A Layman’s Guide to the Minnesota Orchestra Lockout, Part 2

Here’s a sequel to my Layman’s Guide to the Lockout. The first Layman’s Guide covered events from August to mid-October. This one will summarize events from mid-October to late December.

***

After the extraordinary sold-out gala concert at the Convention Center on October 18, there was a vague hope among patrons that maybe negotiations would start moving again. But unfortunately, if anyone thought that the Minnesota Orchestral Association, or MOA, would stop canceling concerts, their hope was misplaced.

Prior to canceling the next stretch of shows, the MOA put up a new page on their website called “Misrepresentations vs. Reality.” I fact-checked the MOA’s statements in an essay called “Misrepresentation, Reality…Misrepresentation of Reality.” In that essay, I asked:

The only interesting thing about this crap is the fact that management found it necessary to post it. Is this a sign that they’re having difficulty winning over their public? Or that they’re gearing up to pull an SPCO and cancel concerts through December 31st within the next few days, and they want to be prepared for the surge of confused PO’d patrons who will be coming to their website looking for an explanation?

On November 8, the MOA canceled concerts clear the way to the end of 2012. As I wrote in my next blog entry, “Either I’m psychic, or management is laughably transparent.” A flood of patrons surged to the Minnesota Orchestra’s Facebook page, expressing their anger and frustration at the stalemate. Most of them laid the blame squarely at the feet of the MOA.

After months of relative silence, music director Osmo Vänskä spoke up on November 12. He wrote a powerful, agonized letter to the musicians and the board of directors, saying

But now I fear we may be on a path to diminishing greatly, if not destroying, the Minnesota Orchestra as an artistic and cultural leader. While there is no progress in the contract negotiations; while players are unable to rehearse and perform together; while some are obliged to seek jobs elsewhere – I am desperately anxious about the risk posed to the quality and spirit of the orchestra for the future. I become deeply emotional when I listen to our latest Sibelius recording edit of the 1st and 4th Symphonies, first because the music is so moving and superbly played in the hands of our musicians, and second because I fear that to preserve our reputations I may need to consider letting go of the remaining recording projects we have planned. I will also be in a position to think seriously about the viability of bringing a diminished or compromised orchestra to Carnegie Hall for our four concerts in the 2013-14 season, plus international touring thereafter, including a re-invitation to the BBC Proms.

Read the whole letter for context.

The MOA immediately leaped into action, sending out a mass email to patrons addressing the letter. Without providing a link to the full document, they used snippets of the Maestro’s words linked by an ellipsis, insinuating that he supported management’s techniques and position. The MOA also assured everyone that “We have great empathy for our musicians—and our audiences—right now.”

This email caused me to throw up my arms in exasperation. It felt as if the board, management, musicians, and public were living in completely separate realities, unable to agree on the simplest of truths. I wondered if anything could possibly break the logjam. On November 20, the musicians posted some answers to FAQs about the negotiations, explaining in detail from their point of view what specific documents they want to see, and what analyses they want to have done, among other things. The MOA didn’t respond. On November 21st, Minnesota Orchestra donors Paula and Cy DeCosse wrote an editorial in MinnPost, asking some questions of the board and management. MOA board member Jon Eisele attempted to answer those questions on December 4; unfortunately, the DeCosses were not satisfied by Mr. Eisele’s response, and on December 6, they hand-delivered a letter to CEO Michael Henson and MOA Board Chair Jon Campbell, in which they announced they were halting their annual donations and removing the Orchestra from their willsOn November 23, I wrote an essay examining Mr. Henson’s bizarre statements from the past, in which he praised the financial position of the Orchestra at the same time he now says the Orchestra was indulging in unsustainable emergency fiscal practices. The MOA has never addressed the essay, or even the facts contained within the essay. Nothing seemed capable of breaking the stalemate.

Then on November 26, Graydon Royce wrote an article in the Star Tribune called “Minnesota Orchestra board walked thin line on finances.” It sent shockwaves through the local music community. It revealed that in 2009 the MOA had formulated a financial plan for the next four years. They would take large draws from the endowment and report balanced budgets in 2009 and 2010, so that they would be better positioned to get money from the state and from donors for the Orchestra Hall renovation. Then, in 2011 and 2012, they would post deficits, in order to prove to the public it was necessary to cut drastically musicians’ salaries.

“Balances in 2009 and 2010 would support our state bonding aspirations,” Bryan Ebensteiner, vice president of finance, told the orchestra’s executive committee in September 2009, “while the deficits in 2011 and 2012 would demonstrate the need to reset the business model.”

The article also revealed that the MOA had hired a PR firm in 2011 to get advice on how big of a deficit to publicly report.

In 2011, after choosing to balance its budget the previous two years, the board retained the public-relations firm Padilla Speer Beardsley to determine “what size of deficit to report publicly, between $2.9 million and $4.3 million.”

[Board chair] Campbell said it is not unusual to consult professionals on reporting news and claimed that “there was no attempt at manipulation.”

Oddly, Mr. Henson and Mr. Campbell also contradicted each other within the article. Mr. Henson claimed the deficits were strategic, while Mr. Campbell said they were not. We have not heard clarification on the matter.

The next day, the musicians issued a unanimous vote of no confidence in their CEO. This was a largely symbolic gesture, but it did put pressure on the MOA board to issue a vote of confidence (which, to date, they have not done). The musicians also publicized the misleading testimony that Mr. Henson gave to the state legislature in 2010: “On the financial front, we have announced balanced budgets over the last three consecutive years, and we are facing the current economic downturn with stability.”

Royce’s article made the ears of politicians in St. Paul prick up. On December 6, fourteen Democratic representatives sent a letter to the MOA, demanding accountability, and suggesting there is a need for a public hearing. An excerpt:

The Star Tribune reported Monday that the Board and management made a “strategic” decision to show balanced budgets while pursuing over $20 million in state bonding funds and show a deficit while preparing to negotiate with the Musicians for a new contract.

It is more importantly in direct conflict with Mr. Henson’s testimony to the Legislature in favor of bonding funding to that the Orchestra had “presented three balanced budgets in a row.”

As stewards of the public trust and money, this is of great concern to us and warrants a public hearing and explanation to the legislature and the taxpayers of Minnesota.

The letter also requested that the MOA return to the bargaining table “in good faith.”

As it turns out, the MOA’s annual meeting was held on December 6, the same day the letter was sent. The meeting was a closed-door affair. The musicians were not asked to address the board. And despite the growing outcry, the public was not invited. At that meeting, a $6 million deficit was announced.

Two weeks later, on December 22nd, the story broke in the press that the MOA had been contacted by legislators. That same day, the MOA sent a response to the legislators, which I analyzed here. I found it largely unsatisfactory, but you should read the whole thing and judge for yourself. In response to the state’s inquiry, the MOA promised to sequester Legacy funds (funds from the state’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund) to ensure that none were being used to fund the lockout. This money is separate from the $14 million for the hall renovation that Mr. Henson testified about in 2010. Unfortunately, and strangely, the MOA’s letter did not address Mr. Henson’s 2010 testimony, or why the MOA ran strategic deficits. We are now waiting on lawmakers to see what additional action they may take.

Possibly as a result of the letter, the MOA invited musicians back to the bargaining table in early January, with “no preconditions.” Presumably this means that the MOA has dropped its insistence that a counterproposal is necessary before negotiations continue. It is unclear whether this is an attempt to mollify patrons, donors, and government officials…or an honest attempt at good-faith negotiations. Sadly, the same day that the MOA invited musicians back to the table, they also canceled concerts through February tenth. Pops concerts were rescheduled, while classical concerts were canceled outright.

On a brighter note, the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra came together to perform the Bach double violin concerto and Beethoven’s ninth symphony at Ted Mann Concert Hall on December 15 and 16. Both shows sold out within days, and the audience was loud, boisterous, and very affectionate. The message was clear: bring back our orchestra. The performances were astonishing in their strength, resolve, and power.

At these concerts, a new patrons’ group called Orchestrate Excellence was announced. Its website reads: “The Minnesota Orchestra enriches and inspires our community with a heritage of artistic excellence spanning more than a century. It has made Minnesota synonymous with musical greatness worldwide. We believe that the orchestra plays an important role in Minnesota’s rich cultural life and that it is possible to fund its musical brilliance going forward. We are concerned citizens who have come together to find ways to assure the high quality of the music that we love.” It appears that the group will be getting off the ground sometime in early 2013. Stay tuned for more information, and in the meantime, “like” OE’s Facebook page.

Another highlight was finding out on December 5 that the Minnesota Orchestra is nominated for a Grammy for Best Orchestral Performance for their astonishing recording of Sibelius 2 and 5.

I have a feeling they might win.

2 Comments

Filed under My Writing

2 responses to “A Layman’s Guide to the Minnesota Orchestra Lockout, Part 2

  1. For what it’s worth, here’s my attempt to capture the emotional experience of all these events:

    http://innig.net/music/inthehands/134

    Fair or not, that’s how I feel.

    Thanks as always for the meticulous information gathering & reporting, Emily! You are a godsend for those of us trying to follow the action.

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