In Search of a Plausible Story

People in my social media circles are slitting their wrists over the following probing blog entry from SOTL reader Paul Cantrell: When a tree falls.

Read the whole thing. I’ll wait.

Paul makes an alarmingly convincing case that we’re all screwed:

No, my heart is unmoved: this tree has already fallen.

Orchestrate Excellence, you’ve been by far the most constructive and reasonable voice in this mess. Can you tell a plausible story of how this works out?

Board members, some of you argued to me this week quite vehemently that you haven’t failed yet. Can you tell a plausible story of how this works out?

SOS Minnesota, you’re still brandishing the torches and pitchforks of the good fight as if the fight is not already lost. Can you tell a plausible story of how this works out?

Musicians, even after all you’ve been through, two thirds of you have not yet jumped ship. Bless you for your strength and optimism, but pray tell, why not? Can you tell a plausible story of how this works out?

Somebody needs to tell that story, or else fatalism will self-fulfill.


Fatalism, Sherlock style

Just like you can’t kill Sherlock Holmes, you can’t kill the Minnesota Orchestra. It will continue to exist in some form. The only question is, what form of Minnesota Orchestra do you want to support – or do you want to support a Minnesota Orchestra at all?

I’ve thought about this. A lot. For like, a year. At this point, I think every person is going to have to make a decision which end-game s/he wants to embrace. Here are the three end games, and their pros and cons as I see them:

1) Musicians agree to management’s best proposal.


  • Music again! (Finally!)
  • Musicians get paid.
  • Musicians have health insurance.

These are not inconsiderable pros. On the other hand…


  • Morale sinks to never-before-seen lows.
  • Watch the talent gush from Minneapolis like water in Niagara Falls!
  • Michael Henson stays on. There is zero indication that moderates will take charge of the board.
  • We’re not sure what quality musician will be attracted to the Orchestra to replace the ones who have fled.
  • Artistic quality will be severely compromised because of the number of vacancies and the reduced sub pay.
  • Stakeholders won’t have the same priorities or vision when hiring a new music director.
  • (Will they even be able to find a new music director? Who? When?)
  • Musicians and management will make each other’s lives a living hell.
  • With the current governance structure in place, there will be another, likely horrific, negotiation in another three years…toward the beginning of a new conductor’s tenure, when institutional stability will be most necessary.
  • Chaos.

2) The musicians do their own thing, under whatever banner…whether that consists of starting a new organization, or just continuing to develop their own ensemble without ever formally resigning.


  • Music again! (Finally!)
  • The musicians – and their supporters – will be able to put all their newly learned skills in action…skills that would go to waste if the musicians return to the MOA as it is presently structured.
  • Amazing musicians from around the country (maybe the world?) will likely be open to working with their Minnesota colleagues as subs or soloists.
  • Artistic autonomy.
  • Repeat: artistic autonomy!
  • The environment will be a perfect laboratory for creative problem-solving.
  • Young people from Young Musicians of Minnesota will get a really amazing chance to work alongside their idols in reaching out to young people.
  • Potential fruitful partnerships that the MOA has shot down – like those with El Sistema Minneapolis – can be be explored.
  • A wider array of voices will be able to integrate themselves into the orchestra, creating greater longer-term relevancy for the organization.


  • This is hard work.
  • Seriously, this will be a crazy crazy amount of hard work.
  • I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet, this will be hard work.
  • Can we fundraise sufficiently to provide even part-time compensation to our musicians?
  • What about insurance? Will we be able to provide them insurance? They need insurance.
  • Will factions arise between musicians or musician supporters as we chart a new path forward? (Worst. Nightmare. Ever.)
  • A network of extraordinarily committed volunteers will have to be built up very, very quickly.
  • I’m guessing that musicians will have to guard against burnout by handing over a lot of the responsibilities they’ve been handling to volunteers, some of whom they’ve only known for a few months. This will be hard.
  • Musicians will continue to leave town at a good clip for more secure jobs elsewhere.
  • A lot of musicians will be unavailable for long stretches of the season because they’ll need to take sub work at orchestras that haven’t imploded.
  • Technical standards will likely fall (but technical standards will certainly fall if Henson’s put in charge, so…).
  • Also, this will be hard work.

(Caveat: For this option to have even the smallest chance of success, discussions of the copious failures of the MOA ought to end, except in private. But maybe we’re all ready to make that happen. I know I am.)

3) Screw this. I’m done.


  • You can stop wasting energy on the clusterf*ck.


  • You’ll go without hearing symphonic music.

To me that con invalidates that option. But others may find option 3 attractive, and I completely understand why. In fact, I said an impassioned good-bye to those folks in my last entry.

Maybe I’m being impossibly starry-eyed, but one of those options is a lot more appealing than the others, and actually doable. (The musicians obviously think it’s doable, as they’ve committed to doing it.) I’d like to think I have a relatively good vibe for what’s happening on the ground. I’m in a unique position to hear from a lot of people. There is a lot of enthusiasm out there. If the musicians can successfully capitalize on that enthusiasm, and provide a positive – positive! – alternative to the MOA, I think they’re set to provide some amazing symphonic music this next year, and possibly – possibly – creating an entirely new paradigm…a “new business model,” if you will. Their doing their own thing is certainly a better option than Michael Henson ordering them around. Besides, lots of variables can change in a year.

This is my personal goal: I want to see as high a level of orchestral music as can be achieved away from the MOA. Make the performances and the outreach intelligent, relevant, accessible, inclusive, positive, as well as community-based and relationship-based. I think that’s a worthy goal to work toward. I think it’s attractive and plausible. And I think we’ll be able to sell people – a lot of people – on that vision.

I also think it’s a mistake to think of the rebuilt orchestra in terms of what we had during, say, Osmo’s tenure. But that doesn’t mean that it will be any less relevant to its community, or that it’s not worth pursuing. In fact, a rebuilt orchestra will likely become more relevant to its community. Maybe we’re going to need to trade world-class quality for high quality and increased community relevance: an orchestra organized by and for the actual broader community. That’s a trade-off that, in these circumstances, I’m willing to make.

Anyway. I see a large number of worthy goals to work toward. Since the musicians are already getting their ducks in a row for a season of their own, I don’t know why we shouldn’t give it our best shot. There is a chance of success. If the thought of what has been lost keeps you from wanting to rebuild anything at all, well, then option 3 beckons. Trust me, no one will blame you for choosing it.

But for the adventurous (and/or totally desperate), a crazy new historic path fraught with risk and excitement awaits in the 2013-2014 season. Pack your popcorn.


Filed under Labor Disputes, Minnesota Orchestra

14 responses to “In Search of a Plausible Story

  1. Portland Bassoonist

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for posting this. Option 2 is the only way to bring back excellence to the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, and yes, it is hard work. It has been done with regional orchestras (New Mexico Philharmonic) and it can be done in Minnesota.

    I simply cannot believe that without an orchestra, Henson, Campbell, and Davis can even touch the endowment or any monies that were raised for the orchestra. How is this legal? It is most certainly NOT ethical.

    If those of us who love classical music and support the Minnesota Orchestra don’t step up, the bankers win and rob us of a great orchestra. And they insult and denigrate every classical musician who has spent years in the practice room

  2. I just shot a number of photos of Governor Carlson and others downtown this morning at Orchestra Hall talking about how they are getting involved. Rumors of the Orchestras death may be greatly exaggerated (to Paraphrase Twain). More to follow.

  3. Dexter Green

    re. the Minnesota Orchestra as we’ve known it: the train has left the station.
    re. symphonic music in Minnesota: follow the money. The MOA has a $150 million endowment, given by donors to produce superior symphonic music and, to a lesser degree, operate a venue. The MOA has said it cannot accomplish the first goal. Therefore, the Minnesota Attorney General (look it up) can direct the endowment be divided, some portion remaining with the MOA for the operation of its hall, but the larger portion diverted to existing organizations with symphonic goals (the SPCO, obviously) or, perhaps, to a new foundation dedicated to the sponsorship of symphonic music. No doubt Henson is salivating at the prospect of being an impressario with a $150 million endowment. But that doesn’t have to happen. The endowment is not his, nor is it the current MOA board’s to do with as they please. The intention of the donors can be carried out, even if the MOA board has thrown in the towel re. the current orchestra.

    • Sarah

      In many ways, the SPCO is similar to the MOA (though smaller and quieter). I’m hoping for something new, with the same musicians.

  4. 245t

    I would rather listen to great music in the community than in a corporate black box, however shiny and new it has been made by a coat of black paint and new seats.

  5. jamesL Mason First bassoon in The Toledo Orch for 26 yrs.

    Henson has to go!! Patrons rise and throw this fool out int the woods
    He has no idea how to work with musicians and musically tone deaf!!

  6. Stuard Young

    If this same mess were happening in Philadelphia, my mind might wander toward wrist slitting. “My” orchestra has been a world-class passion for me for over 50 years of going to concerts. Though there have been labor disputes, and the orchestra has been in and out of bankruptcy, the Philadelphia has survived, I now see that with this last financial problem (the Philly’s endowment is just 2/3 that of the Minnesota’s!) leading to the bankruptcy, that things could have gotten out of control, and taken a path toward destruction. But this did not happen. What is the difference? From what I have read on SOTL and others, it must be true respect for the value of the musicians on the part of the respective Boards. In Minneapolis, the word is that anyone can be replaced. In Philadelphia, they fought to keep players from leaving. My heart goes out to you music lovers in the twin cities. Though I have not heard your orchestra in concert, I have felt a deep connection between yours and mine since the 1960s. I treasured many recordings with Skrowacewski, and attempted to attend every concert he conducted with the Philadelphia in the late 1960s and 1970s, all brilliant. Judging from the BIS recordings, your orchestra has indeed reached world-class performance. I cannot imagine what you must be going through, watching your magnificent symphony orchestra lying in pieces. But all is not lost. Though “the tree has fallen”, there is still life. You have music again this weekend, and your twin cities seem to have ample citizens with the will and ability to work hard to repair the damage. Though it seems unlikely to many that the vindictive element of the Board of Directors will not resign on their own to clear a path for constructive negotiations, keeping the music playing, and the musicians working, can put great pressure on those key divisive men. Under these circumstances, if I were an MO musician, I would hold out on negotiating until there was a change on the BOD. I thank you so much for all of your postings, and send my best wishes to you in your superb efforts to raise the fallen tree!

  7. Option 2 is the only one with any chance of success. Option 1 will fail. On looking at the finances of the other orchestras, they are all heading for trouble. I will say it once more the old model is broken.
    Interestingly Henry Wood faced the same problem over a 100 years ago. Declining attendance, financial problems and the cry going up the orchestral music was irrelevant to the average citizen. His solution which has worked since 1895 was to double down on performances. So he produced 3 hour concerts 24/7 for two months when the universities were out. He turned it around and it has gone on without interruption despite two world wars and the bombing of Queens Hall, the venue. They have been at RAH since. 75 proms this year, almost all concerts sell outs, and young enthusiastic audiences. This year with massive on line audiences also.
    So yes, it will be work to replace the old model. This is something we have to commit to. The answer is, lots and lots of music. We know that works, we have the model.
    Now we need to get organized. After this weekend the musicians need to take stock and have in their own minds the outline of a plan and what help they think they need to implement it. We then need a meeting, mainly to get an inventory of skills of the supporters, and then put them to work, and constantly and frequently re asses and fix problems. I can’t stress enough, that is is vital to match tasks and skill sets.
    I agree with you Emily, that the time for angst is over and we need to go to work right away. Delay will just increase the disintegration, and make for more work and actually exclude any chance of pulling this out. Ignore the board and let them come to us, or be faced with removing themselves.
    The Board are in the position of an episode form “Yes Prime Minister,” were there is a hospital fully staffed with no patients. The Board will be reduced to an episode of a hilarious sitcom. Moving ahead and ignoring them is the best policy now. The musicians need to be in the drivers seat and accept the help they need that will be willingly given.

  8. Sarah

    If there’s a silver lining to this, it may be, as you say, that “in fact, a rebuilt orchestra will likely become more relevant to its community. Maybe we’re going to need to trade world-class quality for high quality and increased community relevance: an orchestra organized by and for the actual broader community”. How exciting!!!

  9. Lizzie PB

    Indeed, Option 2 is the only way to go. I suspect any true organization-building will be a long way down the road, given the loathing and betrayal the musicians must feel about organizations. That being said, there are MIGHTY skills and passion available to them from the already-identified support groups as well as their many passionate individual supporters.

  10. TFox17

    Under the Cons of Option 2, you fail to list the size of the financial troubles. A new orchestra would face all the same difficulties as the existing orchestra, except that it’d be without proceeds of the endowment, and without the existing donor base. That’s about 2/3rds of the revenue of the existing orchestra, which is already insufficient to pay the musicians. Sure, existing management is incompetent, vile, and intent on destroying music (that’s why they volunteered to serve on the board, after all) but can the reorganized orchestra really sell three times as many tickets as the old one was selling? That’s what they’d have to do, just to approach the current, totally inadequate, baseline.

    • Nope, I covered this topic.

      Can we fundraise sufficiently to provide even part-time compensation to our musicians?
      What about insurance? Will we be able to provide them insurance? They need insurance.


      This Will Be Hard Work (which I said four times).

      I also think it’s pretty self-evident.

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