Empty seats for Minnesota Orch amid unresolved tensions

Empty seats for Minnesota Orch amid unresolved tensions


norman lebrecht

February 21, 2014

Local media have confirmed that there were expanses of empty seats at yesterday’s local debut of Tchaikovsky winner Daniil Trifonov with the Minnesota Orchestra. Some blamed it on an impending storm, others on an internal tempest that has not yet blown over.

We hear that key board members are still angry at the musicians over what they see as obduracy over a wage cut, and that musicians are resentful both of their board and the MO president, Michael Henson, whom they want to see sacked.

There are also unmentioned tensions surrounding former music director  Osmo Vänskä and his relationships within the organisation.

Peace is no closer in Minnesota than it is in the Middle East.



  • MWnyc says:

    Oh, I expect peace is at least closer in Minneapolis than it is Nablus or Cairo or Aleppo …

    I remember reading somewhere, back before the late unpleasantness started, that MinnOrch audiences turned out enthusiastically for Osmo but attendance was becoming a real problem when guest conductors were on. Can anyone on the scene confirm or refute?

  • CA says:

    Obduracy by the musicians? I think not: that word goes to the other side, in my opinion. And I would totally not be surprised if attendance dips when there’s no Osmosis happening!

  • Tom Foley says:

    To be fair, it was quite a storm we had here last night, and the build up to the storm started about 1:00 in the afternoon with slush and sleet and freezing rain on the streets, all of this followed by a heavy drifting snowfall. That’s why I didn’t go. The reviews say the concert was marvelous.

    As for peace, it’s gonna take awhile.

    • Sarah says:

      Tom is being more than fair. The storm was to have hit Thursday morning; it “delayed” a few more hours so that evening rush hour was fun, but a lot of attendees probably made their plans to stay home. Today the weather-induced traffic mess was the worst that many of the TV people had seen in 20 years (I love seeing those stalled semis sliding backwards on the curving merge ramps, good times).

      • Casey says:

        Yes, it took my wife and I one hour to drive to Orchestra Hall for the Friday night concert, and we live in St. Paul just a few miles away. I can’t imagine very many people risked driving in from outside the Twin Cities.

  • Paul says:

    All of the Minneapols concerts so far were reported to be full houses.

    Two explanations : The extreme weather forecasts kept people home.

    Secondly, after the 16 months and $13 M spent on no concerts, the management tried to rehaul the ticketing system. This resulted in phone queues that are 20 callers long,muddled tickets purchased on line, and extremely limited box office hours. This revenue losing failure alone would lead to heads rolling in any other organization, but maybe the objective is still to reduce revenue to show a large deficit?

    Unless the board wants to deliver the last blow to musicians by declaring bankruptcy in a few years, (as the orchestra in Louisville did) it will be interesting to watch and see if the new board leaders can find a CEO who can handle the basic function of ticket sales.

    • CA says:

      Yes Paul you are right about the problem with the ticket sales. I read about that on their Facebook page.

    • Max says:

      Paul, I’d love to know where you think they can get the money to pay for additional staff in order to handle this so-called surge of ticket sales people are talking about (which isn’t entirely true). Responding to the orchestra’s 2011 deficit of $2.9 million and in order to keep the musicians happy, they had to sack members of the music library and eliminated nine full-time positions, which comes out to 13 percent of its full-time administrative staff. Additionally, they laid off seven part-time employees. None of them were asked back.

      Oddly, no one cried or rallied for them. Not surprising, but odd nonetheless.

      As predicted, since the musicians are back on stage, the novelty has worn off and it’s (lack of) business as usual.

    • Sarah says:

      If they try to declare bankruptcy in a few years, they would be laughed out of court and the city would probably take it over. Given the many many obstacles that have put in the way of the “regular” ticket purchasers, there is a clear record of horrible mismanagement. No drop-off pull-in at Orchestra Hall (in THIS climate??). Horrible problems with ticketing systems and long phone queues (and insufficient frontline staff). But then the Board and big donors have a “concierge” service for tickets (and perhaps for valet parking) – what would they know about barriers? We won’t even go into the appalling marketing being done (or not), the fact that the ticketing office in Orchestra Hall is CLOSED during the week and there is no indication of where mgmt offices are (they are a few blocks away – another distancing from reality) – I could go on and on. It would be an incredibly contentious bankruptcy declaration, and very public. I doubt even the geniuses on the Board would attempt this.

  • Bassett Horn says:

    Also a bottom ticket price of $23-26 is going to keep some people away. There are several members of the community orchestra that I am in that can’t afford the Minnesota Orchestra concerts.

  • Jon Eisenberg says:

    Sir, we just called to switch tickets from Friday to Saturday night and were told there are no 2 seat together in the hall for Saturday night. Perhaps not 100% of the hall but at least most if it. There was a massive storm here Thursday – the largest of the season to date. Of course, the best way to maximize audience satisfaction and sell tickets would be to bring back Osmo Vänskä!

  • Sarah says:

    The “local media” are also confirming that the State Patron are telling people to “stay put” through the weekend. In fact, “Veteran state troopers say roads are as treacherous as they’ve seen them in 25 years. The patrol asked motorists to stop driving.” It’s on the internets: http://www.startribune.com/local/south/246524491.html. This storm had been predicted to hit earlier than it did – i.e. Thursday, just in time for the 11 am concert. I wouldn’t be surprised that tonight’s concert also has empty seats (although paid for), because this stuff is nasty.

  • Preston says:

    The concert you’re referring was on a Thursday. In the morning I believe. Hardly the time for prime attendance. Sold out performance Friday night.

  • Mike says:

    The weather was a huge problem. Sold but empty is a big difference from unsold, many people scrubbed their plans with the storm and warnings from the authorities for no unessential travel.

  • Pamela says:

    There is no Box Office at Orchestra Hall! If you want to buy tickets in person you have to go to the 5th floor of a hotel (The Hyatt, I think) down the street. Even then, there is terrible signage directing to the office where tickets are sold. Then while waiting in line, the ticketing staff are taking telephone calls throughout the process. It’s absolutely dreadful!!!

  • Vaquero357 says:

    The poor attendance at Thursday night’s concert was just due to the bad weather, a really huge snow storm that hammered the upper Midwest. We were on the southern end of it in central Iowa – torrential rain in the morning transitioning to snow in the PM, then 50 mph winds causing white-outs at night – and it only got worse the farther north one went. Later that night, I-35, the big Interstate highway that connects the Twin Cities to Des Moines to Kansas City was actually closed in northern Iowa. The kind of weather that would not deter only the most determined music lover. It’s a roll of the meteorological dice that the MO lost last night.

    The program certainly was a surefire winner: Rachmaninov Piano Concerto 2, Firebird Suite, and Ravel Bolero. Twin Cities audiences are still far too starved for symphony concerts to pass that up. I caught the webcast of the Friday night concert, and the audience roared lustily for young Daniil Trifonov in the concerto. I thought he banged away at it rather mindlessly at times, and the young local conductor Michael Christie seemed to have some troubles coordinating the orchestra with the soloist.

    But the orchestra’s beautiful, gleaming tone shone through, so why quibble too much? Especially after the Stravinsky and the Ravel.

    I won’t argue that there aren’t a lot of unresolved tensions in Orchestra Hall yet to be sorted out. But right now, everybody still seems mostly grateful that the orchestra is back and concerts are happening again.

    That said, the Osmo Question *does* still have to be resolved. The orchestra plays well for guests like Mr Christie and Yan Pascal Tortelier last week, but they play spectacularly for Maestro Vanska (and Skrowaczewski and Andrew Litton, too). It may be a crude analogy, but orchestra/conductor combinations are very often like sports teams and coaches – some times a particular conductor and orchestra bring out the best in each other and keep challenging each other to rise to greater heights.

    There is a particularly strong bond of mutual love and respect between Vanska and the ensemble – you can see how proud he is of them, how attentive they are to him, and how much the audience responds to the “chemistry” between them. Separate, maestro and orchestra are both very good. Together, they are breathtaking in a kind of “oh yes, THIS is why I love music” way. It’s the kind of relationship that doesn’t happen all that often in this business. The orchestra can get by without Osmo, and he them, but why would they want to?

    • Pamela Brown says:

      Excellent points.

      It seems to me that Mr. Vanska has ended up in either the best or worst position, depending on your perspective. He has gone far beyond normal protocol, it seems, in speaking out on behalf of the players. He has become, through his tenacity a hero who is rescuing them from the terrible plight forced on them by MOA, especially Mr. Henson.

      On the other hand, from the MOA’s standpoint, the Vanska/players combo may be what they consider toxic to their ‘sustained vision’ for the MO. In the old days, one can hardly imagine the players not crawling back into the fold almost at once after a lockout. It is because of his mentoring and faith in them, it seems to me, that they had the courage to fight for so long.

      If MOA does not quickly find a way for Mr. Vanska to return full-time, the public will force their hand. So the question then becomes, ‘what strategies will MOA try to put in place to make sure another another catastrophic (to them) scenario does not develop’. :-0

  • Stereo says:

    Is Henson still in post? Unbelievable.

  • Pamela Brown says:

    The storm Seneca hit the Twin Cities hard. I didn’t even dare venture out to the barn to see my horse yesterday, the roads were so grizzly. Here is a link:


    So perhaps we should congratulate everyone who managed to straggle in to the concerts, especially yesterday, after the weather people were telling everyone to stay off the roads…:-0