Mr. Henson Talks to MinnPost

Minnesota Orchestra CEO Mr. Michael Henson, apparently emboldened by the SPCO’s recent settlement-ish-y thing, has broken a silent stretch and trotted over to MinnPost to give an interview. So let’s take a look at what he has to say!

An hour after the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra announced a tentative contract settlement with its locked-out musicians on Wednesday, Michael Henson, president of the Minnesota Orchestra, expressed cautious hope his orchestra’s locked-out musicians would respond in kind, with an offer to start negotiating a new contract.

The Minnesota Orchestra locked out 95 musicians Oct. 1 after their union rejected a proposal to reduce base salaries by 32 percent.

tumblr_inline_mifxrfm2ti1qz4rgpOK, I’m gonna stop y’all right there. The Minnesota Orchestra did not lock out 95 musicians. Want to know why? Because there weren’t 95 musicians to lock out. They’ve been moving away or retiring so quickly, Mr. Henson can’t replace them fast enough, or else he doesn’t want to; when the lockout began in October 2012, according to my calculations, there were only 81 musicians on the roster. Now there are only 77. Every month we lose more. Does Mr. Henson not know how many people are in his orchestra?

And reduction of the base salary by 32% is only the beginning. Seniority pay vanishes entirely (entirely!), among other things. The cuts for many musicians end up being somewhere in the 30-50% range.

The orchestra management has said that the cuts are necessary to offset ongoing deficits. Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra currently make an average $135,000 a year, not including benefits.

We don’t know how this average was arrived at, so treat it with caution. We’re unable to verify it because the 990 doesn’t say how much every player was compensated, just the few highest, like acting concertmaster and a handful of principal players.

I’m not going to pick apart every single little detail of the drivel, so let’s fast forward a bit… They’re talking about the SPCO…

One orchestra has quite clearly agreed to an 18.6 percent change which, as I said, like for like, is considerably higher than the change of rate to our orchestra with the pay raises that they’ve had.

Yeah, about that. First off, the SPCO is a smaller younger organization, and their negotiations went down in a very different way. I don’t know the exact size of the SPCO endowment, but I know it’s nowhere near the $150 million mark of the Minnesota Orchestra’s. Second, the Minnesota Orchestra owns its own hall, which is a big deal. If we’re going to bring orchestras with different sized endowments into this, or orchestras with more physical assets, I could throw out the fact that Chicago’s base is $145,000 and they’re getting a small raise over the next few years, or that the Cleveland Orchestra, with its Blossom Festival, is doing the same. So saying the SPCO situation is the same thing as the Minnesota Orchestra situation is just… It’s so lazy.

Why has one orchestra accepted those challenges, why has one set of musicians accepted that they need to find a settlement and then why this group has not agreed to do that, is indeed puzzling.

Yes. Yes, because whatever happens in St. Paul must also happen in Minneapolis.

It’s all so puzzling, we really need a puzzled British reaction GIF, don’t you think? Maybe of Ron Weasley being puzzled?



Seriously, though, the fact the musicians are hesitant to negotiate with you might have something to do with the fact that you lost people’s trust when you

  • lied about the state of the orchestra’s finances from 2008-2010
  • stonewalled financial analysis for months
  • refused to open up Q&A sessions to the press and public
  • drew negative attention from half the state legislature
  • turned down an invitation to Judy Dayton and the Mayor’s neutral Grammy celebration concert
  • dissed the City of Minneapolis in private in January
  • betrated the musicians that pay you your salary every chance you got
  • I could go on but I won’t
  • Seriously I could keep going on
  • And on and on
  • Etc, etc, etc.

But if you want further clarification on the puzzling fact that musicians, patrons, and legislators don’t trust you, feel free to contact me…even off-the-record. Leave a comment under a pseudonym; we’ll exchange phone numbers, and have a secret chat. I’ll happily talk with you for as long as it takes you to get a better handle on things since you’re clearly so dazed and confused.

MP: You’ve asked the musicians to meet with the board later this month. Is that going to happen?

(Bit of context: over the course of the lockout, the musicians have asked, multiple times, to meet with the board. All of their requests were denied.)

MH: We have been trying to remove the barriers that musicians have said have stopped them putting forward a counter proposal in order to move this process forward in the most reasonable way possible. We hope very much that we can announce successfully the financial analysis this week. [The musicians have asked for an outside audit of the orchestra’s finance, but the two sides cannot agree on the audit guidelines.]


But what we really want is substantive negotiations to take place, an acknowledgement of the very serious financial challenges that we face and to actually negotiate a contract that is actually sustainable for this community and respects the musicians’ skill levels.

Honest question: how does the proposed contract respect the musicians’ skill levels? Are they or are they not one of the greatest orchestras in this country? Do they or do they not deserve to be paid half of what Chicago, Los Angeles, or San Francisco are paid? I think Mr. Henson needs to realize that if he’s going to work within these black and white parameters, he has to decide which he wants:

  1. A sustainable contract
  2. A contract that respects the musicians’ skill level

Because he can’t have both. If Minneapolis can’t afford a respectful contract, then be blunt and say so.

MP: Are you hearing donors or board members express frustration about the duration of the lockout?

MH: …. I think our donors want to see their money used responsibly and to insure that we have sustainability. I’m sensing a growing frustration with the fact that our musicians have not put in a counter-proposal and have not actually negotiated.

See, this fascinates me. Personally, I think this the single most tragic aspect of the whole mess: the complete and utter breakdown in communication within this community. We’re all in different worlds. I reach out to as many people as I can, and I hear nothing but a growing frustration with the board that they have not been more aggressive in answering musicians’ and the public’s questions. Everyone on the organization’s Facebook page plops the blame solely down at the feet of Mr. Henson and the board. And yet, unless Mr. Henson is lying (which he might well be; who knows), the people he’s talking to are frustrated with musicians. Our worlds need to merge, and fast. There will be no hope of resolution until we agree on reality. Mr. Henson needs to acknowledge there’s a good chunk of the population that has a growing frustration with him, too. We all know he knows it – I know he knows his methods are detested in many quarters – so he should be brave and come out and acknowledge it. He’s not fooling anyone.

I certainly know from the board and management perspective, we’re puzzled


They’re just all really puzzled, okay?

MP: Are artistic differences fundamental to this dispute?


But go on.

MH: I think it’s always possible to come with excuses as to why you don’t want to have a conversation,

Oh my God the irony of this just…I’m giggling so hard. He’s talking about musicians, but the same complaint applies to him, just in a different way, and he doesn’t even recognize it.


MORE British reaction GIFs! MORE!

but the reality is, we have a great orchestra here and we will continue to have a great orchestra.

We will? Says who?

We will continue to evolve and change. Classical music is critical and central to our mission. We’re not aiming to increase the number of pops concerts that the orchestra does.

Interesting. I’m really looking forward to seeing the 2013-2014 season schedule now.

You can only scope the size of an organization to the demand that exists out there, and all orchestras, all organizations, whether you’re for-profit, not-for-profit, have changed during their history.

Organizations…change? Over…time? I never knew!

Sarcasm aside for a moment, I rather disagree with the whole scoping premise. I think you have to create your own demand for a product. But I’d be interested in hearing Mr. Henson discuss this in more detail. Minus the talking points. But this won’t happen. Ever. So, whatever.

Change will continue to occur. If you just look to the past, you won’t thrive or survive. We need to look not just to the next two years of any contract or three years of a contract, we need to look at how our great art form becomes and remains vibrant over the next five years, the next 10 years, and the next 15 years.

Yes, it will be so utterly vibrant when the morale of the people who make it is at historic lows…

Seriously, though. How do you fulfill your potential when your employees feel (for whatever reason) dissatisfied and disaffected? MOA Immediate Past Chair Richard Davis recently talked about how this related to his leadership of US Bancorp: “When I stepped into my role, we had disaffected employees. We are in a service business which means we need really, really engaged employees who serve and create happy customers, who in turn lead to results for the bank.” Engaged employees = results! Why doesn’t Mr. Henson subscribe to this philosophy?

MP: To ensure this future, does the Minnesota Orchestra have a responsibility to cultivate music and musicians?

This has…got to be one of the dumbest questions I’ve ever heard. Sorry, MinnPost.

MH: Yes,

Well, thank God we agree on that.

MH: Yes, we want to make sure we want to retain the best in terms of the orchestra.

But…but, we aren’t. Gina DiBello, Vali Phillips, Sarah Kwak, Peter McGuire, those were a good chunk of our best, and we’ve lost them, and we’re set to lose more, and if the current proposed contract was adapted as is, we’ll lose crap-tons more.

At the same point, we actually have to address an art form that has to remain competitive. I think we an incredibly exciting art form so we have to think about how we put on concerts, how we attract new audiences going into the future, how we reverse the declining trend of audiences.

You have to retain and attract talent, but you also have to retain, attract and develop audiences.

I’m curious why there’s a “but” there. Are the two mutually exclusive? Does retaining and attracting talent hinder your ability to retain and attract audiences? Does retaining and attracting audiences hinder your ability to retain and attract talent? If this is Mr. Henson’s worldview, then that answers a ton of questions.

Also, may I submit the radical notion that one way to retain audiences might be to engage with audiences? Hmm. Open meetings up to the public. Talk more. And most importantly, listen. I know some disagree with me, but I feel this interview, no matter how trite and useless it is, is actually a step forward. So there’s that. Nonetheless, we’ve still got a long ways to go. There’s a lot more retaining and attracting of audiences that could be done.

Mr. Michael Brian Henson is a king, locked up in his stone castle, a guard at the door. There’s a mob outside, screaming and yelling, bubbling over with ideas. And he’s sitting in his castle alone, puzzling over how he can fix the problem. All he needs to do is open his window and listen.

MP: Some say that art, such as classical music, is priceless, yet it’s your responsibility to put a price on it. How do you do that? 

MH: The first thing to emphasize is that the art is at the center of what we’re doing.

Yeah, quick question… If the art is at the center of what you’re doing, why are you not reaching out to independent artists for their opinions, or acknowledging the warnings of the artists who work for you? Is the opinion of Skrowaczewski or Marriner or De Waart meaningless? Why so many changes in the contract that have nothing to do with money and put more power in Henson’s hands?

Fast forward through more dreck…

MP: Is the MOA prepared to counter a counter offer?

MH: We have always been prepared to negotiate appropriately within parameters. So, we have been willing to negotiate.

In one of his blog entries, violist and League of American Orchestras board member Robert Levine memorably compared the MOA’s position to a restaurant saying their prices were negotiable, when really the only thing you could change was how you paid, via cash or credit card. That’s about right. The musicians are being told they must amputate two limbs, but they get to choose whether they’re arms or legs. Clearly just taking off the fingers isn’t an option.

MP: The MOA states it has reduced costs by 6 percent over the last 10 years, but you are asking the musicians for a 32 percent cut. Is this fair?

MH: I would look back to the last five years. Our musicians have received a 19.6 percent increase. Effectively, our staff  have been frozen over that period, so yes.

OK, it’s my turn to be puzzled, so here’s another British puzzled GIF:


Let’s take this one word-by-word…

  • I would look back to the last five years.
  • Our musicians have received a 19.6 percent increase.
  • Effectively, our staff  have been frozen over that period
  • So, yes.

I’d take this argument a little more seriously if a 19.6% decrease was on the table…but that’s not what’s on the table. What am I missing?

Also, I don’t know that this is a great position to be taking when from 2006 to 2011, the CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra got a 13% raise, and isn’t taking any additional cuts.

MP: The union has also taken exception to the renovation of Orchestra Hall. But donors have been generous to this $50 million project. Why do your donors prefer to give to capital rather than salaries?

 MH: I quote a story that I have from one of the donors. He made a very substantial donation to this project, and what he said was, “You came and asked me for a capital donation and I gave you this much money. [Henson indicated a foot in length with his hands.] If you came and asked me for the annual fund, you’ve got that much money.” [Henson indicated an inch between his thumb and forefinger.] We have very sophisticated donors who understand long-term and understand the importance of a hall.


First of all, the insinuation that donors who are angry about the hall renovation are not “sophisticated” or don’t “understand [the] long-term”…in the immortal words of Steven Moffat, that’s “a bit not good.”

Second, was this donor told what the broader public was not: namely, that the imminent cuts would encourage many of the greatest players to flee the Minnesota Orchestra? If so, I don’t know if that’s a case of a sophisticated donor as much as someone who’s got what the kids nowadays call an “edifice complex”…someone more interested in a tangible plaque on the wall than the art that occurs within. (My apologies to the anonymous donor for any inaccurate generalizations.)

Look. To be brutally honest, sometimes I feel that supporters of the musicians express more animus than they should toward the hall renovation. Certain things needed to be fixed, and badly. Every single show I went to, I’d watch some dear frail elderly person come dangerously close to tumbling down the stairs to the bathroom. The backstage was a sad mess. I’ve heard there were mold problems. The OCET HL sign drove everyone I know fricking insane. And maybe it didn’t make sense to embark on a smaller patchwork renovation when another bigger one would be needed in another decade. I don’t know (and unfortunately, no member of the public has been privy to the reasoning behind these decisions).

However, that being said, the funding for the renovation was not garnered through ethical means. When fundraising for the hall was in full throttle, nobody ever said “the last musicians’ contract we signed was a mistake; 30-50% cuts are possible if as a community we don’t pony up; in light of that, what do you want to support?” On the contrary, Henson said to the legislature – and anyone else that would listen – that they were facing the future with financial stability. And I can only assume they didn’t tell the whole truth because the MOA was afraid that would scare off donors. Mr. Ebensteiner, CFO, basically revealed as much in 2009 when he said, “Balances in 2009 and 2010 would support our state bonding aspirations, while the deficits in 2011 and 2012 would demonstrate the need to reset the business model.”

So I don’t know that musicians object to the hall as much as they object to the way in which donations were solicited for it. There’s a big difference there.

 The project is way beyond the lobby. It’s a project that goes across the entire hall. A musician was in on the selection process.

Wait. Am I supposed to be impressed by this? I get a feeling I’m supposed to be impressed by this. … Who was this singularly lucky singular musician?

It’s on time and on schedule and we’re expecting it to open at some point in the late summer.

*sound of brakes squealing*

Nope. I call BS. If the hall’s on schedule, it should be opening in early July. I say this for three reasons:

  1. The document detailing rental pricing for the hall says “prices effective July 1, 2013.”
  2. The Strategic Plan says they wanted to have the 2013 Summerfest in the renovated hall, and Summerfest traditionally happens in late June into July.
  3. Management very blatantly scheduled a show on July 25th, and timed it and marketed it specifically to coincide with the hall re-opening. And the hall would need to be finished a couple weeks before this at the very latest, because they’d need time to move in equipment, test the sound system, train in any new employees, set up computers, etc.

From the Minnesota Orchestra website

Those three things together point toward an early- to mid-July grand opening. “Late summer” is not July. I know this; my birthday is July 19, and nobody has ever referred to it as being in “late summer.” It’s in the middle of summer.

If the hall ends up opening after my birthday, and Michael Henson still says it opened on time, he’ll be lying, point blank. The schedule says so. I’ll be watching.

On a closing note, I wanted to mention out of the ten questions asked…Mr. Henson only answered roughly half. Go back and read. MinnPost: in future, it would be great to see follow-ups. Otherwise, we’ll never stop talking past each other.

To sum:

Good: the fact that Mr. Henson is talking to the press.

Bad: what Mr. Henson is saying to the press.


Filed under Labor Disputes, Minnesota Orchestra

9 responses to “Mr. Henson Talks to MinnPost

  1. Sarah

    SPCO endowment is approx. $42 million. Also, the musicians were pretty much blindsided – I’ve heard that the MO musicians had been threatened with no season this year so they had time to build up a war chest and other resources. In the meantime, Henson is “puzzled”.

    Why doesn’t Cyndi Brucato call him on these things? Or isn’t that how she does it? Perhaps Emily needs to email her stat.

  2. Performing Artist52

    Emily, you once again hit the nail on the head! What I find so “puzzling” are a few items mentioned in the interview. One was a point you brought up but I want to take one step further. Mr. Henson mentioned there was one musician involved in the renovation process but he of course fails to mention who that is. But he goes on the say there were 25-30 meetings with the musicians as well. Really? And at the time were the musicians told there would be a 30-50% pay cut at the same time as the renovation? Hmmm…… I agree the hall needed some updating but who would have thought there would be “banquet” rooms available to rent and that the musicians would be available to make their event memorable.

    In addition, if the donors understood the financial issues and were given a choice as to where they wanted their dollars spent; number one, would they have given money to the renovation of the hall at the expense of drastically cutting the musicians salary and/or losing musicians and number two, if that is the case why did a major donor withdraw hundreds and thousands of dollars due to the handling of the lock out?

    Simply put, Joe Mauer and Jared Allen are paid millions of dollars to throw a ball around but the public cries foul when the musicians want to be paid fairly. I think perhaps their instruments are worth more than a pigskin!

    • This is my biggest technical complaint with Henson’s replies: That he made it sound like donations to the capital campaign were smarter and more important than donating to the annual fund. EVERYONE knows that donations to opperating expenses are BY FAR the most important donations and, naturally, the kind of donations that suffer most when capital campaigns are going on, and *naturally* Henson and management SHOULD HAVE BEEN keeping up on getting donations for the opperating budget, but did they? umm… no. That’s one of the biggest technical problems that came from Henson’s tactics, I think. Or he’s evil, or he’s incompetent. But what do I know?

      • Sarah

        Except you can’t put plaques on operating funds, and you don’t get invited to fancy-schmancy receptions.

        Henson pulled this in his two prior jobs “all over the world” – it worked there, so I’m guessing that’s why the board hired him. They just didn’t expect the musicians to fight back.

        • Anon

          So, if I understand this correctly, he [Henson] values property investment and audience ‘developement’ over musical talent retention?
          He should be selling dodgy condos to wealthy, gullible, retirees in Florida lovely Spain to reach his fullest potential then, if that’s the case.

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