Detroit, Minnesota, and Funhouse Mirrors

Will the DSO be Michigan’s next casualty in this recession?

YES, if DSO management and board of trustees have their way.

They believe the DSO cannot survive in its current form and propose to downgrade our orchestra from its world-class stature by drastically reducing the number of musicians and performances, slashing the musicians’ compensation and benefits while imposing draconian working conditions…

We are DSO patrons, donors, subscribers, business owners and community members.

We are people who love great music and also recognize the economic value that this powerful orchestra brings to Detroit and Michigan.

We believe so strongly in preserving the essential character and tradition of this world-class orchestra that we formed the nonprofit group: Save Our Symphony (SOS).

The mission of SOS is to promote and support the world-class artistic excellence and stature of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and to hold its management and board of trustees accountable for their fiduciary responsibilities to the public trust including the preservation of this great orchestra and its future.

Join us so your voice can be heard: please register your email with us to stay sharp on the latest updates. Thank you for your patience as we establish contact information and build our website.


A few weeks ago I was contacted by David Assemany, the vice president of Save Our Symphony, the audience advocacy organization that formed in the wake of the crippling 2010-2011 Detroit Symphony strike. He was curious about some figures I’d posted here on SOTL, and he said if I had any questions to contact him. Before I wrote him back, I checked the Save Our Symphony blog to read about that group’s experiences. The first entry was the one you just read.

I couldn’t scroll fast enough. I felt as though I was looking in a funhouse mirror: the reflection wasn’t perfect, but it was certainly recognizable…and it was us. There was a community caught off-guard – a group of citizen activists scrambling to learn how orchestras work – stakeholders who felt ignored, disrespected, and betrayed – musicians leaving in droves – tensions over an expensive building project – accusations that the board cared more about bricks and mortar than souls – theories about capitalism and capitalists run amok – a CEO saying wildly insensitive things – a total breakdown in communication in the triangle of board, musicians, and community. Entry after entry after entry after entry could have been written by Twin Cities music fans. Just replace Minnesota with Michigan, and voila.

It was deeply, deeply unsettling.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last six months explaining to people: Minneapolis is not Detroit. And I still believe that Minneapolis is not Detroit. But I’d become so fixated on the idea that Minneapolis and Detroit were different that I’d ignored the similarities.

Especially in the way the management and board of directors treated their entire reason for being…their audience.


I am not exaggerating when I say people are angry, beside themselves, crying, disappointed, feel betrayed and want the story of what in the is happening to their beloved orchestra.

No one seems to want to listen, or understand, that for many of us, this is personal for various reasons. It is our Heritage, passed down from our Parents and Grandparents. Its traditions are deep and glorious, and for the City, it is a cultural treasure of which we can be proud. Like the Detroit Institute of Arts, it is world renowned, but when it performs it is a living organism, alive with the energies of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Verdi, Mahler, and all who realized their human potential in creating their compositions, giving us hope.

– SOS blog, February 2011


The Save Our Symphony blog is a worthwhile read for anyone concerned about what’s happening in Minnesota. I’m not going to bother listing every similarity, because I’d practically be copy/pasting the entire blog, but I’ll toss out some morsels to entice you to hop over to read the whole thing…

  • The Detroit Symphony and Minnesota Orchestra managements both participated in Facebook censorship. NPR actually ran a story about the virtual squabbles in Detroit. I talked about the Minnesota Facebook censorship here. (The Minnesota Orchestral Association continues to remove patrons’ comments. Right now, everything written on the MOA’s wall from the time the lockout began until March 8 has been deleted.)
  • Anne Parsons and Michael Henson are cut from the same cloth. One example… Detroit Symphony CEO Anne Parsons, in July 2011: Resignations “are individual decisions of people who chose not to make a commitment to Detroit and to the DSO. People who don’t want to stay with it shouldn’t stay with it.” Michael Henson, in November 2012: “So loyalty comes in, and then it’s ultimately about personal choice.” In both instances, those remarks really raised patrons’ ire. I still hear about that “loyalty” remark of Henson’s today from patrons who otherwise haven’t really been paying that close of attention to what’s been going on.
  • Hall problems. A leitmotif on the SOS blog is the idea that the DSO acted unwisely when in 2003 they constructed the Max M. Fisher Music Center, or the “Max,” which is “a new music center complex consisting of the restored and modernized Orchestra Hall and a 135,000-square-foot facility that includes The Music Box, a 450-seat second performance hall with variable configurations, and the 15,000-square-foot Jacob Bernard Pincus Music Education Center, which supports the DSO’s youth ensembles and other educational activities.” (Source.) In other words, not the auditorium. Sound familiar…?
  • Dismissal of concerned patrons. SOS members were publicly dismissed by Detroit management as non-donors. The implicit message? If you have an interest in the future of the orchestra, but aren’t a big donor, your opinion – no matter how intelligent – is irrelevant. Michael Henson appears to feel the same way. He has refused to allow non-donors access to him, and even wrote in January about the neutral concert hosted by Judy Dayton and Mayor Rybak, “As you are all aware, the City of Minneapolis does not provide any funding to the Minnesota Orchestra.”

From the beginning, it was clear to everyone that Minnesota management was taking inspiration from Detroit in how they treated their musicians. But until this month I hadn’t considered they were taking inspiration from Detroit in how they treated their customers.


The strike has gone on long enough. The time is now to try a different approach.

Let’s work together, let’s all make the necessary sacrifices, not just the musicians and lets all begin by acknowledging each other with respect and the recognition that we all play an important role in preserving the DSO and its legacy.

SOSers, I know you get it and you’ll step up and help out when its time for the audience to play a role. In the meantime, the spring thaw can’t come soon enough.

– SOS blog,  February 2011


What can be done?  

Blame has been assigned and anger expressed in numerous blog posts and in commentaries and letters to the editor. Legislators have sent letters. And the situation hasn’t changed. The two sides — musicians and management — seem to have dug in even deeper, simply reiterating the positions they took in the first place. The musicians, who had attained such a high level of artistic accomplishment, feel denigrated and disrespected by the salary proposals put forth by the Board. Meanwhile, Board members who have given generously of both time and money but think community support for the orchestra is declining, feel unappreciated and vilified.

 Obviously what is happening now isn’t working. Both sides are feeling ever more pressure and distrust is increasing. A new approach is needed…

It is helpful to remind ourselves that a positive outcome is possible if we can find a way for all of us — Board, musicians and community — to work together.

– Orchestrate Excellence (the Minnesota Orchestra audience advocacy group), “Lockout Update,” 22 March 2013


Milwaukee Symphony concertmaster Frank Almond caused a stir in the orchestra world the other day with his blog entry Minnepocalypse Now. After meditating on our gridlock, he wrote:

In the end, maybe this is just how it is and the glory days of music in the Twin Cities are over. But the record will very clearly show it was a conscious choice made by the relevant Boards and the community itself, not the musicians.

I asked Frank to elaborate on what he thought the community could do. Here was a portion of his response…

To address one part of your first paragraph, when things got nasty in Detroit there was a fairly robust response from Save Our Symphony (and the musicians themselves, particularly early on with the Sarah Chang thing). I don’t know how they did it (hiring a PR firm, maybe just having full-time media crisis response from a few people?), but somehow an “effective network of activists and communicators” was created and implemented fairly quickly. For quite awhile I was getting all kinds of email, postings, instant press responses, you name it, almost on a daily basis sometimes. Did it make a difference in the end? I don’t know, but it certainly sent a durable and consistent message that the Board/Management’s spin on things virtually required that anyone who really cared needed to get educated, and quickly. This is clearly a different sort of dispute, in a very different cultural atmosphere.

Thought-provoking stuff, but I guess the question then is: how much did the emails, postings, and press responses by SOS help? Did they hinder? Did they help in some ways, hinder in others? How can we tell? And another question, just as important: will what worked for audience advocacy in Detroit work in Minnesota?

What can patrons do?

We obviously can’t help in negotiating a contract. We can’t fire CEO Michael Henson, or even issue a vote of no-confidence in him. We can’t engage in a discussion with him, because he doesn’t write us back. We can’t get in touch with board members. (The people I know who have heard nothing back…) We can write and email politicians, but it’s unclear what they might bring to the table to make a difference. Maybe we could march or picket, but for what specific purpose? Such an action would run the very real risk of further alienating the board, which, according to Orchestrate Excellence, already feels “unappreciated and vilified.” We can withdraw our donations, but we have no way of knowing how many need to be withdrawn in what space of time to make any kind of difference. Besides, what if withholding donations ultimately becomes reason for the MOA to offer an even lower salary to its musicians? As Drew McManus noted on Adaptistration on 9 January

In this illustration, orchestra patrons arrive at the Catch-22 during labor disputes when faced with whether or not they should cause additional financial damage, and as a result institutional stress, by withholding donations and/or returning tickets for a refund.

Ultimately, and in a very real sense, the current system only provides patron stakeholders the ability to impart influence by means of negative reinforcement whereas an ideal ethical environment within the institution should preclude that sort of scenario. Consequently, no alternatives currently exist.


The strike has dragged on for 6 months. However one might characterize the negotiations or absence thereof, at this point there is an impasse. The board insists on conditions which are unacceptable to the musicians. The gap is intractable. What is the prospect of resolution? None. What’s at imminent risk? At the very least the summer and fall seasons.

Binding arbitration would close that gap, save 2/3 of one year’s programs and set the stage for the board, the orchestra and the community to collaborate to engage the real problem — the dire financial condition of one of the nation’s great symphony orchestras. Binding arbitration would put the strike in the past and bring ALL the stakeholders together.

If you think we cannot or will not help, you could not be more wrong.

 – SOS blog, March 2011

Between Indy and Atlanta and Minneapolis/St. Paul, the cookie crumbled in a very specific way last fall. Whether the Minnesota Orchestra was prepared for it or not, Minneapolis became ground zero in an ideological battle over the role of orchestras in America. Unfortunately, I don’t think our struggle will be the last, because the questions we’re arguing are far from settled.

People in the orchestral field have been talking about what the Minnesota meltdown means to musicians, and this is a hugely important discussion to have. However, I submit that another, even broader conversation needs to occur: what the Minnesota meltdown means to audiences.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say:

In short, if a management can get away with not opening a dialogue with its patrons…

Then the board of directors of the Minnesota Orchestral Association – along with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra Society – will send a message to every orchestra in America: during labor disputes, you will face no consequences for ignoring patron stakeholders. You can take an entire season away from them and that will be okay. (In fact, if you’re Michael Henson, you can take home $400,000 in compensation for not presenting a season at all!) You can ignore petitions, calls for open meetings, editorials. You can delete thoughtful heartfelt comments on Facebook. If your orchestra’s most generous donor puts on a neutral concert to celebrate a Grammy nomination, you don’t need to show up to it. If the mayor co-hosts said concert, you can not only get away with not going, but you can even be rude about it behind the scenes. Yes, your customers may shout and rally and scream like pigs in a slaughterhouse, but you’re in charge of a non-profit, and you know your stakeholders don’t have an effective way of punishing you without punishing your organization. If you’re willing to take the gamble that your audience members will come back to you once the work stoppage is over, then you basically have free license to do whatever the hell you want to them. And your patrons won’t stop you. Because they can’t.



What can we do to change that?

I brainstormed in a comment on Frank’s blog.

  • All board members should have physical addresses and email addresses through which patrons can contact them, and they should value all feedback…even if it’s critical.
  • Quarterly open meetings should be held.
  • Minutes should be made available online.
  • The board should include more representatives from the broader community, not just the economic elite.

But this seems a terribly feeble start to what I fear has the capability to become a very real and widespread trend: managements disrespecting patrons who express concerns, reservations, and doubts about sudden, drastic organizational change.

Is there really a need for a League of American Orchestra….l Audiences?


As the twin lockouts churn on, I’m becoming more and more convinced there is.


A year ago, the Minnesota Orchestral Association presented its 2012-2017 contract offer to musicians. Roughly ninety-nine percent of that offer is still on the table.

There is a group of American orchestras whose contracts expire in the fall of 2013. I imagine they’re starting to bargain soon. I can guarantee that all of them are watching us, judging to see just how far they can push their public, and in what direction.

“Oh,” you say. “I’m sorry about Minneapolis, but… That’s Minneapolis. That will never happen here.” Come back in time with me to April of 2010, when MinnPost wrote this about Minnesota:

The Minnesota Orchestra has been hitting one home run after another lately. Its budgets are balanced at a time when other orchestras are singing the Deficit Blues and going into hock. In March the orchestra and its music director, Osmo Vänskä, got the kind of “money review” from Alex Ross at the New Yorker that even Donald Trump couldn’t buy, a notice that proclaimed the Finnish music director a “genius” and described the ensemble he leads as “perhaps the greatest orchestra in the world.”

These developments are all related, of course. If the orchestra were running up deficits, it wouldn’t be investing big money in refurbishing its home hall — in fact, nearly all of the money for the project, $38 million, has already been raised. And if conductor and orchestra weren’t getting glowing reviews for their records and for concerts in Europe and New York, contributions might start to wither. Just about everybody, after all, likes to back a winner. (Asked if there had been any immediate financial reverberations from Ross’ spectacular notice about the orchestra last month — we envision rich Lutherans writing out big checks in Wayzata — orchestra president and CEO Michael Henson said he had seen no sudden spike in fund-raising. But, he added, “We’ll see how that pans out in the next year or two.”)

Yeah. Fourteen months before that article went to print, the MOA minutes read:

If the deficit is between $3 million and $5 million in fiscal 2010, it will be of the same size range for the next two years of the musicians [sic] contract. This is a serious liquidity issue, and the MOA already has $11 million in debt.

If there’s trouble brewing in your concert-going future, it’s entirely possible you don’t know about it.


Hopefully I’m just a battle-scarred lunatic lady who has been exceptionally bad at jump-starting dialogue with my orchestra’s leaders. But just in case I’m onto something…and just in case the way that Detroit management treated its patrons in 2010, and the way that Minnesota and St. Paul managements treated their patrons in 2012, signals the start of a new trend…who’s to say those tactics won’t become the [Insert Your City Here] tactics of 2013?


If you’re wondering how the SOS story is playing out, here’s a portion of an entry by David Assemany from May 2012

On a different topic, I must tell about my experiences as an SOS officer with the DSO administration and staff at the MAX: Going into the season, I saw potential for friction with the administration while we from SOS tried to become more involved in the behind the scenes work of producing ‘world class music on the stage of Orchestra Hall.’ Happily this was not the case. The staff was always polite, professional, friendly and efficient. Upper management, starting right at the top with Anne Parsons, went out of their way to make the SOS Governing Members feel welcome and listened to. Our concerns were not always addressed, but they were always respectfully heard. We were not shy about pushing our way into the daily goings on. Our presence at the hall was always (seemingly) welcomed.

Assuming we Minnesotans are lucky enough to have an orchestra to go back to, will the staff and board of directors feel the same way about my readers? Would they rather engage with them, or lose them? Because right now I’m getting the vibe they’d be delighted to lose them. And that’s bewildering to me, because these are the very same people they should be trying their hardest to court…passionate people who took time out of their busy lives to (try to) get involved with the orchestra.


Hello, reader of the future.

You came here looking up the story of the Minnesota Orchestra or St. Paul Chamber Orchestra apocalypse, didn’t you? You heard there were some similarities between Detroit and Minnesota and your city. Well…welcome. Pull up a chair. There’s plenty to read.

I know what you’re feeling. Your city’s orchestra is in danger. Has the work stoppage been going on for weeks or months? Either way, my sympathies. You’ve been deprived of the music you love. You’re watching with alarm as musicians leave, one by one, for greener pastures. (Maybe if I’ve gotten incredibly lucky, they’re leaving for Minnesota…but perhaps that’s too much to hope.) You’re Googling members of the board, since you can’t contact them directly. You’ve written the orchestra asking for information and answers to questions. You’ve heard back nothing in response, or else you’ve gotten a list of talking points from a website you’ve already read. You’re feeling vaguely insulted. Why are they treating me like I’m dumb? you ask. Don’t I matter? I’m not a huge donor, but… You’re starting to meet new people who are as shocked and put-off about the situation as you are. Have your respectful posts been deleted on Facebook? Are you just starting to figure out who Drew McManus is? Is there a building project involved?

For your sake, I hope a broad conversation about audience advocacy has already taken place. And I pray that we in Minnesota are an example to you as you work to pick up the pieces.



Filed under Labor Disputes, Minnesota Orchestra, The Orchestra Business

10 responses to “Detroit, Minnesota, and Funhouse Mirrors

  1. Amy

    This is going to be a resource-type of article, Emily.
    Just consider the hapless group that receives Henson after he resigns MO and moves on…taking all that leadership with him. I know that sounds sarcastic, but my heart is grieving for what the Philistines-in-sheep’s-clothing have done, are doing and have yet to do to orchestras.

  2. Amy

    …Well, business with sheep would suffer dramatically if the wolves were upfront about their intentions.

  3. Sarah

    SOS raised money to put six Governing Members in place, at $2500K each.

  4. Lizzie PB

    Emily, as yet another person who cares deeply about the orchestral world (both locally in MN and more broadly), and who has been deeply dismayed with the MN Orch / SPCO upper management shenanigans, I find myself devouring each of your posts. Thank you for your peerless work during this time.

    My most recent realization during this horrible time, is that MO/SPCO upper managements’ complete devaluation of the product they have taken the responsibility to nurture — the top tier of orchestral activities in the state of Minnesota — signals to our society at large that NO orchestral music is to be valued. The true oddness of the current absence of top tier orchestral music in Minnesota, is that we have an extraordinarily rich network of orchestra music-making that continues unabated, presented by a remarkably vast network of community orchestras, regional orchestras, and student orchestras throughout our state. No, it is not of the same level of excellence as the top tier orchestras, but it’s generally heartfelt, oftentimes includes interesting and thoughtful programs, and it is actually happening! The message that MO/SPCO upper management is communicating to the world is that NONE of this is of any value.

    Both of these orchestras have behaved as if they operate in a vacuum, as if each is the only bastion of orchestra music in Minnesota. They’ve essentially ignored the rest of the rich tapestry of orchestral activity in our communities. Those of us who haven’t had the good fortune to work for either organization have tacitly accepted this rather pompous, narrow vision as the price of having top tier orchestras in our community. But now we are seeing that it is not just the rest of orchestral activity in our communities that they devalue, it’s pretty much everything and everybody that is not Them.

    At what point can we just leave those pompous, clueless folks behind and start fresh?

  5. Stefanie Przybylska

    Same script, different characters and locale. We went through this in Albuquerque with the now defunct New Mexico Symphony. Don’t think it can happen where you live? Guess again (citizens of San Francisco, take note). We were lucky to have a supportive community here and a consortium of musicians, community leaders and music lovers who started another organization which is the New Mexico Philharmonic. But it hasn’t been pretty or easy and the fallout continues.
    Thanks Emily, for your fine writing.
    Stefanie Przybylska
    Principal Bassoonist
    NMSO (1998-2011)
    NM Phil (2011-present)

  6. Matthew Probst

    We’ve long since reached the point where we can’t deal with the management as it exists. As Stefanie mentions, what would it take to start moving towards a new orchestra organized under different pretenses? That might be the only semi-positive outcome to be had, the way things are going. Best to have some kind of plans in mind, in the hands of some organization with the political will to make it happen should the orchestra be entirely dissolved. Which I increasingly believe _will_ happen. And if it removes the current management from authority over the musicians, it might in the long term be a good thing, though it would involve several decades of pain.

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