Tag Archives: Osmo Vanska

We Finnished It

The last time I was in Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis was in March 2012 to see the premiere of Judd Greenstein’s Acadia. This is a work for full and fabulous symphony orchestra, and it explores a narrative of change, loss, and redemption.

I left the hall that night happy – and completely oblivious to the fact that I’d be living those themes for the next two years.

Eight weeks after that concert, the Minnesota Orchestral Association (MOA) quietly fired the first shot in its aggressive PR battle, months before the work stoppage they were planning for even began. This shot at audiences and donors was completely unprovoked and completely indefensible. Presumably assuming that the wider world would never discover their dirty underhanded trick, somebody at the MOA authorized the purchase of a variety of domain names based on variations of the phrase saveourminnesotaorchestra.com. Why? During the Detroit Symphony strike, audience advocates there had created headaches for the board and management by creating an organization named Save Our Symphony to protest the direction the DSO was going. And consequently, the power players at the MOA wanted to make it harder for any Minnesota-based upstarts to start a similar group. This paranoid purchase proves that they were afraid that Minnesota audiences might try to derail the plans they had to choke the organization and remake it in their own image.

I can confirm that their fears were well-founded.


But there was no time to reflect on any of that as I stepped for the very first time into the Rorschach test of a new lobby. (Do you see a brand new $50 million boondoggle symptomatic of a dysfunctional organizational culture that values bricks and mortar over world-class orchestral music-making, or a badly needed remodel that will strengthen the Orchestral Association in a myriad of ways and foster community engagement and goodwill? Your answer will remain confidential between you and your therapist!) I immediately was in the arms of a musician friend, tearing up on a tux shoulder. Screw reflection; we’ve been to hell and back and we survived, so let’s celebrate. His words came out in a rushed tumble. We’re playing well, he said. Each week we’re sounding better. We need him back.

Of course, “him” is Osmo Vänskä: the beloved Finnish music director who brought the already great Minnesota Orchestra to even greater heights during his ten year tenure. He’d resigned during the sixteen-month-long lockout, and it is obvious he won’t bother to return unless and until the MOA board of directors demonstrates a renewed commitment to world-class orchestral music-making…a goal they, to be blunt, didn’t show any commitment to in 2012 or 2013. (Thankfully, 2014 is going a little better. So far.) What exactly that commitment might consist of, and what their terms might be, I don’t know, and of course it’s none of my business to know. But now that the lockout is over, there are at least some board members who want Osmo back. They’ve taken the first step to getting him back by overseeing the…completely voluntary resignation of the orchestra’s controversial CEO, Michael Henson. Osmo and the Orchestral Association are now in negotiations to see if they share enough of the same goals to make his return worthwhile. If the stars align, part two of our beloved Osmo’s tenure could be on its way. Plus, so many audience members are relieved to see the architect of the lockout packing his bags. Hence the electric buzz in the lobby.

Speaking of the audience…

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Filed under Labor Disputes, Minnesota Orchestra, Reviews

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