The Osmo Question

I’ve been hesitant to write much lately. First of all, I’m tired. Physically, spiritually, emotionally tired. But secondly, I haven’t wanted to write much. If I write anything positive, I fear it will come across as oh yay we’re all one big happy family now, when in reality we absolutely aren’t. (Yet.) On the other hand, if I write anything negative, it would be as icky as an absurdly critical Sean Hannity cuing up “the music from The Omen” a hundred days into Obama’s presidency (this is a Daily Show reference; see this clip beginning at 2:55; beware of coarse language). Clearly, public silence suited my purposes better.

That being said, there are some things that need to be said in this moment that have not yet been said, and I think I’m in a position to say them. I apologize for any baggage that I have coming into this discussion, but obviously I can’t change any of that now. So if it is at all possible, I ask the decision makers at the Minnesota Orchestral Association to forget who I am, forget what I did, and consider the following argument on its own merits.

The MOA should ask Osmo Vänskä back as Music Director – and do whatever it takes to win him back.

Why? you ask. Let’s talk about it.

Of course the first question: If you don’t ask Osmo back, who will you ask?

Some supporting questions:

What world-class conductor is available to assume a music directorship on such short notice? Music directors plan their careers years in advance. Who is available? Many outstanding candidates won’t be available in the 2014-2015, 2015-2016, and even 2016-2017 seasons. Is the MOA willing to go director-less for that long to secure the appropriate candidate…or does it prefer to rush into a hasty, very possibly ill-advised marriage?

Who among those available is attractive to the board? Who among those available is attractive to musicians? Who among those available is attractive to audiences? The last point is the most important, especially from the standpoint of selling tickets, a subject board members have expressed (completely justifiable) concern over.

Will the candidates’ managers advise their clients to take the job? Robert Levine theorized in this November 2012 entry that Edo de Waart may have consulted with his manager before agreeing to conduct the locked-out musicians in December 2012. Yes, we’re in a post-lockout world now, but even with a fair contract in place, the situation remains messy, and for obvious reasons, managers don’t like to get their clients into messy situations. It reflects well on no one.

And then. If anyone can get through that gauntlet, will any of the survivor candidates want to work for Michael Henson? In this case, it doesn’t matter what I think of him, or what the musicians think of him, or what the audience thinks of him. It matters what the candidates for the music directorship think of him. Remember, Mr. Henson is a man who sought many strange work rule changes to the musicians’ contract. Among other things, he wanted the power to veto the music director’s extension of an “offer of employment” to potential musicians. From the initial proposed contract:


This is a man who sought – and almost achieved! – a 2013-2014 season of half pops concerts. This is a man who will be in charge of the next round of contract negotiations, which, if they turn contentious, could make the 2012-2014 lockout look like a pleasant walk in the park. This is a man who said of his world-class musicians in the New York Times in August:

When we get up and running again, as other orchestras in this position have, we will advertise for the jobs that we need to replace, and I’m sure we will get an astonishing bunch of individuals who will want to perform and live in this great city.

And the disrespect doesn’t stop at the musicians. This is a man whose dislike – maybe even hatred – of the last music director was so thinly veiled toward the end that he actually said to the press in September 2013:

Ultimately, if Osmo decides to go, that is his decision. We want him to stay through to the end of his contract. [Note: Not stay period; stay only until the end of his contract in 2015. It’s obvious Mr. Henson had no intention of pushing for a renewal.]

And it’s not like Osmo is crazy over Mr. Henson, either. In his now famous words from a couple of days ago:

For any healing to begin at the orchestra, Michael Henson must go.

But this isn’t just a Henson/Osmo struggle. I see it as a Henson/Music Director struggle. It doesn’t take a psychic to predict that any future music director will be continually sparring with Mr. Henson over turf, power, and artistic direction. Yes, taking the podium at Orchestra Hall could well be a conductor’s dream come true. There is still a great orchestra there, and a great audience. But that dream could very easily turn into a nightmare. Musicians are somewhat easier to replace. (Not easy to replace; just easier.) Musicians can always keep auditioning elsewhere if they’re not happy, or just quit outright, and the fact won’t trigger a series of shocked gossipy headlines on Slipped Disc. But music directors hitch their wagon very publicly to an organization for a period of years. They’re not going to want to do that if there are any doubts about the way the CEO treated the musicians, or, more importantly, any doubts about the way the CEO treated the last music director. Unfortunately, in dissing Osmo, Michael Henson poisoned a well he himself needed to drink from. Awkward, that.

But let’s say that somehow an amazing candidate emerges. The board loves him or her (okay; him). The musicians love him. Michael Henson loves him. Against impossible odds, everything has turned bright and sunny, and everyone is a big happy family.

But now comes the question: will the audience love him?

Despite the domain name debacle, and the MOA’s apparent desire to stifle the formation and influence of audience advocacy groups, the audience pushed itself into this whole saga in a pretty remarkable way. They wrote about the lockout; they formed groups; they mounted demonstrations and town hall meetings. And these endlessly energetic people are bonded to Osmo. Lawyer Lee Henderson, who has been a staunch Osmo defender over the course of the lockout, gathered 2500 responses in a few days in answer to a February 1 Strib editorial to bring Osmo back. You can read the results here. The love and affection and enthusiasm for our resident Finn is palpable.

Every audience advocacy group wants Osmo to return. There are three main audience organizations that have worked for an end to the lockout: Save Our Symphony Minnesota, Orchestrate Excellence, and Young Musicians of Minnesota (YMM). All three feel deeply that Osmo should be asked to return. In fact, teenager and YMM co-founder Emily Green even wrote for MPR in December:

Osmo Vanska’s departure was a shattering day for many young individuals. Several students, upon finding out about his resignation, excused themselves from class to go and sob in the bathroom. I was sitting in a practice room at my school when I found out. I sat, staring at my horn, and thought: “Is this truly what classical music in our state has come to?”

I won’t even get into how the Orchestra Hall audiences behaved on February seventh and eighth …or the fact that reports indicate that Judy Dayton was one of those who screamed, “Bring back Osmo!” to deafening applause of approval during a live international broadcast. Remember:

One reason why this is important. From the 16 December 2013 Strib.

From a 16 December 2013 Strib article

(While we’re on the topic: who’s to say that the shouts of “bring back Osmo” or “Fire Henson!” are going to cease? If the MOA hasn’t extended an offer of a music directorship by the time of Osmo’s Sibelius concert in March, prepare for one wild rebellious international broadcast. Does the MOA really want a mob of music lovers screaming orders at them during broadcasts, week after week after week? Because right now it seems like that could happen.)

What does it say about the board if they ignore this potent community support for Osmo? We are supposedly in a new era of collaboration. New board chair Gordon Sprenger said it himself in the press release announcing his nomination:

“Our collective work is now to restore trusting, respectful relationships within the organization among musicians, board and administration and to build broad bridges of support to our greater community. By focusing on collaboration, and our shared passion for world-class performances of the classical music that gives our organization its mission, I’m confident we will launch a positive new era for the Minnesota Orchestra and its audiences and supporters.” [My bold.]

Will the board ignore the audience’s wishes? – will they attempt to rationalize them away, and try convincing us that given enough time and distance, we’ll love the new guy just as much as we once loved Osmo? – or will they take that brave step toward true community collaboration and ask him back?

Another question: what does it say about the board if they are willing to throw a new conductor into the stormy seas of a post-Osmo Minnesota Orchestra with no life preserver? Can you imagine the pressure? Not only would this person be worrying about artistic power struggles with Michael Henson, and nervously counting down the days until the next negotiation with musicians began, this person would be constantly compared by audience and press to Osmo Vänskä, one of the great musical minds of our generation…and during a time when everyone is still resentful the MOA never tried to hire Osmo back. That’s a lot of pressure even for the best of conductors to handle, and frankly, not the best setting for world-class music-making, to put it mildly.

Here are some additional pluses to asking Osmo back:

More musicians who are considering work elsewhere will likely stay in Minnesota, reducing the amount of time it takes for the Orchestra to recover. Plus, fewer auditions for the MOA to hold. Auditions are hard work, and any chance you get to use the great players you’ve already got ought to be taken advantage of.

Mr. Sprenger’s stated desire for world-class performances of classical music will be made immeasurably easier. This combination of orchestra and conductor has already proven itself to be world-class. No time will need to be wasted getting back to work.

Recordings and tours could resume. Even in the 2012-2015 Strategic Plan, which was meant to be a new model of austerity, recordings and tours remained a major part of the organization’s identity. Yes, those plans fell apart promptly once Osmo resigned, but… The Plan is still on the website if you have an old link (there’s no link to it anywhere on the new website). But assuming the MOA hasn’t renounced recordings and tours, bringing Osmo back is their best bet to get them back in a semi-timely manner.

Strained relationships with politicians could be repaired. Rightly or wrongly, many state legislators felt burned by the MOA not telling the State of Minnesota that major deficits were imminent when Mr. Henson requested state money for the Hall renovation. And they felt doubly burned when Osmo resigned because of what they perceived to be board intransigence.

From a 21 January MinnPost article:

Rep. Alice Hausman, a DFLer from St. Paul, recalled Vänskä’s role in winning state bonding money for the rehab of Orchestra Hall.

“When our House committee visited Orchestra Hall for the bonding pitch,” Hausman said, “it was Osmo Vänskä on the stage making the pitch. I think he was alone on that stage. We never would have done this for a board of directors, but we built it for the musicians and the director.”

Hausman is among those who believe that the board must ask Vänskä to return, noting that the music director seems to have made it clear that all the board must do is ask.

“We will look just as foolish as we did during the lockout if we don’t ask him back,” Hausman said.

The City of Minneapolis wasn’t happy about the whole thing, either, as evidenced by their prickly exchange of letters with the MOA regarding the Orchestra Hall lease. Mayor Betsy Hodges has even weighed in on the Osmo question. From January 14:

I am very pleased that at long last, the management and musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra have reached an agreement that ends the lockout. Our world-class orchestra is a crucial arts institution in our city, our state and the region. I also hope that going forward there is a resolution to the status of Osmo Vänskä and that he may return to us as the leader of this great cultural institution

There is an opportunity here to mend some severely damaged fences with politicians. Why wouldn’t you want to seize it?

It will be a comeback story like no other. The enthusiasm of the audience will blow the roof off Orchestra Hall…and isn’t audience enthusiasm desperately needed right about now? If anyone took Osmo or the Orchestra for granted before, they sure as heck won’t anymore. Chapter two of his tenure could be completely electrifying for everyone. And everyone loves a good comeback story. With hard work, this could become the king of all comeback stories. One for the history books, for all the right reasons.

All that being said… I can imagine the anti-Osmo arguments. I can imagine board discussion of “face saving” (whatever that means, exactly). I can imagine board discussion of how much Osmo will cost, and how the board will pay for him. I can imagine board discussion of how cruel it would be to dislodge Mr. Henson from his leadership position when his only crime was doing what the board told him to. Personally, I think those arguments are all pretty much poppycock. But even if they weren’t, would any of them make as convincing a case as the one I just laid out above? If anyone on the MOA board of directors has an equally strong case for ignoring Osmo and letting him be snatched up by another orchestra, I respectfully ask for that case to be made thoughtfully, publicly, and in detail. But until then, I join the thousands of voices from all across the musical world who say: bring back Osmo…whatever the cost.

The question is no longer, can we afford Osmo? It’s: can we afford not to have Osmo?



Filed under Labor Disputes, Minnesota Orchestra

25 responses to “The Osmo Question

  1. Bondgirl

    Yup. No question asking Osmo back would be the best artistic decision the board could make, and likely the best financial one as well (I’m surely not the only one buying concert tickets but withholding any donations until we see how this plays out). But human nature being what it is, I worry that the board may well balk at having to publicly admit that its handling of the lockout was an abysmal failure in every way. And showing Henson the door would be exactly such an admission. I’m not optimistic.

  2. George Slade (@rephotographica)

    What I heard on the radio, the new board chair speaking supportively about Michael Henson and his ability to get a new season in place in just a short period, did not seem promising for anyone hoping to see a new CEO in place anytime soon.

  3. JC

    So, having written all this, do you think Henson will be asked to resign?

    Personally, I think he will stay unless a very large donor (or collection of donors) comes forward with gift which is contingent on Henson departure.

    • There is too much happening behind the scenes to know what will happen. I just offer my argument of what I think SHOULD happen.

      Six weeks ago, did anyone seriously think the lockout would finish the way it did when it did? Of course not. As I’ve said since the beginning, things can change. And quickly.

  4. eedman2013

    Mr Sprenger is between a rock and a hard place. It is now a conflict of wills, Vanska vs. Henson, no matter what else. Give Henson a long leave of absence. Then he can decide if staying is worth the trouble.
    Because the conflict is so public, Sprenger stands to lose support and credibility, no matter what happens.

  5. Well said! You have distilled the arguments nicely and with great eloquence as usual. Even from a purely pragmatic standpoint, considering all of the bottom line issues, one would have to agree. It’s also worth noting that none of the groups that sprang up to support the musicians have disappeared, leaving options for donors and supporters to bring collective weight to their financial support. As long as audiences feel management cannot be trusted, they will watch where their money goes.

    • Rebecca

      Maybe we could get SOSMN to collect pledges to the orchestra contingent upon the departure of Henson and the return of Vanska. I wonder how much could be raised in a short period of time. I bet any number of people would be willing to pledge several thousand dollars.

  6. Robert Sunderlin

    I agree!

  7. ArthurH

    A very perceptive analysis of the ongoing orchestra saga indeed. The orchestra board must now heed the vox populi and bring Osmo back or I fear a downward spiral for the orchestra that could take 10 years to reverse, with drops in attendance and donations not to mention permanent defections of musicians now on leave. It is unfortunate that shortsightedness and mismanagement led to the lockout, and now that the “bankers” are gone, and fellow minded board members can hide behind these “poster boys” for the lockout, this same board must help their new leader Mr. Sprenger do the right thing.

    Mr. Vanska has no contract at present, and will no doubt wish to have a reasonably long new contract at prevailing market rates for a conductor of his stature. And this is what must be done. The orchestra loves him, the serious symphony goer loves him, the NY Times loves him, the New Yorker loves him, BIS records loved him, and the Proms really loved him. Love him or not the symphony board must embrace him at this point.

    And as for Mr. Henson doing what his employers told him to do, and rewarding his efforts with a large bonus– where have we heard that one before? (“I am not responsible–I was just following orders.”) Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a day job at Wells Fargo or US Bank to fall back on, or a musician’s union fund to fall back on if things really get tough. But as the old adage says, when you make your own bed you must sleep in it.

  8. Thank you for weighing in on this pressing issue. You are widely read and greatly appreciated. Your voice matters! (I love that you used the word poppycock, how very British of you!)

  9. an answer which has been made many times before, is to restart the Orch with the Berlin Phil model as a federation where the Orch is controlled by vote by the musicians themselves to include hiring and firing musician and conductor selection and election as music director. ll affairs including management policies are voted on by the musician and they can fire the mgt if they are not doing their job. I’m sure Osama would be elected in a heartbeat and the musicians did it, not that MOA. It’s tragic that this wasn’t done earlier.

    • eedman2013

      The board must realize that if Vanska does not come back, they face appointing a search committee and putting out notices for applications. Unless one of the board has a nephew or niece or other relative ready to step into the position (I know that is a snarky comment), the search could take a year or more if it is done right. Furthermore, It is like the search for a CEO or any leader for an organization that has a troubled history. You have to find someone willing and able to walk into a difficult situation. For a conductor, you need not only an musical artist but a mediator and peacemaker – not an easy combination given the personality of many artists. Given the public nature of the orchestra situation, any conductor worth while knows the landscape and may not be willing to even apply.

  10. NYMike

    Well-said, Emily! Let’s hope Osmo Vänskä resumes as MD.


    Thank you Emily for this important post on the OSMO QUESTION. Every MOA member should read this, along with Scott Chamberlain´s open letter to Gordon Springer on the same topic. It all seems so obvious to me. If the Board doesn´t reappoint OSMO by the time of his Emmy award concert in March, I predict severe problems for the entire organization as so well outlined by many writers and opinion leaders recently. We need to encouarge Rep. Phyllis Kahn and Sen. Dibble to press ahead with the bill to make the MNORCH a community owned orchestra. Clearly, the need for reform and a more democratic model has never been more evident. The Oregon Symphony, for example, though just in the top 20, has a great model reflecting the socio/economic diversity of the state, where musicians are given an active voice. LET´S GET OUT OF THE CRISIS MODE AND GET OSMO BACK:

  12. JKM

    What has escaped notice is that there is another orchestra in town, the SPCO. The musicians took a hit, losing 16.5% of their members, a drop in salary, and have had to call in substitutes. But they are back in business and they sound very good. Furthermore, they have brought in a savvy CEO, Bruce Coppock, who knows something about music and how to deal with musicians, even in tough circumstances; they have appointed a musician to the board or at least in an administrative role, they have wooed their audiences, and, despite a truncated season and very small endowment (compared to the [but wise and generous contributors], have reported a profit of $228,000 last year. On top of this, they have shown a willingness to experiment with their liquid music series in conjunction with the Schubert Club, the oldest musical organization in Minnesota with a board that knows how to manage and a synergy that cannot be found among Minneapolis organizations–the Bakken Trio sided with the musicians. When we thought there would be not be a MO season this year (again) many of us increased our purchases of SPCO concerts, both in the Ordway and for the Music Room, bought season tickets to Accordo under the Schubert Club. We also were prepared to continue buying tickets to the Musician organized performances and have bought into Osmo’s and the Orchestra’s return to an improved Northrup. So, let us suppose that the MOA and its new CEO chooses Henson over Vanska. Why bother with a mediocre Minnesota (ex Minneapolis) Orchestra when you can find interesting, exciting, world class music ten miles east of downtown Minneapolis with a concert hall that may have some acoustical issues but is adding a smaller concert hall that may have acoustics as good as the Mann Theater, where the SPCO already performs. And the Ordway is so much warmer than the renovated Orchestra Hall that has all of the warmth and charm of a second class airport. Sure, there are large windows so you can stare out at the mixed architecture of downtown Minneapolis, but there is no art, is quite sterile. At the Ordway you look out on a charming park. If the MOA chooses Henson over Vanska, then the honor of being the “Athens of the North”–at least in terms of musical performance and excitement–will pass from Minneapolis to sleepy old, but solid and sensible St. Paul. Congrats, then, to Mr. Sprenger and the MOA. Make your money on hip hop, alternative rock, jazz (but here the competitions is First Street and Dakota} and Broadway shows (but here again your competition is the Ordway in St. Paul). Think it over. I have.

  13. James

    Keep thinking and keep writing!

  14. Julie

    Speaking of re-instating, inquiring minds want to know . . . have YOU been reinstated on the MnOrch mailing / email lists?? My season brochure arrived yesterday.

    • No. I imagine I’ve been permanently blacklisted.

      • Terry

        Patty wrote on a FB post at SOSMN: “There are current things going on backstage to remind the musicians where the board still stands. Yet with dignity they still play. Enough with the games …”

        Emily, do you have any more information about this? If the musicians are being treated poorly (again!) by the board or management, that would be completely unacceptable. I think we should attempt to get this information out into the open, if it is indeed happening.

        • No, I don’t know what exactly is going on backstage. I’ve heard a little bit about some negative interactions, and I’ve heard a little bit about some positive interactions, but I don’t have details, and given how closely this blog is read, I don’t like to say things without being able to provide corroborating details. It’s going to be up the musicians to decide what they want to share with the public, on what timeline. :)

  15. dugsdale

    Arthur H. says, “I fear a downward spiral for the orchestra that could take 10 years to reverse, with drops in attendance and donations not to mention permanent defections of musicians now on leave.”

    My question is, isn’t this precisely what the MOA was attempting in the first place? The idea of fielding a “World Class” orchestra, and the work and financial support required to sustain it, were clearly not part of the MOA’s “vision”, such as it was expressed during the lockout. It’s easy to visualize a scenario in which Henson stays, the political bent of the Board remains exactly as it was, and their ends become realized through starvation and attrition…”Gee, nobody’s donating, we’ll have to scale back, whoops lookit that deficit!! See, we were right all along, the support for a big-deal orchestra just isn’t there!”

    The political mindset that propelled the MOA into lockout mode is still there, I’ll bet, and if there’s a “lesson” the Board learned, it’s probably merely that their tactics were what failed, rather than the underlying “philosophy.” I hope the musicians will know if that “philosophy” still prevails, by the tenor of communications from the Board in the immediate future–and by whether Henson stays or not. Ms. Emily hints at stuff going on behind the scenes, and I hope that’s true–but I also hope the musicians already have contingencies in place for when the Board fails to deliver their end of the bargain, as they (in my view) almost certainly will.

    • ArthurH

      Well let’s not quote just one sentence in a context that might distort my comment. The prediction of these dire consequences is based on not bringing Mr. Vanska back. Clearly, the MO board does not wish to repel donors. Whether they wished to get rid of higher salaried musicians, orchestra be damned–well you will have to check with Misters Henson, Davis and Campbell, not to mention many of their like minded board members, now hiding behind them. I think and really hope the board has gotten the message and will do the right thing. They do not own the orchestra, but have volunteered for one reason or another to foster the well being of this 110 year old institution for the benefit of our community. Let’s hope they have finally figured this out.

  16. Holly Slocum

    Nicely done, as usual, Emily.

  17. Michael

    Osmo will be asked back and what will follow will give everyone (yes, everyone) the ability to exercise their professionalism pursuant to the goal of top quality music production (or done by one side and spun by the other to that effect) and things will settle down for a bit.

    At this point though, Henson et. supporters can spin the whole thing as ultimately being positive for the long term. Reading some of the opinions of those in the business/financial sectors who posted in support of Henson on this blog’s comments section in the past, I can’t help but think that the only real way to get Henson to step down might be to have someone, a friend of a friend, offer him an opportunity elsewhere, as a favor for a favor.

  18. Barbara Dewing

    Osmo and our Orchestra are magic together. Let’s do whatever it takes to bring Osmo back.

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