Once upon a time, Minneapolis had an orchestra, and it was recognized as one of the greatest in the world. On the strength of its artistry, $100 million were raised to support it in the depths of the Great Recession. Half of that money went to support new artistic initiatives and the endowment, now the fourth largest in America…larger than New York’s and Los Angeles’s. The rest went to a huge new lobby of glass and stone, currently nearing completion on the south end of Nicollet Mall. It will be finished by early July.
But there will be no orchestra to open Orchestra Hall. Last October, three men – two banking executives on the Minnesota Orchestral Association board of directors and one spectacularly inept orchestra manager from Bournemouth – slipped the Minnesota Orchestra a potent sleeping potion in the form of a lockout. The MOA has not presented an orchestral concert since late July, and they will not be presenting any this July, either. Even after seven months of not paying musicians’ salaries or benefits, they claim they don’t have the money to present concerts…and it’s simply too expensive to play and talk, CEO Michael Henson explains. Mr. Henson continues to receive around $400,000 a year in compensation, the orchestra manager who doesn’t actually manage an orchestra. He makes a perplexing bedraggled picture, pleading poverty while wearing a yellow vest and hard hat and showing off his fifty million dollar lobby. The state of Minnesota is currently investigating the MOA’s finances. Things in Minneapolis have gotten so bad that a quarter of the orchestra’s seats are empty, with more musicians departing every month. There is no end in sight.
Every eight weeks or so, the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra cook up a short-lived antidote to the potion: they put on a concert of their own. With the help of two of their former music directors, as well as their current conductor, Osmo Vänskä, this season the musicians have put on extraordinary performances of Dvořák, Shostakovich, Bach, Beethoven, and Sibelius. A few weeks ago they announced a late April concert: a program of Mozart and Bruckner, to be conducted by their former music director, eighty-nine-year-old Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. The soloist in the Mozart clarinet concerto would be principal Burt Hara, one of the great orchestral musicians in the world. As always, the tickets sold fast.
A Minnesota Orchestra lockout concert is different from any other orchestra concert you’ve ever been to. They will be sold out, so they will be crowded. The audience will skew young. Everyone present will be an intense, intelligent lover of music. You will find yourself waving across the hall at people you’ve only met once before; they will eagerly wave back to you. You will feel like you’re at a family reunion that has a concert built into it, because the musicians have gotten to know patrons, and the patrons have gotten to know musicians, and the invisible wall at the edge of the stage has crumbled. Turns out we’re no longer just fighting for our musicians; now we’re fighting for our friends, too. You will hear the kind of roaring applause and hoarse screams usually reserved for the debuts of prodigies. You will meet and chat and sit with politicians, multi-millionaires, and occasionally local celebrities, all of whom are disgusted with the action of the board. These concerts will be, simultaneously, the most emotionally taxing and the most emotionally fulfilling experiences you will have as a listener. They will reaffirm your belief about the power and relevancy of orchestral music. And they will give you the strength and inspiration to fight for excellence in all aspects of your life. You will also cry into your pillow once you get home, overcome by the enormity of what you have just experienced.
Of course lockout concerts would mean nothing without a passionately engaged audience, and I’m proud to say that the Minnesota Orchestra has the most devoted audience in America…maybe in the world. Behind the first violins stood a eight-foot-tall tower of flowers. I’ve never seen a more beautiful arrangement. Their color and fragrance were all the more beautiful after our long – both literal and metaphorical – winter. They’d been sent with love by a translator from Japan, who has loved the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra for many years, but who could never bring herself to write to tell them so until the lockout began. Their recordings helped her pull through terrifying health scares and the devastating earthquake of two years ago. Eriko couldn’t be in Minnesota in person, but her pillar of flowers stood like an angel sentry on the corner of the stage. At the time of the concert, she was across the world in Japan, meditating.
The musicians received two or three standing ovations before a single note sounded. Skrowaczewski came onstage, eyes sparkling. The Minnesota Orchestral Association will never invite him to conduct again, thanks to his unabashedly heretical pro-musician views, but it is clear he is enjoying playing the role of the rogue. Then out came Burt Hara, our magician of a clarinetist. He has worked at other orchestras over the years, but, thankfully, has always returned to Minnesota. He is the living personification of why we patrons are working so hard to pressure the board to back down from its proposals: Hara could easily get a job anywhere in the world, and whoever would win his seat here would simply never be able to fill his shoes. End of story. Michael Henson has gone on record saying every musician in the orchestra is easily replaceable. Michael Henson has no expletive-ing clue what he’s talking about.
Every phrase of orchestra and clarinetist was a new delight, blossoming like the flowers in Eriko’s arrangement. The variety of tones that Mr. Hara has at his command is nothing short of miraculous. Anyone who can’t tell the difference between a player the caliber of Burt Hara and his theoretical replacement not only has no business running an orchestra, but is ultimately destined for sad and pathetic failure in the field of orchestral management. In case this remark was too subtle for anyone, it’s directed squarely at Jon Campbell, the Wells Fargo vice president who is chair of the Minnesota Orchestra board of directors. Despite being one of the most powerful people on the Minnesota Orchestra board, Jon Campbell never actually goes to Minnesota Orchestra concerts. If you can’t appreciate Burt Hara – and there’s no way you can, if you never go to concerts – then have the simple human decency to step aside and hand your job over to someone who does.
I was still basking in the glow of the Mozart when, after intermission, as the lights were dimming, Mr. Hara came out into the hall. The audience began to applaud him. He grinned and shushed us. “Shh!! Not for me; for them!” he said, motioning toward the stage, and at that, my heart overflowed with admiration. He sat down in the empty seat next to me and smiled. Joyful, invincible energy radiated from his very pores.
After intermission, as has become tradition, violist Sam Bergman stepped up to the edge of the stage. By now the whole locked out audience knows what that means: a barnburner of a speech is at hand. And although all of Sam’s speeches have been extraordinary, this one was especially so…and the audience’s impassioned reactions said as much as Mr. Bergman.
He said, “It has now been almost seven months since the corporate managers of the Minnesota Orchestral Association decided that the best way to move this orchestra forward into a successful future was to lock out its musicians, set a non-negotiable annual budget that would be dwarfed by all of our peers, and demand an array of cuts the likes of which have never before been seen at any major American orchestra. Under their plan, the base salary of a Minnesota Orchestra musician would plummet, overnight, to a figure that, adjusted for inflation, equates to what our predecessors were making in 1983.”
The audience gasped.
“Under their plan, untold numbers of public orchestral concerts would be scrapped and replaced with musicians being farmed out to play private corporate rental events at Orchestra Hall.”
Cries: actual moans of shock and pain. It was as if someone had stabbed all two thousand audience members at once.
“Under their plan, the final authority on the hiring of new musicians for our orchestra would be stripped away from our Music Director, and given instead to the corporate management team.”
Another indignant communal cry. People actually began to weep in horror. I closed my eyes, tight. I knew this was the board’s plan, and I’ve known it for a long time, but to hear so many music lovers react to it so viscerally was nightmarish.
Although the news was grim, Sam’s speech ended on a note of desperate optimism. “Together,” he promised, “we will make our collective voice heard; together, we will reset the priorities of this sadly drifting organization; together, we will ensure that our audience will never again be marginalized and ignored; together, we will do away with the cynicism and ideology that has led us to this precipice; and together, we will move this orchestra forward into a truly artistically sustainable future.”
In this context, Bruckner suddenly meant something. (In this context, anything means something.) As fate would have it, almost a year ago to the day, I’d written a rather…controversial blog entry called “I Hate Bruckner, Part I.” Clearly Fate has a sense of irony that puts Stephen Colbert to shame. You say you hate Bruckner?, Fate says. Well, then, how about for your first live Bruckner experience, I snag you a legendary Bruckner conductor, sprinkle dozens of friends onstage and in the audience, and top it all off with the orchestra The New Yorker has labeled the greatest in the world. That’ll be a good introduction to Bruckner. Oh, and also, by the way, said orchestra is facing imminent dismemberment, if not outright dissolution. So enjoy!
It was a lot to swallow. But lucky for me, I wasn’t setting out on my first live Bruckner journey alone. I just happened to have beside me one of the world’s great orchestral musicians, who knew the piece inside and out, and who would teach me how to approach it. He swayed gently to the sounds, nodded before each woodwind entry, breathed in and out with every phrase. Through his body language, he showed me what to listen for. Big swaths of sound that had once been a meaningless brick wall took on a shape and direction: a narrative. He wasn’t doing this to teach me. He was moving with the music because he could no more stop the flow of music through him than I could stop breathing. I was just lucky enough to sit beside him to witness it.
At the first solemn horn call of Bruckner 4, my horizons began to broaden, and the appeal of the music slowly dawned. Time and space simply – disappeared. At every repetition of every phrase, the musicians clawed at every note as if their very careers depended on it…and maybe they did. The seats rumbled with each massive fanfare.
The graceful old man gestured on the podium, drawing out the magnificent sound from his mind’s ear.
The massive tower of flowers stood guard.
As time drifted on I was unsure if we had been in the hall an hour…or twenty-four hours…or twenty-four years. We fell into a collective trance. How long had the lockout gone on? Was there even a lockout? Surely not… All two thousand of us were swept away in the music and looking out over a cliff together – out at an ocean, perhaps. Or maybe we were on the top of a mountain, landscape spread far to the horizon. But as Sam had said, we were together…and surely, to be all together in our dark night in that dark hall…surely that means something? For as long as this lasts, we won’t be alone. Giant chords shifted beneath our feet and resolved in strange and glorious ways. A strange irrational peace descended upon me, the kind that comes when I recite well-worn phrases from my wrinkled Book of Common Prayer. Stan raised his arms, a prophet in the bright stage lights. Suddenly the past and future meant nothing; there was only the power of the present. This is transcendence.
The integrity of Stan – the generosity of Eriko – the eloquence of Sam – the passion of Burt – the courage of the Minnesota Orchestra musicians to sacrifice their very livelihoods in an attempt to preserve their beloved institution from decimation – the buzzing energy of the agitated Minneapolis music scene – and most of all, the untrammeled power of live orchestral music. You would be unwise to bet against.any of these things, let alone all of them at once. They may be under fierce assault, but I swear to God that Minnesota will not rest until all those things are celebrated as they deserve to be. Silence may win in the short term. But in the end, you will not deny the power of this music, nor the power and professionalism of these musicians. Our story is not over yet. This city will keep fighting until the very bitter end to find our musical happily ever after…no matter how many barriers the management of the Minnesota Orchestra sees fit to put in our way in the meantime.
There was a long silence after the earth-shattering final chords were struck. We all could read one another’s mind: this moment is too sacred to end. Then, gingerly, we began to applaud, gradually getting louder and louder, until the hall was a roiling sea of applause. The orchestra received such a long ovation that, in order to make it stop, the musicians had to leave the stage.
27 responses to “Review: Minnesota Orchestra Musicians, Bruckner and Mozart”
Beautifully written, Emily. To read your unbelievably accurate account of the emotional roller coaster we all find ourselves riding was so powerful for me. When things hurt this much, it’s pretty easy to feel alone. Thank you for reminding me that there is a collective soul among passionate music lovers and we can help lift each other up during this nightmare.
This is a very important thing to remember. Even in an absolute absolute absolute worst-case scenario – that the Minnesota Orchestra dissolves and every single person in it leaves Minneapolis, which honestly likely won’t happen – all those 2000 audience members will have one another. And we will work our asses off to work to repair the damage, even if it takes the rest of our lives to do so. We will also be able to continually haunt the MOA executives until they acknowledge us. The story won’t be completely over for a long, long time.,,
Emily, you no doubt know the quote of Mr. Rogers that went viral after the Sandy Hook shooting: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ ” I’m not comparing the Sandy Hook event to the orchestra lockouts. But I will say that for those of us for whom the SCPO and MO provided sustenance for the soul; hope in a murky world; child-like wonder at the co-creations of women, men and God; inspiration to be our own best selves — this saga has been deeply spiritually painful and disillusioning. But then there was Emily, a young woman who provided a gathering place for people who hurt and felt virtually powerless. You have been an extraordinary helper. And aside from your fiery determination, you have given us such beautiful, beautiful writing, almost a kind of music in itself. I wish you well in every way. May all your dreams come true.
do you have a relative named Charles Wendt, cellist? I knew him a thousand years ago I think at the University of Iowa. Are you a musician yourself?
Stephanie Wiman Myers, violin, Washington, DC
Hi Stephanie. I am a pianist, but fifth-generation Australian. Lived in the Minneapolis a long time, now in Sweden. Would love to have a relative who played the cello! Wendt is not such a common name, so perhaps there’s a connection way back.
… and a former on-air “personality” at Minnesota Public Radio, if I’m not mistaken! I hope you are doing well in Sweden. We miss your lovely voice and knowledge of music.
Beautifully written. Made me cry. Hope you get your orchestra back and that they fire the sociopaths who are hellbent on its destruction, and glad you like Bruckner now.
This made me cry, as I have when hearing one of the musicians’ concerts in this terrible non-season.
Emily, your eloquence is beyond anything I can add. That said, the MOA’s administration should be taken out back and hung from the nearest lamppost.
A wonderful and heart-felt review. Thank you so much. It reinforces what I’ve been telling my friends for months about the lockout concerts. They tell me I get a little gushy about them, but it’s what I feel–and it is also the truth, and it needs to be told.
The Minnesota is not an orchestra that quickly falls apart in difficult times, and it has never been fueled by a few star players and star guest conductors. No, the Minnesota is a mighty ensemble, and while it may have lost some of its best players, the loss serves to highlight its depth. And what depth it has!
What I have been hearing at the lockout concerts has not been some damaged orchestra still flying with buckshot in its wings. No. I have been hearing a first-class, world-class, top drawer orchestra at the very height of its powers.
And about last Thursday–need it be said, the Bruckner 4 is not a walk in the park. It calls for everything an orchestra has to offer: horns and brass, percussion, woodwinds and strings–and especially for one of the inner voices of the strings–yes, the violas. Finally, the Bruckner 4 calls for a deep sense of ensemble. The Minnesota has the ensemble characteristics of a fine string quartet. It has it all.
Our orchestra, the Minnesota, is a magnificent and mighty ensemble. It remains so to this very day.
Beautiful article! It is sad to see that the arts organizations are being run by people who knows nothing about the arts and who don’t care one bit about the arts. If orchestra musicians can be replaced by any random players, we may as well replace the CEO with a random child selling lemonade on the street side. He/she might do a better job.
Emily, your writing is so wonderfully moving, as though listening to the very concert itself. Thank you, thank you!
Yes these are beautiful sentiments all. But they are directed at the chorus. The majority of American society outside our nice bubble has no clue about either classical music or that we are even paid at all. Believe me, go out in the world and ask people at WalMart, medical offices, schools, any occupation really, if they like classical music, ever listen to it, or have attended a concert not comped. The overwhelming answer will be NO. This reply represents the AVERAGE American – those who do not contribute but those who have resigned themselves to be ruled by CEOs, banks and the in-your-face “popular” culture vomited out by TV, movies and radio. Even those who can appreciate the finer arts are surprised to find out that they have to vote with their money and attendance.
True. But Minnesota has voted with our money already, even without the knowledge our orchestra was apparently dying. That’s why we have a brand new $50 million lobby and a $150-$200 million endowment that has been built over the last century. And Michael Henson has deliberately crafted a business model in which attendance drops, in order to control costs. He has also presided over a 25%+ drop in the marketing budget. If there’s an orchestra management that misleads the public about its finances, is not fighting to increase attendance, and slashes the marketing budget, then we have a problem. And I’m going to preach about that problem. And if the chorus is the only one who hears (likely, thanks to the echo chamber that is the Internet), then so be it.
This “lockout” of the great Minnesota Orchestra leaves all us orchestral musicians dreading what other stupid move management will make in the future, and wanting a resolution sooner rather than later. I really feel that Mr. Henson should be driven out of North America for good, and never let inside a concert hall again.
Thank you for this; printing it out for a proper long read.
Beautiful, heart-felt writing. Thank you for sharing and for all of your work on behalf of the maintenance of world-class classical music in Minnesota. We need classical music to lift our souls and to help us transcend the challenges in the world around us. This lockout has shown me how it extraordinarily important it is for me to do my part to help sustain our classical music institutions, and I hope that it has inspired others to do more as well.
And now I read on Slipped Disc that Burt is leaving . . .
And to read of Burt’s departure, after a performance like this…
Absolutely mind-blowing, what they’ve done.
. . . and now Maestro Vanska is packing his bags. While this is a gut-wrenching “threat” to all of us who value the Orchestra–it is obvious that this is anything BUT a threat to the board–another box was just checked on their horrific checklist. When the ultimate goal is to have an un-ranked (not word-class, not first-class, but no-class) pick-up orchestra (playing a light classics concert now and then between gigs as back-up for Barry Manilow in that fine renovated hall) getting the world-class director out of the way (and cutting another million dollars for his compensation out of the annual budget) is yet another step toward the sickening new “business model.” While so much has been said about this in so many ways, it is distasteful for me to admit that at the heart of the board’s ghastly jackboot approach, there is (I think) the unfortuante truth that the current cost of our world-class orchestra is not sustainable in our community; that for the past some years, the (small) classical music community in our (small) metro area has been spoiled and lulled into relative complacency and is likely neither large enough, wealthy enough, or influential enough to change the course of this titanic before it hits the iceberg. Factor one – a great chunk of the corporate and foundation support which was so important to paying the bills has evolved and dissolved into the mists. Judy Dayton, who so graciously and generously worked with Mayor Rybak to sponsor the Vanska/Sibeluis concert (and was conspicuously and strategically spurned by Mr. Henson and the board) is the “last of the Daytons.” Target Corporation has suceeded to the businesses of the Dayton family–and, while one cannot question Target’s generosity to their communities, they do not have anything approaching the personal commitment and devotion to the orchestra. And the death of Roberta Mann has changed the orientation of that family’s benevolence. More importantly, and depressingly, we have overwhelmingly become a Wal-Mart/MTV culture. I work in a small professional office setting, and the “water cooler” talk (if there were to be a water cooler) is about the Twins, or the Vikings, or the Kardashians, and I seriously doubt that any of my colleagues are even vaguely aware that we are about to lose the orchestra which has been such a crucial part of our cultural landscape. Some months ago, Eric Nilsson, who is on the governing board of the SPCO, wrote an op/ed piece wherein he posited that changing our culture to value orchestral music (or, I might add, the fine arts in general) would necessarily involve changing our approach to arts education to instill an early (and sustainable) appreciation for music (and the arts.)
What is the fiscally and musically viable solution to the problem–specifically?
I don’t pretend to know the full answer to that very big, very important question. However, I do know that a fiscal and musically solution to the problem is going to require trust-building. Here are some things that I feel are needed to build trust:
– Michael Henson needs to go. Period. Patrons don’t trust him; musicians don’t trust him; the state legislature doesn’t trust him.
– Musicians must be allowed to have a greater say in decisions that will affect the artistic future of the organization.
– Management must submit to a financial analysis that includes examinations of the effectiveness of the board.
– Certain individuals need to answer outstanding questions (why did the Minnesota Orchestra endowment lose so much compared to other arts organizations in the recession in 2009? how many players would they need to lose before they start feeling uncomfortable? how do they expect to build a successful organization while the state legislature investigates them for mis-use of funds? why were marketing budgets slashed? who thought it was okay to tell the Minnesota legislature that they were facing the fiscal future with stability, when they were actually, according to Jon Campbell, preparing for a “business model reset” and very possibly a work stoppage in 2009? what benefits are there to hurting the local sub and professional musician market by having musicians play in the background at private events? and I could go on and on AND ON).
– Management must reach out to patron stakeholders, and reward them for getting involved and making their voices heard.
– The new new business model needs to include wayyyy more outreach to students and young people. Like, wayyyyyy more. Look at what Cleveland is doing. Their increasing revenues are due largely to an influx of students. The management of the Minnesota Orchestra is quite frankly terrible at reaching out to young people. There’s a huge untapped pool of brains and ears there.
– The management needs to harness the power of the public, rather than trying to work against them.
Once all – or even some – of those things are in place, maybe we can get to a place where trust is rebuilt and work on a new, truly artistically and financially sustainable plan for the future. But as it is, we can’t even agree on the fundamental nature of reality. That’s a problem.
What good is an orchestra – an organization tasked with serving the public – if its most passionate fans are shut out of the discussion?
i find Chuck Graham’s question interesting.
the fact remains: big money does what big money wants and there is NO retribution or justice in this country.
in Iceland the “banksters” were ALL imprisoned and the folly-ticians were STONED in the street (biblically). that’s a good start. the board of all of these organizations should be run equally by musicians from the orchestra with CONTROLLING interest and an ear to those that pay for the tickets. not a bunch of money buggering schmucks who only care about lining their own pockets and a bottom line.
one might also note that music and art are always the first cut from programs in school systems – and proven over and over again (scientically, medically et cetera) to have profound effects on learning and intellectual capacity. so… starve the people of music (and by music, let me be clear i mean CLASSICAL MUSIC) then we have a dumb populace. compared to Europe where there are local symphonies and opera companies, we ameriKKans are fat lazy and dumb. the 0.01% has brought its plan to fruition. a truly dumb nation.
but i digress.
i’m not sure if you play like you write… but these words you’ve written have assaulted my senses – in the very best of ways. i am enraged and deeply saddened. it was as though i was standing or sitting next to you every moment you described. i am a juilliard trained musician and was sent your blog entry by a long time friend that is also of that fine institution. i am appalled at the corporate fascism that has overtaken this nation. and only hope that the fire from this orchestra and audience awakens the “fat dumb lazy” americans that have given themselves over to this fascism.
thank you for your graceful fantastic post.
I posted this to the MOA Facebook page on 10/23/2012, and it seems to have disappeared now. As to the present situation, it was predicted to me a year ago by several former colleagues in the orchestra. To say the least at this point, I am disgusted at where this has gone. As to comments above, I agree and disagree, depending, but in general the arts and sciences, particularly music, are the drivers of our civilization and they are what makes us “human” at all levels. Fie upon Henson and the rest of the greedy, corporate types who now are in control of the MOA for their disgusting and stupid behavior. The world is not built on finance, alone.
” As principal horn of the Minnesota Orchestra from 1979 to 2004, I witnessed the most unprecedented artistic growth of any orchestra in the country, possibly the world. I came to the orchestra with experience in world class ensembles including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra so I knew what musical greatness sounds like and from all reports, I was a pretty good horn player. This artistic growth was not only to my ears, but to my colleagues on stage, our audiences and fans everywhere, other professional musicians who heard us and to the music critics who wrote about us. In short, the orchestra grew artistically from decent to superb! This was due to the musical directorship of Neville Marriner, Edo De Waart and Eiji Oue with the assistance of Klaus Tennstedt and Charles Dutoit (principal guest conductors), Leonard Slatkin, David Zinman and Andrew Litton (Sommerfest directors), Stanislav Skrowaczewski (conductor laureate), the fine assistants they had including Henry Charles Smith, III, William Eddins and Giancarlo Guerrero as well as the many fine guest conductors who came. It was also due to the superb management leadership by Richard Cisek and David Hyslop and the superb board leadership of Stephen R. Pflaum, Luella G. Goldberg,Dale R. Olseth, George H. Dixon, N. Bud Grossman, Nicky B. Carpenter, Michael E. Shannon, Thomas M. Crosby, Jr. and Douglas W. Leatherdale who raised the necessary funds, consistently, to support a world class operation. It was also due to ability to recruit and retain the most talented and dedicated musicians available! So, I ask the present leadership of the MOA: WHY NOW and FOR WHAT CONCEIVABLE REASONS? There is no reasonable excuse for your behavior!”
I wish I could have been there playing Bruckner again with Stan.
But, at this point, RIP: Minneapolis Symphony – Minnesota Orchestra.
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I think Bruckner’s music is a kind of “Headbanging” music. Some of it is “Death Metal” stuff. Some Scherzos are “slasher” material. They can be good music; but horrifyingly. I am sometimes frightened even more by the audience’s reaction to such music. It seems like the louder the brass the louder the audience’s response. Such music definitely have power to whip up an audience.