Farewell to Minnesota Orchestra CEO Kevin Smith

In February 2015, shortly after my mother was diagnosed with cancer, I saw I had a voicemail from an unfamiliar Minnesota number.

“Hi, Emily,” said a friendly voice on the other end.

Is that – ? I thought to myself, brain fuzzed by exhaustion.

It was.

I don’t remember word-for-word what he said, but it was something along the lines of “We’ve heard about your mom’s diagnosis and we’re all so sorry to hear it. If there’s anything we can do, let us know.”

And then Kevin Smith, the CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra, hung up the phone.

I cried.

Looking through the eyes of a normal orchestra president, this call makes absolutely no sense. Because the protocol is set, and the protocol makes sense. Your mission is to raise enough money to keep your institution functioning. To achieve this quixotic goal, conventional wisdom dictates that you spend nearly all of your time with board members and big donors: the gatekeepers of power. If anyone is poor, or has been a particularly irascible opponent of your predecessor (or worst of all, both), you don’t owe that kind of malcontent anything.

But Kevin Smith upended the rules. That phone call signaled the new calculus: if you care about this orchestra, we care about you.

*

The world has no clue how close the Minnesota Orchestra came to imploding in 2014. If some future chronicler ever unearths all the stories, the world will be shocked. And Kevin Smith will be held in even higher regard than he is now.

When the partisans were exhausted and beaten down, Kevin ushered in a new era of the positive and the possible.

The displays of good faith started early. Upon his appointment, he began attending listening sessions organized by audience advocacy group Save Our Symphony Minnesota. There he addressed everything from programming to internal culture to lobby decoration. “We’re talking about new lighting systems to provide color and shape. Cut-outs of musicians. All sorts of things. Maybe a couple of plants.”

He became a regular fixture at concerts. (Not all orchestra CEOs are.) When I’d get to the hall early and see him jogging up a lobby staircase, I’d shake my head in awe at our luck.

He oversaw a number of jaw-dropping multi-million-dollar donations.

He was hysterically smart and funny during a February 2016 Inside the Classics show on Mozart and Haydn, where host/violist Sam Bergman and conductor Sarah Hicks invited him to publicly defend his recent remarks in the Star Tribune that Haydn is boring. Obviously Kevin is wrong (lol), but damn if he didn’t almost win me over by sheer force of geniality.

He woke up one morning, read the news, and decided to bring his orchestra to Cuba. And then he put in the work to make it happen.

He negotiated a contract for the musicians, wrapping up the final details on the plane ride home from Cuba. That contract was reached 21 months before the deadline.

He was a smiling presence at every tour, always energetic despite the exhausting round-the-clock churn of activity. When I went to Europe to blog about the orchestra’s 2016 tour, he saw me backstage and enthused, “Emily! How are you?” As soon as he ensured I was enjoying the trip, he immediately began rhapsodizing about the musicians’ skill and commitment. His pride in them was palpable.

Then a funny thing started happened. Despite his affability toward all, he balanced the budgets. The previous leadership team had reported a deficit of $6 million in FY2012, and I heard that team swear up and down and all around that balancing a $30 million budget would be impossible.

If you ever were a naysayer, Kevin Smith exposed you as a fool.

We patrons knew that something special was happening. Suddenly we felt appreciated and listened to. We might not always agree with Kevin, but we always trusted him. Initially Kevin was brought on as interim CEO. I don’t know if the musicians ever called it this, but my patron circle had a tongue-in-cheek nickname for the effort to delay his departure: Operation Rallentando.

When it was announced that Operation Rallentando had succeeded and that he’d stay on as CEO until August 2018, that same patron circle stayed up way too late exchanging messages on Facebook, curating a playlist to express our excitement. It included Beethoven 9, every Te Deum we could think of, and Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration.”

We in the classical music world expect inhuman achievement from our orchestral performers. I will never understand why we don’t demand the same from our orchestral CEOs.

With Kevin Smith, we got inhuman achievement.

*

I went to New York City almost a year to the day after Kevin left that voicemail. The Minnesota Orchestra was returning to Carnegie Hall for the first time since the lockout. So many patrons came along (the Times labeled us the “considerable contingent”) that it felt like a glorious glamourous field trip for the sweetest dorks in the world.

Before the rehearsal, while I was marveling down the Manhattan street, a familiar face suddenly swept past. I turned around and a grin lit up my face. There was Kevin Smith, striding confidently, optimistically, into the distance, toward something no one else could see. His lovely wife was following, jogging to keep up. She yelled into the wind and the cacophony of traffic: “Kevin, where are you going?”

We’ve all learned so much from Kevin. But the first thing I hope we all take away is his ability to see the undreamed-of so clearly.

*

The best tribute that we could give Kevin would be to balance the Minnesota Orchestra’s budget before the end of the fiscal year on August 31st, 2018.

It doesn’t feel adequate to the occasion (because it isn’t), but after I click Publish I’m going to donate $100, and I also pledge to add a donation to every ticket purchase I make throughout the season.

I invite you to join me doing one or the other or both. The amounts don’t matter. Here’s a link to donate.

Remember, you are never too poor or too inconsequential to make a difference. Your love of the art makes you worthy. As this 2014 Star Tribune lede put it:

Kevin Smith has put out the word: If you want to help the Minnesota Orchestra, no idea is dumb and no donation too small.

minnesota orchestra

Thank you, Kevin. We owe you more than we’ll ever be able to pay.

13 Comments

Filed under Minnesota Orchestra, The Orchestra Business

13 responses to “Farewell to Minnesota Orchestra CEO Kevin Smith

  1. Michelle

    A beautiful tribute to Kevin! Donation sent ! ♥️

  2. smarshasherman

    Great tribute Emily! Kevin Smith was a treasure. Michelle Miller has some big shoes to fill.

  3. Sarah

    Amazing tribute, Emily. It was a wild and exciting 4.5 years for all. I remember reading some article about him and it mentioned that he admitted he had a big ego – but the ego part was helping musicians and everyone else to get fantastic things done. Their success which he aided was the most important thing to him. Maybe he’ll write a book!

  4. Nancy Murphy

    I loved every word of this, Emily. Thanks!

  5. Jeanne Milliren Simpson

    Thank you for a wonderful written finale about Kevin Smith. He was a true leader. Visionary, humble and accessible. I still remember how excited I was when the orchestra came back from Cuba with a new contract. What a rush! How we needed to know, after all the tumult , that our musicians were respected once again and the orchestra would stay intact.

    You get some credit for it, too.

  6. Doug Ramsdell

    a beautiful piece of writing that does what you do so wonderfully: convey your joy and enthusiasm in a way that buoys your reader up in it as well. I don’t know if the full story of the strike will ever be told, but if it is, I hope it’s you who does it. Thanks, Emily.

    • Aww, thanks!! You’re very kind! I’ll never write the full story. I was way too close to it all, and my perspective isn’t one that someone looking for a comprehensive history ought to embrace lol.

      • Doug Ramsdell

        Who says?? you & I are going to disagree on this, maybe, but I read your stuff all the way through the lockout, and that voice, RIGHT there, with all it snark, irreverence, sensitivity, passion, and emotional authenticity, is what I’d pay money to read, not some labored scrupulous Encyclopaedia Britannica version. (not suggesting you SHOULD write any such history, by the way; that’s your call & perhaps a life that is hopefully full of rich possibilities will lead you elsewhere.)

  7. Elizabeth Erickson

    You’ve done it again, Emily! Absolutely brilliant piece and such a beautiful tribute to a man who will always remain at the tippity top list of my all-time favorite human beings on the planet. I will never forget my first encounter with Kevin at one of the first open meetings he had with patrons after he came on board. Still raw and filled with so much anger towards the wrecking crew that almost drove the MN Orchestra bus off the cliff, I fired away, informing Kevin Smith that the last chair bragged about how he never attended concerts and what exactly, he was going to do to make sure that NEVER happened again. His calm and grace and genuine interest were immediately evident. I think he even thanked me for my question! I walked out of that meeting with so much hope for our orchestra. Kevin has exceeded expectations in every way possible. I will never forget the miracle he pulled off. Thanks for everything, Kevin. You are the bomb and one hell of a piano player!!

  8. Lisa Renee Ragsdale

    Emily, I am speechless and bowled over. Between all you have done for the MN Orchestra (along with several other people) and your awesome praise for the man who brought financial security back to the MN Orchestra, I cannot say enough positive things to equal the awesome-ness of you and all your allies. However, I wish I could borrow or purchase some of your, uh, luck (?) or ability to succeed. More on this later.
    Congratulations on everything and keep on keeping on.

  9. Rubin Latz

    Most simply, Brava, Emily!

    Bravo, Kevin Smith!

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