Once upon a time, Minneapolis had an orchestra, and it was recognized as one of the greatest in the world. On the strength of its artistry, $100 million were raised to support it in the depths of the Great Recession. Half of that money went to support new artistic initiatives and the endowment, now the fourth largest in America…larger than New York’s and Los Angeles’s. The rest went to a huge new lobby of glass and stone, currently nearing completion on the south end of Nicollet Mall. It will be finished by early July.
But there will be no orchestra to open Orchestra Hall. Last October, three men – two banking executives on the Minnesota Orchestral Association board of directors and one spectacularly inept orchestra manager from Bournemouth – slipped the Minnesota Orchestra a potent sleeping potion in the form of a lockout. The MOA has not presented an orchestral concert since late July, and they will not be presenting any this July, either. Even after seven months of not paying musicians’ salaries or benefits, they claim they don’t have the money to present concerts…and it’s simply too expensive to play and talk, CEO Michael Henson explains. Mr. Henson continues to receive around $400,000 a year in compensation, the orchestra manager who doesn’t actually manage an orchestra. He makes a perplexing bedraggled picture, pleading poverty while wearing a yellow vest and hard hat and showing off his fifty million dollar lobby. The state of Minnesota is currently investigating the MOA’s finances. Things in Minneapolis have gotten so bad that a quarter of the orchestra’s seats are empty, with more musicians departing every month. There is no end in sight.
Every eight weeks or so, the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra cook up a short-lived antidote to the potion: they put on a concert of their own. With the help of two of their former music directors, as well as their current conductor, Osmo Vänskä, this season the musicians have put on extraordinary performances of Dvořák, Shostakovich, Bach, Beethoven, and Sibelius. A few weeks ago they announced a late April concert: a program of Mozart and Bruckner, to be conducted by their former music director, eighty-nine-year-old Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. The soloist in the Mozart clarinet concerto would be principal Burt Hara, one of the great orchestral musicians in the world. As always, the tickets sold fast.
A Minnesota Orchestra lockout concert is different from any other orchestra concert you’ve ever been to. They will be sold out, so they will be crowded. The audience will skew young. Everyone present will be an intense, intelligent lover of music. You will find yourself waving across the hall at people you’ve only met once before; they will eagerly wave back to you. You will feel like you’re at a family reunion that has a concert built into it, because the musicians have gotten to know patrons, and the patrons have gotten to know musicians, and the invisible wall at the edge of the stage has crumbled. Turns out we’re no longer just fighting for our musicians; now we’re fighting for our friends, too. You will hear the kind of roaring applause and hoarse screams usually reserved for the debuts of prodigies. You will meet and chat and sit with politicians, multi-millionaires, and occasionally local celebrities, all of whom are disgusted with the action of the board. These concerts will be, simultaneously, the most emotionally taxing and the most emotionally fulfilling experiences you will have as a listener. They will reaffirm your belief about the power and relevancy of orchestral music. And they will give you the strength and inspiration to fight for excellence in all aspects of your life. You will also cry into your pillow once you get home, overcome by the enormity of what you have just experienced.
Of course lockout concerts would mean nothing without a passionately engaged audience, and I’m proud to say that the Minnesota Orchestra has the most devoted audience in America…maybe in the world. Behind the first violins stood a eight-foot-tall tower of flowers. I’ve never seen a more beautiful arrangement. Their color and fragrance were all the more beautiful after our long – both literal and metaphorical – winter. They’d been sent with love by a translator from Japan, who has loved the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra for many years, but who could never bring herself to write to tell them so until the lockout began. Their recordings helped her pull through terrifying health scares and the devastating earthquake of two years ago. Eriko couldn’t be in Minnesota in person, but her pillar of flowers stood like an angel sentry on the corner of the stage. At the time of the concert, she was across the world in Japan, meditating.
The musicians received two or three standing ovations before a single note sounded. Skrowaczewski came onstage, eyes sparkling. The Minnesota Orchestral Association will never invite him to conduct again, thanks to his unabashedly heretical pro-musician views, but it is clear he is enjoying playing the role of the rogue. Then out came Burt Hara, our magician of a clarinetist. He has worked at other orchestras over the years, but, thankfully, has always returned to Minnesota. He is the living personification of why we patrons are working so hard to pressure the board to back down from its proposals: Hara could easily get a job anywhere in the world, and whoever would win his seat here would simply never be able to fill his shoes. End of story. Michael Henson has gone on record saying every musician in the orchestra is easily replaceable. Michael Henson has no expletive-ing clue what he’s talking about.
Every phrase of orchestra and clarinetist was a new delight, blossoming like the flowers in Eriko’s arrangement. The variety of tones that Mr. Hara has at his command is nothing short of miraculous. Anyone who can’t tell the difference between a player the caliber of Burt Hara and his theoretical replacement not only has no business running an orchestra, but is ultimately destined for sad and pathetic failure in the field of orchestral management. In case this remark was too subtle for anyone, it’s directed squarely at Jon Campbell, the Wells Fargo vice president who is chair of the Minnesota Orchestra board of directors. Despite being one of the most powerful people on the Minnesota Orchestra board, Jon Campbell never actually goes to Minnesota Orchestra concerts. If you can’t appreciate Burt Hara – and there’s no way you can, if you never go to concerts – then have the simple human decency to step aside and hand your job over to someone who does.
I was still basking in the glow of the Mozart when, after intermission, as the lights were dimming, Mr. Hara came out into the hall. The audience began to applaud him. He grinned and shushed us. “Shh!! Not for me; for them!” he said, motioning toward the stage, and at that, my heart overflowed with admiration. He sat down in the empty seat next to me and smiled. Joyful, invincible energy radiated from his very pores.
After intermission, as has become tradition, violist Sam Bergman stepped up to the edge of the stage. By now the whole locked out audience knows what that means: a barnburner of a speech is at hand. And although all of Sam’s speeches have been extraordinary, this one was especially so…and the audience’s impassioned reactions said as much as Mr. Bergman.
He said, “It has now been almost seven months since the corporate managers of the Minnesota Orchestral Association decided that the best way to move this orchestra forward into a successful future was to lock out its musicians, set a non-negotiable annual budget that would be dwarfed by all of our peers, and demand an array of cuts the likes of which have never before been seen at any major American orchestra. Under their plan, the base salary of a Minnesota Orchestra musician would plummet, overnight, to a figure that, adjusted for inflation, equates to what our predecessors were making in 1983.”
The audience gasped.
“Under their plan, untold numbers of public orchestral concerts would be scrapped and replaced with musicians being farmed out to play private corporate rental events at Orchestra Hall.”
Cries: actual moans of shock and pain. It was as if someone had stabbed all two thousand audience members at once.
“Under their plan, the final authority on the hiring of new musicians for our orchestra would be stripped away from our Music Director, and given instead to the corporate management team.”
Another indignant communal cry. People actually began to weep in horror. I closed my eyes, tight. I knew this was the board’s plan, and I’ve known it for a long time, but to hear so many music lovers react to it so viscerally was nightmarish.
Although the news was grim, Sam’s speech ended on a note of desperate optimism. “Together,” he promised, “we will make our collective voice heard; together, we will reset the priorities of this sadly drifting organization; together, we will ensure that our audience will never again be marginalized and ignored; together, we will do away with the cynicism and ideology that has led us to this precipice; and together, we will move this orchestra forward into a truly artistically sustainable future.”
In this context, Bruckner suddenly meant something. (In this context, anything means something.) As fate would have it, almost a year ago to the day, I’d written a rather…controversial blog entry called “I Hate Bruckner, Part I.” Clearly Fate has a sense of irony that puts Stephen Colbert to shame. You say you hate Bruckner?, Fate says. Well, then, how about for your first live Bruckner experience, I snag you a legendary Bruckner conductor, sprinkle dozens of friends onstage and in the audience, and top it all off with the orchestra The New Yorker has labeled the greatest in the world. That’ll be a good introduction to Bruckner. Oh, and also, by the way, said orchestra is facing imminent dismemberment, if not outright dissolution. So enjoy!
It was a lot to swallow. But lucky for me, I wasn’t setting out on my first live Bruckner journey alone. I just happened to have beside me one of the world’s great orchestral musicians, who knew the piece inside and out, and who would teach me how to approach it. He swayed gently to the sounds, nodded before each woodwind entry, breathed in and out with every phrase. Through his body language, he showed me what to listen for. Big swaths of sound that had once been a meaningless brick wall took on a shape and direction: a narrative. He wasn’t doing this to teach me. He was moving with the music because he could no more stop the flow of music through him than I could stop breathing. I was just lucky enough to sit beside him to witness it.
At the first solemn horn call of Bruckner 4, my horizons began to broaden, and the appeal of the music slowly dawned. Time and space simply – disappeared. At every repetition of every phrase, the musicians clawed at every note as if their very careers depended on it…and maybe they did. The seats rumbled with each massive fanfare.
The graceful old man gestured on the podium, drawing out the magnificent sound from his mind’s ear.
The massive tower of flowers stood guard.
As time drifted on I was unsure if we had been in the hall an hour…or twenty-four hours…or twenty-four years. We fell into a collective trance. How long had the lockout gone on? Was there even a lockout? Surely not… All two thousand of us were swept away in the music and looking out over a cliff together – out at an ocean, perhaps. Or maybe we were on the top of a mountain, landscape spread far to the horizon. But as Sam had said, we were together…and surely, to be all together in our dark night in that dark hall…surely that means something? For as long as this lasts, we won’t be alone. Giant chords shifted beneath our feet and resolved in strange and glorious ways. A strange irrational peace descended upon me, the kind that comes when I recite well-worn phrases from my wrinkled Book of Common Prayer. Stan raised his arms, a prophet in the bright stage lights. Suddenly the past and future meant nothing; there was only the power of the present. This is transcendence.
The integrity of Stan – the generosity of Eriko – the eloquence of Sam – the passion of Burt – the courage of the Minnesota Orchestra musicians to sacrifice their very livelihoods in an attempt to preserve their beloved institution from decimation – the buzzing energy of the agitated Minneapolis music scene – and most of all, the untrammeled power of live orchestral music. You would be unwise to bet against.any of these things, let alone all of them at once. They may be under fierce assault, but I swear to God that Minnesota will not rest until all those things are celebrated as they deserve to be. Silence may win in the short term. But in the end, you will not deny the power of this music, nor the power and professionalism of these musicians. Our story is not over yet. This city will keep fighting until the very bitter end to find our musical happily ever after…no matter how many barriers the management of the Minnesota Orchestra sees fit to put in our way in the meantime.
There was a long silence after the earth-shattering final chords were struck. We all could read one another’s mind: this moment is too sacred to end. Then, gingerly, we began to applaud, gradually getting louder and louder, until the hall was a roiling sea of applause. The orchestra received such a long ovation that, in order to make it stop, the musicians had to leave the stage.