Maestro Leonard Slatkin of the Detroit Symphony has just come out with a new book called Leading Tones, and bizarrely, a chapter of it is devoted to the Minnesota Orchestra lockout.
Pop some corn, kids. This is a long entry and you’ll need a snack.
I’ve known this was coming for a while. I have a friend in the book world who sent me an advance copy this summer. Around the same time, the Maestro’s assistant reached out to me, asking for permission to quote a passage from my August 2013 Domaingate entry. After some soul-searching, I wrote back granting permission, while also reminding the Slatkin camp that if I disagreed with anything in the final book, I’d use this blog to start a public conversation on the topic.
Well, guess what? I’m starting a public conversation on the topic. *jazz hands*
I’ll be blunt: there are a lot of things in this chapter that I disagree with. But more alarmingly, there are a lot of things in this chapter that just aren’t true.
If this were any other topic, inaccuracy would irritate me and nothing more. But when a book comes out of a publisher as respected as Amadeus Press, with a name as big as Slatkin’s attached to it, it’s worth correcting the record.
When discussing what I find problematic in the chapter, I’m going to stick to contemporaneous press accounts as closely as possible and rely on my own memory as little as possible. Those were charged times, after all, and it has been a long five years.
Up until the lockout chapter (titled “Stop the Music”), Leading Tones consists of
- a page of quotes from Beethoven, Steven Wright, Anne Frank, William Faulkner, Leonard Bernstein, and Plautus;
- a discussion of Slatkin’s career in Lyon;
- descriptions of the great new music he has commissioned, premiered, or performed;
- a list of his favorite pieces to conduct;
- a lovely series of short essays about his memories of Ormandy, Milstein, Browning, Stern, Kaplan, and John Williams;
- a chapter entitled “Interlude One: The Mind Wanders,” in which Slatkin makes brief observations about our field, such as “Anne-Sophie Mutter was among the first to play in strapless gowns”; and
- a short story (novella, perhaps? it has chapters) called The Audition: A Cautionary Tale, which follows the journey of a violinist named Susan as she auditions for a Midwestern orchestra. There Susan encounters the horrors of the audition screen, and is also relieved to learn that orchestras don’t discriminate against women anymore, so phew.
Immediately on the heels of The Audition: A Cautionary Tale comes the lockout chapter.
Slatkin sets the scene:
But despite changes in musical as well as community leadership, all seemed just fine in the Twin Cities… There was absolutely no reason to suspect that anything was wrong… It was always taken for granted that the arts scene in the Twin Cities would be unfazed by economic upheaval.
Ughhhhhhhhh… My anxiety levels are starting to rise…
*starts deep breathing*
The [Minnesota Orchestra] board was accused of mismanaging the funds to make ends meet, but to my knowledge the musicians never questioned where the money was coming from. This would be the first of many errors. It seems that when things appear to be going well, no one checks up on reality.
…Wait. Didn’t the Maestro literally just write “there was absolutely no reason to suspect that anything was wrong” and that “it was always taken for granted that the arts scene in the Twin Cities would be unfazed by economic upheaval”? Is he obliquely admitting he made the same mistake of obliviousness?
Anyway. Let’s pick this statement apart point by point, because it’s as loaded as a baked potato.
The board was accused of mismanaging the funds to make ends meet.
First off, Slatkin’s use of the verb “mismanage” is problematic in its lack of specificity. For instance, I don’t recall any musicians or patrons claiming that board chair Richard Davis was, say, siphoning endowment funds into his personal bank account.
But there are many shades of gray to the word “mismanage.” I’d prefer to pose a different question: before the lockout, was the board acting in a fiscally and ethically responsible way? At the time, a lot of musicians and a lot of patrons felt it wasn’t. Let’s look at why:
- According to their 990s, in FY2009, the Minnesota Orchestral Association sold $28.7 million worth of securities that they’d paid $42.7 million for. The result was a nearly $14 million loss on those securities. This kind of loss did not happen at any other major orchestra.
- In 2012, management’s finance and executive committee minutes were leaked to the Star Tribune. This was from the September 2009 minutes: “Balances in 2009 and 2010 would support our state bonding aspirations [for the hall renovation], while the deficits in 2011 and 2012 would demonstrate the need to reset the business model.” Management also hired the PR firm Padilla Speer Beardsley to help them decide “what size of deficit to report publicly.” In other words, from 2009 to 2012, balances and deficits were consciously manipulated for fundraising and PR purposes, in a way that ultimately threatened and destabilized the institution.
- Throughout 2010, Minnesota Orchestra CEO Michael Henson and board chair Richard Davis went on the record many times praising the fiscal health of the organization, even as they knew that storm clouds were gathering just beyond the horizon. Then, right on cue, the pre-ordained pivot occurred in late 2011, when the first big deficit was posted.
- Members of the Minnesota state legislature, feeling duped after approving spending on the hall renovation, started looking into the Orchestra’s finances and DFLers even started calling for the CEO and board chairs’ ousters. Eventually, the city of Minneapolis began exploring legal options for taking over Orchestra Hall.
- Plus, more.
Personally, I feel all that taken together is grounds for a label of mismanagement, providing you employ a broad definition of the word. But even if you disagree on terminology, those facts need to be a central part of this discussion. People who were concerned about what the board was doing had a right to be. Period.
to my knowledge the musicians never questioned where the money was coming from.
Let’s return again to publicly available contemporaneous documentation. In August 2009, the musicians agreed to $4.2 million in mid-contract concessions. At that time musician Kathy Kienzle told the Minneapolis Star Tribune: “There was absolutely an acceptance that there would need to be concessions.”
So it appears that the musicians were asking questions in 2009 (more questions than the public was, anyway) and, more generally, grasping the gravity of the recession. But when a board chair and a CEO preach prosperity in public, while simultaneously heralding apocalypse in private, all the while positioning themselves for adversarial negotiations, what exactly were they supposed to believe?
Vicious posts went up daily from the musicians, railing against anyone who did not support them.
This did not happen.
The executive director was accused of every ill, with vitriolic fervor being par for the course.
That is exaggeration.
(Granted, many patrons had fervent criticism to share, and oh did they ever, but Slatkin isn’t talking about patrons here.)
Day in and day out board members read that they were miserly; in effect, the musicians were biting the hand that fed them.
Where was this daily musician-based vituperation coming from? The musicians’ website? Their Twitter account? Their Facebook page? Interviews? Obviously there was a great deal of frustration in the patron blogosphere, but musicians had no say about what appeared in the patron blogosphere, and not even the patron blogosphere went on daily anti-board, anti-anti-musician harangues. I don’t know how to disprove a negative. The Wayback Machine’s archive of the musicians’ website, I guess? Go read it and judge the musicians’ tone for yourself. Or if you want an even bigger research project, check out Save Our Symphony Minnesota’s exhaustive (and exhausting!) THIRTY-NINE PAGE index of links to press statements, and use it to come up with a cohesive critical argument.
Then Maestro Slatkin starts criticizing Osmo, suggesting that Minnesotans viewed his threat to resign over the canceled Carnegie concerts as selfish. As justification for this interpretation, Slatkin cites a single online Strib comment that “scwebster” made on August 29, 2013, which said s/he was bothered that Osmo’s deadline had nothing to do with bringing music to Minnesotans. Yep, to support his anti-Osmo argument, Leonard Slatkin resorts to the Strib comment section, that well-known bastion of professionalism, fair-mindedness, and humanity.
Just kidding. Unfortunately, then as now, the Strib comment section is a cesspool, full of trolls, hacks, and pseudonyms. It’s also a useless tool for judging public sentiment, and it’s troubling that a quote from it made it into Slatkin’s finished book.
(Also, for what it’s worth… Speaking as someone who was actually on the ground, I never got the sense that people were offended by Osmo’s position. My patron friends, at least, understood that this nonsense couldn’t go on forever, and the Carnegie concerts seemed just as logical a do-or-die point as any.)
Depending on which side you listened to, the number of musicians who vacated their positions varied wildly. The orchestra’s website featured a photo of the full ensemble with the members who had left whited out. This was misleading, since the whiteouts included retirees and vacancies that existed before the lockout.
This paragraph itself is potentially misleading, because “the orchestra’s website” was not actually the orchestra’s website; it was the musicians‘ website. One troubling aspect about Maestro Slatkin’s writing in this chapter is that he frequently refers to the musicians as “the orchestra.” It’s a small thing, but the imprecision of the language risks creating unnecessary misunderstandings.
I’d argue that if a musician retired or resigned because of the poisonous atmosphere pre-lockout, it’s completely fair to include them in the count of lost players. Plus, MinnPost wrote this article describing the players’ reasons for resignation, and musicians and their supporters shared that article openly.
Then Slatkin discusses the canceled 2013-14 Carnegie concerts in a very odd way.
What struck many as strange [who??] was that the [BIS] label thought the orchestra would not be ready to perform [for the final disc in the Sibelius cycle], but Carnegie Hall apparently did…
Those Carnegie concerts just might have to be played with almost one-third of the membership filled by substitutes or extras. This would send a dangerous message, one that the musicians’ union was certainly hoping never to see: that you can field a great orchestra without all the regular members of the institution. And should the notices be negative, all the posturing about the importance of these performances would be for nothing…
One year almost to the day after the lockout commenced, a last-ditch proposal was presented by members of the orchestra. Its rejection led to the cancellation of the Carnegie Hall concerts… True to [Osmo’s] word, the announcement went up the next morning. The orchestra seemed in shock, as if they could not believe it had actually happened. Sometimes people make good on their threats.
Woah woah woah. Woah.
First, let’s go back to the Carnegie Cancellation Timeline (TM) as documented contemporaneously by the Star Tribune.
According to the Strib, the following events occurred on Monday, September 30, 2013:
- Musicians and management met.
- Musicians put forward a proposal, expecting to engage in back-and-forth negotiations. Hours remained before time ran out on Osmo’s previously-set midnight deadline, and there was a stated hope on both sides that productive conversations might occur in this high-stakes, high-pressure environment.
- Management rejected the musicians’ proposal. Then came the kicker: they declined to negotiate further. Bizarrely, board chair Jon Campbell told the paper, “We would have negotiated until tomorrow if there had been a substantial reason to do so.” Presumably neither Osmo’s threatened resignation nor the risk of the cancellation of the Carnegie residency qualified as substantial reasons…?
- After talks broke down, management was ready with a public statement that the negotiations had failed.
- Management then canceled the first Carnegie concert, which in turn triggered Osmo’s resignation.
Reading between those lines, it appears that Campbell, Davis, and Henson were using Osmo’s deadline to push him out. Otherwise, why not try negotiating until midnight, if only as an attempt to woo Osmo into holding on a bit longer? For that matter, if their intention really was for Osmo to stay… Why not include Osmo in the Orchestra’s big annual 2013 Symphony Ball fundraiser, as had been tradition? (They didn’t.) Or why say to the Star Tribune editorial board that Osmo “may have to leave,” as Richard Davis so blithely did? Or why pointedly include an end-date to Osmo’s contract in an interview, as Michael Henson did when he told the Strib in that same article, “We continue to want Osmo to be here through to the end of his contract in September 2015” (my italics)?
I’m not saying I know what went on behind closed doors; I don’t. What I am saying is that, given the information we know, this is an interpretation that makes sense. But it’s not clear if Slatkin has considered it. Instead, he prefers to believe that the cancellation and Osmo’s resignation were the result of union brinksmanship, because musicians were apparently afraid of getting good reviews at Carnegie while sporting a large sub contingent. (???) But by that time, absent caving completely (remember, management conceded publicly and in the Minneapolis paper that it was not interested in further negotiation that day!), the musicians and the musicians’ union had no choice whether or not the Carnegie concerts went forward. Those decisions were ultimately in the hands of management, Carnegie, and/or Osmo, and management was ultimately the one to pull the trigger on the cancellation. There are too many unknowns to draw conclusions about the motivations of unions from this particular part of the story. In fact, it’s less than helpful; it’s harmful.
I say from experience: no one was surprised on the morning of October first. Devastated, yes. But not surprised.
Then when discussing mediator Senator George Mitchell, Slatkin says:
The musicians roundly rejected his first suggestion, and the board dismissed his second.
I’m not 100% sure what Slatkin is referring to here, and I’m not sure he is, either. As far as I know, this is the publicly available information about what happened when Senator Mitchell attempted to mediate the dispute:
- According to the Strib on August 19, 2013, a proposal was floated in July 2013. Let’s call this Proposal A: “Last month [July 2013], musicians rejected a management proposal — offered through Mitchell’s office — that…would have provided a window for mediation. Musicians would receive their old salaries for two months. If no agreement were reached, a contract would have been imposed to cut pay by 25 percent.” Another article from Twin Cities Business on August 29 clarifies that management itself characterized this proposal as having been “submitted outside the provisions of the Mediation Agreement between the parties and Senator Mitchell.” In other words, this first plan was not endorsed by Mitchell; it just was just submitted through his office.
- Going back to that August 19 Strib article, this is the first proposal that actually originated with Mitchell. Let’s call it Proposal B: “Mitchell proposed a four-month interim agreement from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31. During the first two months, musicians would receive salaries based on their expired contract. If no formal pact was reached by Oct. 31, they would take a 6 percent pay cut for the remaining two months. If no deal was reached by year’s end, the parties would “return to their respective positions.”” Musicians agreed to this proposal. Management declined it, fearing they would lose negotiating leverage, and saying they needed a guarantee that the entire 2013-2014 season would happen.
- On August 30th, management circumvented Mitchell and posted its own offer on its website. Wayback Machine link to management’s press release here. This offer is very similar to Proposal A, as noted by musicians.
- On September 16th, news broke that management had altered its negotiating strategy somewhat, submitting a new proposal, through Mitchell this time. Both sides were quiet about what exactly this Mystery Proposal contained. To the best of my knowledge, the Mystery Proposal was never made public, and it remains unclear what it was and who ultimately rejected it.
- Additional conversations with Senator Mitchell occurred through the month of September, but the specifics of those were not made public, and later offers from management and musicians were not made through his office. It appears that after Osmo resigned, Senator Mitchell stepped away from his role as mediator, but this particular aspect of the history still remains to be officially confirmed.
Yes, I know it’s boring, but there’s a reason I’m going into the weeds here. It’s because I’m concerned that Maestro Slatkin doesn’t understand these details. If we’re going to draw the right lessons from the lockout, let’s make sure we have those details down pat.
With a new deadline approaching, one that could signal the departure of the music director and the postponement of any kind of season announcement, another proposal was put forward by management. It was applauded by the blogosphere supporters of the musicians but on closer examination did not appear to be much different from a previous offer. [Slatkin then describes Proposal B from above.]
As a “blogosphere supporter of musicians,” I feel uniquely qualified in saying I didn’t applaud any of this. I even checked my July and August 2013 archives, just in case I had accidentally applauded something. I did not. The closest I came to the subject was this entry, but it was discussing Proposal A, not Proposal B. The other main pro-musician blog, Mask of the Flower Prince by Scott Chamberlain, also didn’t applaud any plan during this time.
What are the other openly pro-musician blogs Slatkin might be referring to? Lebrecht? If so, keep in mind he’s just a blog, not an entire sphere.
My interest in the dispute was not so much about salaries or rankings, but rather about great music not being made available to the orchestra’s constituents.
Yes, Maestro Slatkin’s interest may have been purer than ours, but Minnesotans’ action – and the action of Minnesota’s former music directors – got a lot more done in making music available than anyone’s pure interest ever did.
Next: this blog makes a lengthy cameo!
Slatkin describes the Minnesota Orchestra management’s May 2012 “Save Our Symphony” domain name purchases. Those gained notoriety in an SOTL blog entry that my readers later dubbed Domaingate. Slatkin quotes that entry at length and comments:
This was discovered by an intrepid blogger who made it out to be a conspiracy worthy of the Kennedy assassination.
Anyway. I want to throw out a few thoughts on Domaingate, since I haven’t talked about it in years, people still ask me about it, and I want to set the record straight on a few things:
- I was not intrepid. I was an anxious patron who was forming an audience advocacy group with other anxious patrons, and I happened to be the person on the conference call that day who volunteered to look up domain names that night. That’s literally all there is to that story.
- Said friends and I shopped the domain name story to every major media outlet in the Twin Cities. Nobody bit. And the fact that nobody bit stoked my anxiety. I wondered: if the press didn’t want to cover this, what other lockout-related developments were they not sharing?
- I hope that when people read that entry nowadays, they recognize that it was written by someone who was, in that moment, both frantic and furious, and rightfully so. Did I have any idea the impact that entry would make, or that it was going to be quoted for years to come? HELL, no. Would I write it differently today? HELL, yes. But do I regret using that tone? Well: no. The orchestra I love was in dire, dire straits. If being honest in my sincerely felt hysteria brought more eyeballs to the cause (and it did), I don’t regret that.
- Also, “conspiracy worthy of the Kennedy assassination”? Do Kennedy assassination conspiracies even exist anymore? I thought we’d all agreed on the veracity of the National Enquirer’s reporting:
The executive director was accused of all manner of improprieties, in particular of taking raises and bonuses before and during the lockout.
Well, I mean, in fairness, he was accused of doing both of those things because he did both of those things.
The DSO came back into the picture when the Detroit-based group SOS tried to convince the Minnesota board that recruiting new musicians would not be easy. The SOS misstated the number of musician vacancies in Detroit and tried to make a case that the DSO was not attracting viable candidates at auditions. This undermined the good work that the SOS had done over the previous two years and certainly did not help its relationship with the new musicians or board. It was also blatantly untrue.
Okay, so. Just FYI, I’m not sure there would be a Minnesota Orchestra today if there hadn’t been an SOS Detroit. They were our lifeline and our inspiration.
I got in touch with my Detroit-based friend Dave Assemany, who signed that letter, and Dave says that to this day, he stands by every number in it. He and his SOS Detroit brethren can discuss that orchestra’s audition results and resignations far more knowledgeably than I can, so I’ll defer to their voices on the topic. (I believe that if someone knows more than I do about a particular subject, I should cede the floor and listen.)
All parties must agree not to leak information. The bloggers can’t be stopped, but they only muddy the waters.
Since I’m the only blogger actually referred to by name in this chapter (thanks…), I want to say a few things on the topic of blogs and leaking.
Let’s start with this blog. I do not leak: I am the classical music blogosphere’s equivalent to an astronaut diaper.
Off the top of my head, I can only remember a couple of lockout leaks that came from blogs. (And boy, those were a pain in the back.)
The vast majority, though, originated elsewhere. I think the biggest leaker was probably management, since they began the whole dispute by posting their proposed contract on their website in September 2012. That was more than a leak, though; that was Niagara F’ing Falls. Obviously, blogs had nothing to do with that. And there were also quite a few leaks in the Strib over the years, and it wasn’t always clear who had done the deed. (The Strib is not a blog.)
Lots of people view blogs with distrust, disdain, and the requisite condescension. I get it. But I’m willing to loudly defend bloggers and the role that they played in the Minnesota Orchestra lockout. We did not muddy waters. Indeed, we helped clear them by providing a kind of context, analysis, commiseration, and honest partisanship that our overworked and underpaid professional press couldn’t. If other bloggers are as meticulous as we were, they won’t muddy the waters, either.
I feel strongly about this.
Thennnn we circle back to more Osmo criticism, albeit slightly more oblique this time:
If you are a music director, stay out of it unless both sides ask you for advice. Even then, mostly listen. You can lay out some artistic goals you would like to achieve, but address only those that are meaningful for the contract. And never, ever say anything to the press.
It is difficult to move past the irony of a conductor giving unsolicited advice while advising a conductor not to give unsolicited advice, but I’ll try, and say:
I’m deeply disappointed that a music director would so publicly criticize the actions of a colleague, and in such a condescending way, and about such a sensitive time that he clearly knows little about. Needless to say, when a contract as extreme as Minnesota’s comes down the pipeline, the entire thing has to do with the “artistic goals you would like to achieve.”
Did Osmo do everything perfectly during the lockout? I don’t know. But whether you like him or not, Osmo thought deeply about what was going on, over a period of years, and he saw and he heard things that we outsiders didn’t. When he spoke publicly, he spoke deliberately, and with clear goals in mind. He played his cards and he won the game, ultimately claiming the prize we all wanted: a world-class orchestra that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best in the world. That’s leadership.
Hey, raise your hand if you remember this nightmare! The Minnesota Public Radio broadcast of Osmo’s farewell concert after his resignation in October 2013.
The weirdest portion of the chapter comes toward the end:
On January 14, 2014, the lockout ended. With musicians facing the loss of unemployment benefits and the board looking at a possible revocation of the license for Orchestra Hall, each side finally reached the endgame…
Relations between the board and the orchestra have improved immensely.
I need to see a chiropractor because I’ve got a bad case of tonal whiplash. How this reads: “The hall was almost taken over by the city of Minneapolis + ??? = relations between the board and the orchestra improved immensely!” Unfortunately, Slatkin gives no details as to why relations have improved. In fact, aside from informing readers that Osmo ultimately returned as our music director, Slatkin says nothing about what happened in Minneapolis after January 2014. January 2014 was the nadir of our story, so allow me to fill in the chronological gaps:
- Osmo made the “it’s me or Henson” ultimatum public during a conversation with Minnesota Public Radio in February 2014. (God only knows where we’d be nowadays if he had followed Slatkin’s “Never, Ever Talk to the Press” advice.)
- Some board members departed in protest of the resignation.
- That same day, community members and major donors made it clear that we wanted Osmo back. In fact, Save Our Symphony Minnesota organized a grassroots “Finnish It” campaign, in which patrons were encouraged to show support for Osmo’s rehiring by dressing in blue and white and waving Finnish flags. During the shows, the Orchestra Hall auditorium was awash in Finnish memorabilia. In fact, the entire Twin Cities metro area sold out of Finnish flags, I sh*t you not. It was a powerful demonstration of community support and activism. Slatkin may very well care for our community…but apparently not enough to talk about the dramatic moves that our community made to win back Osmo. (And this isn’t even touching the SOS Osmo movement, or Lee Henderson’s fundraising plan, or or or…)
- Osmo was re-hired.
- Quiet conversations occurred behind the scenes.
- New and gentler board leadership was brought aboard.
- Audience advocates, including SOSMN, were welcomed into the fold in a dramatic way.
- Plus a whole bunch of other stuff that we outsiders haven’t been privy to.
But honestly? The single biggest reason for the turnaround was the hiring of former Minnesota Opera CEO Kevin Smith, as recommended by patron, donor, and Minnesota Orchestra patron saint Judy Dayton. Kevin Smith has brought a spirit of integrity, optimism, intelligence, and adventurousness to his job. You cannot take away the relevant lessons from the Minnesota Orchestra lockout and its aftermath without mentioning the work of Kevin Smith. Period. And yet his name doesn’t appear once in Slatkin’s analysis. It’s a mind-boggling oversight.
Toward the end of the chapter, Slatkin praises the Detroit Symphony for having renewed its contract eight months early in 2014. This is a laudable achievement, indeed! But he also fails to mention that in 2015, under Kevin Smith’s leadership, Minnesota renewed its contract early, too…a full twenty-one months before expiration. Slatkin surely knows this, right? Right? I’m not sure what’s worse: the idea that he knew our renewal happened but didn’t think it was important enough to mention here (the cynicism!)…or the idea that he didn’t know our renewal happened, but still thought he knew enough about us to devote a full chapter of his book to the lockout. That extraordinary 2015 contract renewal, Minnesota’s recent balanced budgets, and the approaches and methods of Kevin Smith are all urgently relevant topics if Slatkin’s goal is indeed to help other organizations avoid Minnesota-style meltdowns. And yet he mentions none of those things. So what, exactly, is he trying to do?
A quick ninety-second reminder of what patrons, in partnership with our board, our management, and our musicians, saved.
There are other issues with this book. But this entry has gotten really long, and I don’t want my first book to be a rebuttal of Leonard Slatkin’s second book. I just wanted to put all my thoughts on his thoughts on record, to be taken or to be left, as readers (and maybe ultimately historians) choose, and to start a conversation. Those who have read the book (currently $25.20 on your friendly local Amazon page!) can provide additional feedback in the comment section below.
Throughout the chapter, Maestro Slatkin speaks warmly and convincingly about the importance of listening to patrons. I couldn’t agree with him more! That’s why I wrote this entry: not to rehash ancient history, or to pick a fight with a conductor who has enjoyed a truly sparkling career, but rather to point out:
If anyone wants to draw lessons from the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, give precedence to the voices of the people and the patrons who were on the ground when this hell went down. Because as Slatkin himself says near the close of his chapter:
These are the people who have supported everyone with donations and ticket sales. They are the backbone of the business, and we must treat them with the utmost respect.