit neatly into the New Business Model as proposed by the MOA Executive Board and President HENSON.

      If you are inclined to agree and want to help preserve a social and cultural treasure in Minnesota, and for the country, please consider calling and writing the MOA. Ask for the resignations of Michael Henson and those who supported the toxic and tragic lockout which cost us so dearly. Equally important, buy tickets for the resumption of the concerts in February to experience the excitement of classical music and passionate musicians who play their hearts out. See for yourself and let me know. We need new fans like you to discover the true joy and life enhancing power of music.

  • I think Minnesota’s salaries are reasonable, but there is a troubling trend among American orchestras to use their wages as status symbols. Orchestras argue that their quality is reliant on being able to pay the most, but that is true only up to a point.

    There is such an excess of talent for relatively few jobs that finding highly qualified players is not exceptionally difficult – all claims to the contrary. Some orchestras draw out the search process and reject many fine players more out of concern for their ensemble’s image of superiority than the quality of musicianship.

    This has even led to a increasingly common practice of orchestras trying to poach each others top players. The resulting salary wars often harm the entire music community because resources are squandered to pay musicians far more than needed to maintain quality. We end up with a few deluxe orchestras for concentrations of wealthy people in financial centers, instead of using cultural funds to serve the country as a whole.

    This helps explain why the musicians in the LA Phil have a base pay of about 150K while the average salary of musicians in regional orchestras that serve the majority of the American people is only 13k – not even 1/10th as much. It helps us understand why Deborah Borda, the CEO of the LA Phil, makes 1.5 million per year while the New Mexico Symphony could barely maintain a yearly budget of 5 million a year before it went bankrupt.

    And it help us understand why the USA only has 3 cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year, and yet the annual budget of the Met at 300 million is twice that of comparable European houses.

    We this huge gap between a few top orchestras and regional orchestras, we also lose the training ground that top orchestras use to find their players. This is another reason top orchestras have resorted to poaching each other’s players.

    These disparities need to stop. In Europe almost all orchestras and opera houses are owned and operated by state and municipal governments. Many European countries (probably most) have collective, nationwide bargaining agreements with orchestras which set standardized pay scales for orchestras. This allows a far wider range of citizens to have equal access to good musicians, and not just a few large financial centers. The distribution of culture is thus far more democratic. (In the USA, this would require developing a public funding system like all other developed countries have long had. And it might require formulating legislation concerning wages and collective bargaining the in the arts for the protection of our cultural lives.)

    Instead of thinking of thinking of orchestras that have really large salaries as necessarily the best, we need to consider if they are hogging resources and thus harming us all.

    • Christian Atanasiu says:

      As an American playing in a European orchestra, I have to say that I prefer the system here, where there are 23 other full time orchestras within a 100 mile radius in western Germany. Unfortunately, a successful institution such as the LA or NY Philharmonics will draw in a great deal of support, while other, less prestigious institutions cannot remain open. Would a 1 million dollar gift make any sort of tangible difference in LA or NY? I doubt it. That gift might keep a regional orchestra open for a season, but the person doing the donating gets to choose where it goes. Sadly, the city of Berlin alone spends over ten times the amount of money that the entire USA spends on Arts, and as long as that is the case, regional orchestras will remain part-time orchestras that are unfortunately considered more a “gig” than a job, because they will not pay you a living wage, give benefits, or anything else. You forget to mention that a lot of great, talented players are leaving the US because of the difficulty in finding a job, and coming to Northern Europe, where a stable, well-paid job with SECURITY puts a further drain on the top of US talent pools.

  • Samuel says:

    Well – a huge sigh of relief resonates through America’s musicians. Looking at the details as shared in the may articles, however, one has to say that a 15 percent reduction – as opposed to the was it 40 percent that was proposed in April 2012 – with healthy restoration over the length of a three-year contract is not bad at all.

    • Terry says:

      The musicians will be paying “significantly more” for health care (although that’s par for the course these days, because the executives are taking everything for themselves in bonuses), and Michael Henson is still CEO (for now), but yes, a 15% cut (actually a 10% cut over the three-years of the contract) is better than a 40% cut.

      However, when the orchestra fundraisers begin calling patrons for donations, I think the first thing they will hear is, “When Henson is gone, please call again.”

  • MacroV says:

    It’s likely that both sides were simply looking for a face-saving solution; if management got significant pay cuts (at least up front), and the musicians got to keep “top ten” status and fend off some of the more odious work-rule changes, then both sides can claim some satisfaction.

    I would have to think that Michael Henson will have to go before too long, though; would seem to be too much bad blood for that relationship to work.

  • Sarah says:

    They also won concessions on those godawful work rule changes and total loss of artistic control which had been demanded by mgmt. That is BIG.

    • MWnyc says:

      That IS big, Sarah. (In fact, when I first read the MOA’s national press release, my thought was that management had caved.)

      Can you fill us in on which work rule changes got removed? The changes that were listed in the press release as being included in the new contract – more Sunday concerts, chamber concerts in neighborhood locations, etc. – seemed more or less reasonable to me.

  • Bob Smith says:

    Based upon the press, it appears the board was due for a change in leadership every two years and that Davis and Campbell will move on now that this is complete.but cheap rhetoric from the musicians isn’t surprisin at this point since it is probably embarrassing to agree to something that could and should have been done and avoided the whole circus.

    Running the numbers the musicians would have been better off doing this over a year ago. I wonder how much of this was the national union trying to make an example(and not caring if they destroy an orchestra in the process) and trying to stop the reality that current Classical music performances have to have a new business model.

    In the end nice to see the free market win and maybe we can now have musicians that are grateful to be making 8x the average of other community orchestras and earlier their pay comes from the charity of others.

    • robcat2075 says:

      “Running the numbers the musicians would have been better off doing this over a year ago.”

      But this offer wasn’t there to “do” a year ago, was it?

      • Amy says:

        exactly. Bob Smith appears to not be aware of the draconian and punitive offer that was on the table. Had this been in its place…there would not have been a wasted year.

        Looks like the bankers and Michael Henson were responsible for running the Minnesota Orchestra into the ground…as soon as “others” on the board took matters into their own hands, progress was made.

      • Anon says:

        Based upon the medias timeline of this circus, the orchestra Musicians never gave anytype of counter offer until this fall and actually refused to negotiate for a good year. Too bad the national union strategy went on for so long of cheap media stunts and insulting the major donors. Now hopefully the musicians will be more grateful and the leaders of the musicians who have been interviewed in the press will apologize to the donors for the tantrum. I hope the major donors find it in their hearts to still donate to the musicians after this but one could understand if they wish to give charity to a food shelf or children’s hospital.

        • Samuel says:


          And here is a list of the ELEVEN proposals that the musicians made to the Minnesota Orchestra Association during the sad life of this lockout.

        • anon2 says:

          Actually, “the medias [sic] timeline of this circus” is heavily biased: the musicians made *eleven* counterproposals,[*] and engaged constructively in mediation talks. Unfortunately, the management were determined not to open the books for a truly independent analysis, probably because they had something to hide. If anybody owes the donors, past and present (and we must not lose sight of the fact that there is a considerable endowment, accrued from people who wanted to support an elite orchestra), an apology, it must be the management, who were, I suspect, intending to turn the MO into little more than a “country club” for their personal entertainment (cf. proposed changes in work rules and mission statement).

          [*] see


        • Sarah says:

          Uh, no, the musicians were the ones who were locked out. It was management who refused to negotiate – their first offer was basically “take it or leave it”. And don’t give us the “national union strategy” bit either, because the union was NOT running the show.

        • Amy says:

          Guess what…”the media” includes more than the Star Tribune, Anon.

          For Minneapolis-based reporting (whose publisher is NOT on the MOA board, unlike the Star Tribune)…check Minnpost.


        • Michael Barar says:

          Anon, this is absurd. The lack of a formal counter proposal means nothing. Language gets massaged at the bargaining table and via other methods. In fact, at the negotiation I just concluded, there were no official counters. We talked and found ways to craft wording that satisfied our needs. The actual practice of a negotiation is often quite nuanced, and the MOA certainly went to great lengths to portray it as much more cut and dry.

          And what purpose is being served by trying to lay this at the feet of the AFM? The orchestra musicians are affiliated with the AFM, but the musicians are the bargaining unit. If you disagree with the musicians, then disagree with them. If your problem is with the concept of unions, then just come out and say it.

        • MWnyc says:

          From everything I’ve read and heard over the course of this labor dispute (to choose a neutral term), most donors that weren’t on the Board themselves were more put off by management’s behavior than by that of the musicians.

          And given that it was the Board and management that locked out the musicians rather than the musicians going on strike, it was the Board and management who had the tantrum if anyone did.

          The musicians never said that they were unwilling to accept any pay cuts at all. They did say that they wanted to examine the MOA’s books (a request the Board consistently refused to consider) to determine just how much of a cut the organization genuinely needed them to take (as opposed to, say, giving up pay so that Michael Henson could get another $200K+ bonus). Considering that the MOA was caught red-handed lying about its finances to no less than Minnesota state legislature, the musicians’ request to look at the books was entirely reasonable.

          • MWnyc says:

            And no, by the way, the 15% pay reduction that’s now in the contract was never on offer from management during the entire 15 months of this fiasco. That’s part of why, when I read the press release announcing the contract, my reaction was that management had caved.

    • David says:

      To suggest that the “national union” or even its local would hang out an entire orchestra of its members out to dry is ludicrous. For one thing, the union doesn’t have that kind of power over its members. For another, both the local and national union lost a ton of money as far as work dues and extended strike fund payments. Orchestral musicians from around the globe contributed humanitarian relief to the musicians of the MO, and earlier to their colleagues in St. Paul. Blame whenever you want, but to suggest for a minute that “big labor” is responsible is patently absurd. I suggest you look at the other side of the table and apply your national conspiracy there.

    • Andrea says:

      Why is it “nice to see the free market win”? This slavish adherence to the market as the ultimate (and only) arbiter of value grows really tiresome, where value itself is considered solely in monetary terms.

  • Eric says:

    And…in those details, there’s a revenue sharing model tied to the success of their fundraising to the endowment. What I like about that: the management is saying we’re in this too. They now have a job to do to restore their fundraising levels in order to give some $ back to the musicians as a good-will gesture for accepting salary cuts.

  • “We take heart that our treasured relationship with our audience will continue at Orchestra Hall.”

    Well, YOU’RE having a laugh! As a former ticket subscriber I can say with certainty that not only is a steady relationship no longer possible, it’s an insult. It’s too bad the musicians determined they actually needed to write an addendum to this deal, as if people believe they’ve lowered themselves with it.

    Concerning a select amount of audience members, this deal changes nothing. The damage is done, and the lockout by management and lack of negotiations by musicians has turned into a boycott by music-loving audience members. The management failed to address the musicians they had as they were, and the musicians failed to consider the orchestra’s state of affairs. Blame goes all around, and the “treasured relationship” with some of the community is no more. Not even summoning the resurrection of Karajan to the podium will bring some of us back to the hall. Bon débarras!

    • Jim says:

      Boycot? I guess you weren’t at any of the sold out concerts the MO musicians played.

    • anon2 says:

      The musicians were not in a position “to consider the orchestra’s state of affairs”, because management would not open their books, thus preventing any independent financial analysis from taking place. Given management’s track record in manipulating figures, I would not have taken their assertions at face value.

    • In regards to “lack of negotiations by the musicians” That’s an interesting take- I would say it was just the opposite. Last count, I think the musicians had offered 12 different counter proposals. Of course, that didn’t get reported by the Star and Tribune. Management made it very clear from the beginning that they were not going to move. Musicians agreed to working with Sen. Mitchel, who was hand picked by the management and then the management turned around and completely dissed him. I think the musicians absolutely considered the MOA state of affairs. They considered that we have the 6th largest endowment in the country and the MOA gave Michael Henson two bonuses in the same year that added up to $200,000 on top of his over inflated salary of $400,000; they understood that the MOA was able to fund raise around $100 million dollars during a economic downturn; and they knew that Minneapolis as a city ranks number one in charitable giving. And knowing all of this, it didn’t sit so well with the musicians that management wanted to cut some of their salaries in half. I too, have been a season ticket holder for close to 30 years. I can’t wait to hear my orchestra back on stage. It’s too bad that you love being right more than you love great music.

  • Stereo says:

    The main thing now is to get rid of Henson. It seems ex CEO’s of the BSO in England are bankrupting US institutions like they tried to do in Bournemouth. Make them both unemployable would be my advice.

    • anon2 says:

      Would it be legal for orchestra unions/players’ committees to declare Henson persona non grata (in other words, pledge to go on strike if Henson be appointed to their orchestra)? If so, that may well be a way forward.

    • Dave K says:

      Unfortunately, a level of competence that would render a rank-and-file employee unemployable seems at CEO level to be no barrier to re-employment, as is frequently demonstrated by the big financial institutions.

  • Richard Crampton says:

    Sadly, after such a protracted and contentous struggle, somebody has to take the fall. Why don’t they draw straws?

  • paulkelly20 says:

    Well they didn’t try to Bankrupt the BSO, they just failed to recognise changing times and.fix an outdated Business model.

  • Alan Penner says:

    So…since the musicians view the lobby as the “ground-zero of evil,” I’m assuming they’ll be taking the back entrance?

    • bratschegirl says:

      More than likely, since that’s where the stage door usually is.

      • GEORGE JAQUITH says:

        If patrons want to get HENSON out, please email, write and call MOA Board Members, especially Kelly, Davis, Lindahl and all on the executive board. This should be done soon before their first meeting to vote on board changes. Also, who knows if Henson took the same percentage cut at the musicians as he promised he would do?

  • harold braun says:

    Actually,it’s quite simple.Kick Henson and his cronies out,and bring Osmo back!Period!

    • GEORGE JAQUITH says:

      I wish that it were as simple as kicking Henson and his backers of the lockout off the island. Yes, it would go a long way to restore trust in what has been exposed as a very disfunctional organization to be free of HENSON. There are many other problems with the American Classical music scene that need to be corrected as well. Why is it that the MN ORCH plays to sold out houses in the world´s great concert halls, but in Minneapols the hall is only half filled unless a big name artist appears? Instead of expensive marketing and PR programs, don´t we need to invest in music education? The musicians have the right idea by getting instruments into the hands of youth, and youth concerts to hear everything from Bach to Bartok. How many schools still offer music listening programs or add resources to band and orchestra programs?

      For a more immediate solution, call or email the ORCHESTRA to suggest that at the opening two weeks of concerts that an open ended survey be filled out by patrons. Express you displeasure to Doug Kelly and the MOA about Henson. Let the consumers of the ORCHESTRA decide who to retain, who to hire and how to restructure organization. Also, ask the the City of Mpls. continue with the review of the lease and that Rep. Kahn let the legistlative process play itself out on the proposed restructuring of MOA in the style of the Green Bay Packer model.

      Writing blog comments means little unless backed up by social and political action.

  • PK Miller says:

    I missed this initially. I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I’m glad the contentious lockout etc., is over. But I feel badly for the orchestra members who really seem to have gotten the short end of the stick. I wish, whatever the legalities of it, they could have incorporated themselves as the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra and told MNO Board and management to stuff it or something to that effect.

    I hope both sides will now work together to rebuild trust and go back to making music. Management and Board should be ashamed of themselves. And I have stated my pretty much anti-union sentiments many times in these pages.

    I agree completely with George Jaquith above. If we do not teach children the beauty of music, encourage them from an early age to be musical, play and or/sing we have lost the war.


    Thank you for the affirmation about music education. I am still waiting for someone to tell me if Henson had a salary reduction equal to that of the musicians as he said he would take. Many have gone over to the St. PAUL Chamber and other performing arts groups. Unless Henson is sent packing in favor of dynamic change, they will not be back or donate.