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.
Yesterday I got a call from Minnesota Orchestra bass player Kathryn Nettleman. (Well, Kate Nettleman. It feels weird to call our Kate “Kathryn.”) She wanted to make sure I heard about the big news.
The Minnesota Orchestra has had a lot of big news lately. In January 2014, the sixteen-month lockout of musicians ended. The CEO and board chair departed. Former music director Osmo Vänskä, who had resigned during the lockout, was re-hired. He married concertmaster Erin Keefe, who had been a leading candidate for the New York Philharmonic concertmaster seat. She decided to stay in Minnesota. The organization hired a new temporary CEO, Kevin Smith, who quickly became a long-term CEO. Recording sessions started up again. The third disc in the Grammy-winning Sibelius cycle was finished, and we’re waiting on the release date now. There was a trip to Cuba, planned and executed in record time. Then within a few days of the orchestra’s return to America, it was announced that musician contracts had been negotiated two years ahead of schedule (with modest raises), and that Osmo himself had signed on until at least 2019. Major multi-million dollar gifts were announced. The organization just posted its first surplus in a while (using a prudent endowment draw rate, no less).
If you take a step back, you realize what a veritable barrage of good news there has been here lately. Apparently we’re living in an era of sparkly unicorn rainbows. Thanks to a spirit of collaboration and mutual respect, the Minnesota Orchestra is proving that it is an organization on the move.
But Kate was calling me with even more big news to share. I didn’t know what to expect. Some kind of series devoted to the history of women in music? The construction of the Kevin Smith Room within Orchestra Hall, from which Kevin is never allowed to leave? (He would be fed well.) The first orchestra tour to the moon? After the past two years, nothing seems impossible.
As she spoke, I realized that one vestige of the lockout still remains: the musicians’ independent 501c3. This was the organization that the musicians used to self-produce concerts during the lockout.
“We’re dissolving it,” Kate said.
The Minnesota Orchestra recently returned from a groundbreaking trip to Cuba. It was the first time an American orchestra had performed there since the process of normalizing relations began in December 2014. It was also the Minnesota Orchestra standing up on the international stage and saying, in a particularly badass way, we’re back, baby.
Lots of people who were lucky enough to be on the trip have been sharing their ideas about what the week meant. We’re all still digesting. But the people on the ground in Cuba weren’t the only ones to come away with exciting new perspectives. Eight big ideas keep repeatedly swishing around my brain like Caribbean waves along the shore…
You too can recover from disaster, because damn the Minnesota Orchestra is back in business. Their performance of the Eroica in particular was probably the greatest I’ve ever heard of that piece. It certainly far, far outstripped the intensity of their live performances I heard in April 2015 and July 2012. The Eroica was also the first symphony they played after the lockout ended in February 2014, and the difference between the two performances was mind-boggling. Can this orchestra play even better? Oh, I’m sure. But do they currently stand with the great ensembles of the world? F-, yeah. Give them a few more years and I have no doubt whatsoever that the lockout will recede into organizational history, eclipsed by fresh artistic triumphs from a new era.
One-on-one interaction is beyond priceless. Look at this photo gallery and tell me otherwise.
Twitter is an amazing tool to use during big live events to cement connections with readers and patrons. I associate Twitter more with political live-blogging or passive-aggressive celebrity feuds, but it actually works really well for documenting big live events like this tour. I’m still split about the idea of “Tweet seats.” But for a radio broadcast, where I was holed up in my bedroom and my furious typing wasn’t bothering anyone, it was a marvelous format. (And I definitely understand the appeal of Tweet seats now way more than I did.) I gained lots of new followers and had some truly meaningful exchanges with readers, including the official Classical MPR and Minnesota Orchestra accounts. That loops back to my preceding point.
At big events, non-profits need to employ someone whose main responsibility is creating content for social media. The Cuba trip was unique in that not all the responsibility for documentation was laid on the Minnesota Orchestra’s staff, since many major media outlets were toting along their own photographers and videographers. But the lesson still stands. All of my friends are sharing the Cuba pictures with all of their friends, and I have no doubt all their friends are, too. I wish it was possible to convert the value of that increased enthusiasm and engagement into dollars. But I have to believe the Orchestra at least broke even on the $1 million that Marilyn Carlson Nelson and her husband invested into this tour. Maybe even more than that, because a lot of the positive experiences we had cannot be bought…since they’re not for sale.
Speaking of which….
The greatest work of non-profits is, at the end of the day, not about the bottom line. There was a group of us who argued passionately during the Minnesota Orchestra lockout that the worst thing to do would be to regard the Orchestra’s bottom line as its sole metric of success. I hate to say I told you so, but… (Haha, KIDDING. I don’t hate saying that at all. I TOLD YOU SO.)
In future, all orchestras need to employ musician-writers the caliber of Rena Kraut and Sam Bergman. Click here to read a Rena entry; click here to read one from Sam. Yes, finding others with their talents may be a tall order, but it needs to happen. Rena and Sam’s accounts of their trip brought on countless of tears and bonded many hundreds of hearts closer to the Orchestra. I have to believe there are equally talented writers at every American orchestra who would be willing to step up to the plate. (I don’t know how – or if – it could work, practically speaking, but… If there were two candidates for a position in a major American orchestra, their musical abilities roughly equal, and one was a ridiculously talented writer, or photographer, or interviewer, or podcaster, or whatever, you might just want to go with the candidate whose talents extend beyond music-making.) (Might this be a way for young musicians to distinguish themselves as competitors in a particularly cutthroat marketplace? How do we train young artists to write well, and whose responsibility is it to teach them?)
Crowd-funded arts journalism is a potential game-changer. Yes, blogger Scott Chamberlain had the chance of a lifetime to go on the Cuba tour after readers chipped in several thousand dollars to get him there, but he also had quite the responsibility: he couldn’t disappoint the people who had given him that money with the expectation of top-notch writing. Because those people were, in large part, his friends. Of course, he disappointed no one. The roaring success of his coverage brings up an interesting question: what comes next in the field of entrepreneurial arts journalism? If a blogger can finance a trip to Cuba…can a writer make a part-time job out of creating online content about classical music? A full-time job? Soon somebody is going to try. And I’m excited to watch content creators (I don’t like the limiting term “bloggers” in this particular context) push the envelope even further. We will all learn a lot about our art from the successes and failures that lie ahead. I’m not saying that crowd-funding is a magic bullet, especially if / when the marketplace becomes saturated. But it could be a potent weapon nonetheless.
When you’re recovering from institutional trauma, one healing tactic is to find a big goal and go for it. I’m thinking about the Atlanta Symphony in particular. They’re in a process of real institutional flux right now. They’re searching for a new CEO and trying to establish an identity of stability and relevance. I’m wondering if the best thing they could do right now is spearhead a major artistic project. Easy for me to say that, obviously; I have zero idea what that project could be. The Cuba idea, for instance, never would have occurred to me, which is why I write about the arts and don’t administer them. But I think the incoming Atlanta Symphony president, whoever he or she may be, should find one. Atlanta needs (and deserves) a “Cuba moment.”
So let’s take a moment to appreciate what Minnesota Orchestra CEO Kevin Smith and board Vice Chair Marilyn Carlson Nelson accomplished here. They acted boldly and smartly, and they refused to act out of a place of timidity or fear. I’ve learned a valuable lesson from them both. The best way to bond a group of people together is to work toward a major goal, all together. The board gave their money. The musicians gave their talent. The staff gave their time and expertise. And together they created something far more valuable than what any one group could have accomplished on its own. And consequently, lots of healing took place. Caveat: you must be reasonably sure you can achieve your major goal. If any number of things had derailed the Cuba tour, then… Well, let’s not go there. But the potential rewards were obviously worth the risk.
Those were my big takeaways from this extraordinary weekend that all Minnesota Orchestra lovers were privileged to share.
What were yours?
Edit: Literally just as I published this, the Met and various unions announced that they have extended negotiations for 72 hours and at least temporarily averted a lockout. Keep an eye on developments via Google News and on Twitter. Here’s hoping this entry becomes irrelevant, and soon.
It looks like we’re rapidly hurtling toward a Met lockout, and so to…er, celebrate isn’t quite the right word…to commemorate…to observe the occasion…I thought I’d jot down a few informal tips for various stakeholders. Your mileage may vary with these; they are just some preliminary thoughts from the perspective of one music-loving audience member who was present for the length of the knock-down drag-out hell-fight that was the Minnesota Orchestra lockout. I encourage my wise readers to add their their own survival tips in the comment section.
We can all agree: the Minnesota Orchestra lockout pissed us off. There was no louder critic of the Minnesota Orchestral Association than this blogger (although Robert Levine, Norman Lebrecht, Alex Ross, and Bill Eddins all gave me pretty fierce runs for my money).
Was I wrong in taking such a critical stance? Nope. I’m convinced the lockout will be studied for years to come as a textbook example of how NOT to conduct productive negotiations. (Unit Eight will cover “For God’s Sake, Don’t Buy The Domain Names of Audience Advocates.”)
But here’s a more important, more relevant question: Does the Minnesota Orchestral Association still deserve my ire?
The truth is…..
No. Probably not.
I’ll acknowledge that being pissed off does wonders for the page views, but here are the facts.
Yes, I acknowledge that MOA executive committee board member Doug Kelley is still having trouble coming to grips with reality, but I admit there’s a part of me that wonders… If he’s representative of hardliners on the board… And if the hardliners are waiting to bring his attitude into the next negotiating cycle… Might his words actually be an inspiration to give? To prove him wrong – to weaken his position in whatever way possible – to cut his arguments off at the knees? I genuinely don’t know the answers to those questions. In the end, you’re likely going to give in spite of his viewpoint, not because of it.
I COMPLETELY understand if you don’t want to give to the Minnesota Orchestra yet. Concerned patrons have been BURNED, with a capital B, U, R, N, E, and D. But I also encourage you to send a small amount of money with a promise of more once benchmarks of your choosing are met. Or perhaps you could send an email to the Minnesota Orchestra explaining why you aren’t contributing yet. If you don’t have faith that your emails will be read (and yes, it is true that many negative emails went unacknowledged during the lockout), CC Save Our Symphony Minnesota (saveoursymphonymn at gmail dot com), and I can offer you a personal guarantee that they will get to the people within the MOA who need to see them.
So. I’m saying all this because it’s a lead-up to some news…
My mom and I gave!
Yep, the Minnesota Orchestra is in the midst of its #CommUNITYinConcert fundraising effort, in which every dollar up to $100k will be matched in July. My mom and I really liked the idea, and we discussed the pros and cons of the investment, and then we gave.
I followed the Minnesota Orchestra lockout from the beginning (well, from before the beginning). I’m pretty sure there’s not another “civilian” who knows the ins and outs of the conflict better than I do. I milked the negotiating incompetence of the Minnesota Orchestral Association dry. Hell, I came close to making a career out of it.
So if I, the loud poor skeptic, gave what is a lot of money for me… If even I am optimistic that the flower of potential can indeed bloom here…
Will I regret the decision this time next year? Maybe. But right now the MOA is moving in a positive direction, one that was unimaginable six months ago. And I feel it’s important to send the message in my own very small way: this change is good.
Of course I sincerely hope you join me – but I also understand if you’re not ready yet.
And while you have your wallet out…
The Young Musicians of Minnesota (YMM) are hosting their own Kickstarter fundraiser this July to cover the cost of renting Ted Mann Concert Hall on August first. DETAILS HERE! These entrepreneurial teens and twentysomethings have already reached half of their $4500 fundraising goal in a few days, so that’s hugely encouraging, but of course there’s still work to do! A gift to YMM might be an alternative investment if you’re still leery of the MOA. If you support YMM, you’re also supporting an outreach partnership with the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, as there will be a variety of musicians sitting in for the performance, granting these hard-working young musicians priceless exposure to world-class virtuosos. I honestly can’t think of a worthier musical organization to give to. To prove it, I gave to that fundraiser, too… Not as much as I wish I could, but I gave. Even a donation of $5 or $10 helps! If you aren’t in a position to donate, or if you’ve already blown your philanthropic budget this July due to the MOA challenge grant, then please, come one, come all to the concert on August first at 7pm! (And while you’re there, keep an eye out for my program notes!)
Okay. So despite the topics of my last few entries, it’s not my intention to turn into a promotional arm for the Minnesota Orchestral Association. But I did want to talk one-on-one, friend-to-friend, about these two hugely important initiatives, and offer you a chance to give if you feel so moved. I hope I’ve given you something to think about. If I haven’t, well, then sit tight, because there’s a lot more content coming. And if you want to chat about this whole big ambiguous topic, the comment section is open, as always.
Anywho! I’ll see you at Orchestra Hall this fall, as we all commit together to making a fiscally stable world-class orchestra in Minneapolis a reality.
With deepest warmest sincerest gratitude for your time, thoughts, and readership –
I haven’t checked in here for a while, and y’all are probably wondering why.
For what it’s worth, I haven’t been idle. I think I’ve written the equivalent of several novels in private messages with friends…dissecting the settlement, examining tea leaves, and coming to grips with a new era.
Lots of people have been taking a “what have we learned?” approach to the Minnesota meltdown. So I’ll zig when others zag and try out a “where are we going?” premise.
Without further ado, here are my best predictions of what happens next… Feel free to agree or disagree.
Taxpayers will finally get to see the renovation they paid $14 million for. There will be some bitterness about it, given what we’ve lost. Also, people will be very critical of the light fixtures in the lobby (…and if you aren’t, your taste in light fixtures is highly questionable). (wink wink) Others might like the aesthetics of the renovation, but then they’ll start noticing certain things… A bar taken out. Floors that are easily stained. Seats that weren’t reupholstered with the rest. Shoddily constructed signs. (For instance, there was one photo that made the Facebook rounds a while ago in which a letter in the Box Office sign had already fallen down, only a few weeks after renovations had ended.) One wonders if the auditorium escaped unscathed. Questions might start to arise about the quality of the renovations…and that could quickly turn into a Pandora’s Box.
I really hope I’m wrong on this point, but we’ll see.
It will be well attended. The desperate edge to the audience’s energy will slowly diminish over the months, but the motivating drive will remain. We will not soon forget what was taken from us. The energy of Minnesota Orchestra concerts will be totally unique, and visitors will remark upon it. And I think that energy might unnerve Michael Henson.
One thing that made me laugh recently was MOA board member and frolic and detour catchphrase originator Doug Kelley saying he wanted the energy of the musicians’ indie concerts to find its way into Orchestra Hall. Bwahahaha. I wonder, Mr. Kelley, why there was energy at the musicians’ concerts?? Hmm. It can’t have been because the community was furious at what the board was doing, because surely if that had been the case, Mr. Kelley would apologize for that, so… Why were we all so hepped up? Did the musicians slip us drugs???? I don’t remember.
Anyway. No worries, Mr. Kelley. There will be energy. Maybe not the kind of energy you want, though.
I’m guessing that some orchestras that might have tried Minnesota tactics will choose not to based on what happened here. However, I can also imagine other boards and CEOs doubling down on their nefarious plans, betting their musicians won’t be able to hold out for the length of time the Minnesotans did. A lot of this will probably depend on the economy and the performance of various endowments, and the political moods in various places around the country.
That being said…
American Audience Advocates
Are likely here to stay. Save Our Symphony Detroit showed that audience advocates can make a difference, and the folks at Save Our Symphony Minnesota proved it. What orchestra comes next? Will the activists in that city continue the trend?
I’m incredibly proud of what activists did in this situation. So proud.
They will play better than ever. They’ve been to hell and back – and they survived. Not only that, but they went to hell with their audiences…and their audiences brought them back. This experience will increase the depth of our music-making. I say “our” because this specific audience will be a vital part of the power of every future performance. The audience will have a real ownership in the music, even if we don’t play a single note.
Nonetheless, some people will leave for good. (Happily, at least one or two will come back. Maybe more. I can’t wait to cry with happiness as I welcome each one home – where they belong. Because I am goddamned sick and tired of crying over my losses. Sick and f’ing tired of it.) I’m guessing the musicians who do leave will always feel a little bit of loneliness in their new jobs, because they survived something unique in American music history, and people who didn’t survive the meltdown with them will never understand an important part of what makes them, them…? But they will contribute to their new communities, and we will all wish them well. Of course.
This is probably a controversial opinion, but I believe that thanks to the terms of the final settlement, Minnesota will remain an attractive destination for talented musicians. If prospective musicians have concerns about the organization’s internal culture (and they should; if they don’t have concerns, their naïvety will serve them poorly in their careers), there is also undeniable evidence of a hugely supportive musician family and a massively committed audience, and those two things have got to be appealing on a certain level. I’ll go one step further: depending on what all goes down in the next few months, Minneapolis may become one of the most interesting places in the world to have an orchestral career. Maybe. (At the very least, it might be a pretty nice place to stay while you audition elsewhere…)
The newcomers will probably tire of hearing stories about The Lockout, and be confused when we talk about stuff like frolic and detouring and $200,000 and tap-dancing munchkins. You had to be there.
Next Negotiation Cycle
Oh, God, do we really have to go there? I don’t want to go there. I’m still tired.
But let’s hope for a repeat of what just happened in Detroit: a contract settled eight months early…with wage increases.
Osmo will be back if the board wants him…and is willing to kick out Henson. Question is: will they? It would be a wise business move, but then again, the board has never been very good at recognizing wise business moves.
I do feel like if they’re hoping on attracting any semi-famous music director, they’ll have to get rid of Henson first. (Unless there’s a large pool of conductors out there who would want to work for Michael Henson…) (…)
Regardless of what happens, Osmo’s musical legacy will remain with the Minnesota Orchestra for years to come. It’s become part of the orchestra’s DNA. And that’s a great gift.
He has lost power. It remains to be seen how much…but he has lost power, along with a crap-ton of credibility. My gut instinct is that he’s a lame duck. Or as Robert Levine suggested, toast in a toaster. (Have you noticed that Henson hasn’t really spoken in the press at all on behalf of the MOA? It’s almost like he’s been asked not to talk. What’s up with that? Is the MOA nervous to have their own CEO speak on their behalf, even after a settlement has been reached? If they are…well, that says a lot. If people just aren’t seeking out his opinion, well, that says something, too.) He may still try to pull his old tricks, but…When your orchestra CEO can’t stand up in front of audiences for fear of being booed off the stage, you might have a problem. Hopefully the MOA knows that people like me, Scott Chamberlain, and Save Our Symphony will be on Henson’s case if he tries the kind of stuff he tried eighteen months ago. He simply can’t get away with what he used to without a well-organized and well-publicized backlash. If he doesn’t understand that yet, he will soon enough. Promise.
If he wants to make a fresh start (or is forced to make a fresh start), I believe he’ll be able to massage his resume to make himself attractive to some organization somewhere. He did oversee a $50 million lobby renovation, a recovery in the value of the endowment, and a 15% reduction in musician pay, after all… Let the rewriting of history commence.
They’ll go back to whatever the crap they do whenever they’re not destroying orchestras by cutting them to death. I hear there’s a governor’s race coming up. That might be a fun, rewarding extracurricular activity for them to devote themselves to!
Remaining Board Members
They will have to figure out what exactly the crap just happened. I have to believe board members have a bit of whiplash. How to reconcile what they were seeking with what they ultimately got? I don’t know, and I’m glad I don’t have to be a part of that debate. The cognitive dissonance there would give the Second Viennese School a run for its money.
The person who is nominated for board chair, and the behavior of that person in the coming months, will tell us a lot.
Young Musicians of Minnesota
YMM will continue, and continue to be amazing. Emily Green will go on to do important things…that never could have happened without the lockout and the havoc it wreaked. That will be one of the lasting paradoxes of the lockout: hugely great things have come directly out of the destruction, and will continue to come directly out of the destruction. Even if we’re too close to the situation to see those things now.
SOTL’s views will likely trend downward. Scandals like Domaingate and Bonusgate will be things of the past (…um, I think?). I have a hard time imagining that the hard slog of rebuilding will be as dramatic or compelling as the work of railing against an unjust labor dispute built on the ugly foundation of public deception. I mean, I’ll still be here, obviously; and people will still be reading me; I just don’t think I’ll be read as widely. Soon I’ll go back to reading and writing about the history of women in music, then I’ll remember that nobody actually gives a crap about the history of women in music. I’ll start to miss the feedback, so I’ll try to find a balance (balance? what’s that?), and I’ll either return to fiction after a long absence, or I’ll write a book about the lockout, which will be published by a small regional press. If I ever get to New York City, I’ll get an autograph and a picture with Alex Ross. And then ——- I don’t know.
Oh, it will happen. You know it will. It’s only a matter of time. *wink* Leave your casting suggestions in the comments!
So there you have it: my completely unscientific predictions on what happens from here. I may be intuitive, but I’m no psychic. So who knows, really. Nobody does. Nobody.
What are your predictions for the future? If they’re positive predictions, what do we have to do to realize your vision? If they’re negative predictions, what do we have to do to avoid those outcomes?
And how will you make a personal commitment to make the positive visions a reality? For some reason…(God only knows exactly why)…we’ve stuck with the orchestra this long. Are you ready to keep working for it? I hope so.