Tag Archives: um

What Ever Happened to Michael Henson?

“What ever happened to Michael Henson?”

I’ve been asked this question countless times. I’ve been asked this question loudly, quietly, surreptitiously, obviously, outside of concert halls, inside of concert halls, in moving cars, in non-moving cars, and, most recently, in the lobby of the Madison Concourse Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin, during a personal vacation that was not Minnesota Orchestra related whatsoever.

I’ve always been vague because I didn’t know the answer ( “um, consulting work…I guess”). (And the Pulitzer for best investigative blogging goes to…) But as long as I’m happy with the direction in which the Minnesota Orchestra is going, and I am, I don’t really care what its former leader is up to. Yes, the question of his whereabouts is interesting to think about in the abstract, but any answer you might uncover has little practical use. If bread is square, why is sandwich meat round? That’s an interesting question, too. But it only does you so much good to think about it.

That said, some new intelligence recently landed in my lap in the form of Michael Henson’s LinkedIn profile.

Continue reading


Filed under Labor Disputes

Naked Nymphs and the Atlanta Symphony

A provocatively titled blog post made the rounds the other day: “Maybe Atlanta Symphony Should Lock Out Its Marketing Department Instead.” It included a link to the Atlanta Symphony brochure for the ill-fated 2014-2015 season. I clicked it, thinking to myself, well, it can’t be any weirder than the Dallas Symphony’s Beefcake Beethoven

And then mid-thought this loaded.

aso brochure 1


Holy –

Holy wow.

I might as well warn you: I’m gonna talk about naked people now. So if you’ve got a problem with reading about naked people, I’ll catch you later, once I start writing about 990s again.

Continue reading


Filed under Labor Disputes

Advertising Beethoven’s Crotch

Whenever I need a break from music, I log on to Tumblr, scroll down, and zone out.

Then the other day in the midst of mindless scrolling I saw this.



Of course I immediately wondered if this was the work of a trickster with too much time on his hands and a grudge to bear against the Dallas Symphony, so I opened a new tab and Googled “dallas symphony beethoven festival brochures.”

Continue reading


Filed under The Orchestra Business

A Michael Henson Retrospective

A few days ago, I took a trip through the 2010 Minnesota Orchestra e-tour site. That’s the place where I found the “winning” article from Gig Magazine, where the Minnesota Orchestra was described “as a beacon institution among the bad [economic] news.” Not long after I blogged about that article, it mysteriously vanished from the Orchestra’s website. Luckily, a reader had told me to take screenshots, and so I posted those. We’re going on seven weeks now, and management has yet to address the disappearance.

Anyway! During my recent return trip to the e-tour site, I found some more quotations that I feel compelled to share with you now. They’re from an interview that Minnesota Orchestra CEO Michael Henson gave to Classical Music Magazine in August 2010 called “Flying the flag.” I’m not even going to bother with the cache. Here’s a direct link. When that’s taken down, here are the screenshots. Click for bigger images.

Mr. Henson is speaking…

“We’re being fiscally prudent, looking at how we plan the short term at the same time as being mindful of the medium and long term.”

“The current Sommerfest series is being well attended and the orchestra came in on budget for the 2009/10 season.”

In the 2008-2009 fiscal year, the Minnesota Orchestral Association, or MOA, says their operating draw percentage was 10.7%; in 2009-2010, the orchestra says the operating draw percentage was 11.4%. (I say “says” because guest blogger and local nonprofit professional Mary Schaefle reports that the numbers released to the public don’t match the MOA’s tax returns, and so far, we have not received clarification from the MOA on this point.) As Jon Campbell, the chair of the MOA board of directors, and Richard Davis, the immediate past chair, put it, “In Minnesota, we were able to deliver balanced budgets through large, unsustainable endowment fund draws and ‘bridge-the-gap’ fundraising.” Which – and correct me if I’m wrong about this – is bad. But according to August 2010 Michael Henson, unsustainable endowment fund draws and “bridge-the-gap” fundraising are also….fiscally prudent, and being mindful of the short and medium and long term. Or something.

Although there has been a slight decline in recent audience numbers, it has not been enough for alarm bells to sound.

But… I thought national trends indicate a need for change…

So I guess there’s a need for change, but there hasn’t been enough change for alarm bells to sound? Or in other words, there’s no need for changes that require a significant departure from the traditions of the past?

Clarification would be very cool right about now.

“We’ve done a very good job in terms of maintaining audiences and indeed the audiences have really shown that even if we’re in a tough economy, people still want to come out and hear a great orchestra.”

In the fiscal year lasting from 2009-2010 (the year Mr. Henson had just finished as he gave this interview), overall attendance dropped by 7%, from 270,000 to 250,000. Is this “a very good job in terms of maintaining audiences”? I suppose if you get convoluted about it, and if most other American orchestras saw their attendances plummet by 10% or 15% that year (and I don’t know if they did), you could make that case. Otherwise…I dunno. Please forgive me if I’m not completely convinced. I’d love to hear more of the subtleties of the argument, and more figures to back the argument up. If Mr. Henson ever sits down with a reporter like Matt Peiken from MNuet, these remarks could form the basis of a fascinating and productive discussion. (Mr. Peiken has asked to interview Mr. Henson; Mr. Henson has not yet accepted the invitation. Maybe he will now.)

(And yes, I’m aware that a big chunk of that attendance drop can be ascribed to the fact there were 9% fewer concerts in the 2009-2010 season, as Mary has explained here. But Mr. Henson wasn’t talking about revenue here; he was just talking about audience maintenance.)

At the time Henson was appointed to the Minnesota Orchestra, he was quoted as saying he believed orchestras were in a golden period. That, he says, is still the case.

A visual representation of our era

Yes, apparently we are in a…golden period. Pretty fricking depressing Golden Period, if you ask me, but…OK.

 “At the moment we are getting some great artistic performances from major orchestras in America. The real challenge is looking at the long term future. It’s critical that the art remains central to our mission and critical that we continue to act in a fiscally prudent way. This orchestra’s been in existence for well over a hundred years and our job and duty is to make sure it’s thriving for the next hundred.”


I agree with Michael Henson about something?


This warrants a celebration.

OK, celebration over.

Now. Remember, at the exact same time that he was saying all of these things…”golden period”, “people still want to come out and hear a great orchestra”, “we’re being fiscally prudent, looking at how we plan the short term at the same time as being mindful of the medium and long term”…Mr. Henson was, behind closed doors, not only approving endowment draw rates of over ten percent, but Strategically Planning the Strategic Plan that would culminate in 20-40% pay cuts for musicians, prominently highlight how “stressed” orchestras are, and produce a drastically altered mission statement that can be interpreted as the MOA having no interest in supporting orchestral music at all. By management’s very own admission, the Strategic Planning began in the spring of 2010: months before these sentences were ever uttered to Classical Music Magazine (or, for that matter, Gig Magazine).

So, to sum, as he was giving these rosy interviews to the international press, behind closed doors, Mr. Henson was saying (formatting mine for emphasis):

  • “the status quo can no longer be preserved” (from the Open Letter)
  • “…this is a journey that began several years ago, when the Board of Directors of the Minnesota Orchestra recognized that the organization could no longer survive based on optimistic economic assumptions and the hope of limitless benefactor generosity” (from the Open Letter)
  • “…the reality is that over the past three years we met regularly with our musicians and others with a stake in our future to share the clarity of our financial challenges“… (from the Open Letter)
  • “Board and management have been communicating the financial position of the Orchestra with musicians for three years.” (from the Misrepresentation vs. Reality chart)
  • “As part of the strategic planning process, the board openly shared the Orchestra’s financial situation with musicians in a series of meetings spanning three years.” (from the Misrepresentation vs. Reality chart)
  • Would you like me to keep going? Because I could keep going. But alas, I have pity for this dead horse.


What are you feeling right about now? Personally, I’m suffering from a bad case of confusion, and the only thing that has a chance to cure it is a long, long hours-long sit-down chat with Mr. Henson himself.

Here are some more quotes that struck me as odd as I was paging through old newspaper articles. Lots of interesting ones…although, awkwardly, none of them are as damaging as what is actually still on the Minnesota Orchestra’s own website.

Terms of his [Henson’s] contract were not disclosed. According to public documents, [Tony] Woodcock, his [Henson’s] predecessor, earned an annual salary of about $300,000. – Pioneer Press, 22 September 2007 [According to public documents, Mr. Henson’s salary in the 2010-2011 fiscal year was $360,283; total compensation was $389,861. We are currently waiting on numbers from the 2011-2012 fiscal year. Since I don’t have a paid account with Goldstar, I have no access to the 990s that would go into the details of Mr. Woodcock’s compensation.]


Henson believes the hall’s finest characteristics must be preserved. He has visited the new Guthrie Theater, MacPhail Center and the Walker Art Center and came away concluding that while all three make distinct visual statements, it is what happens inside the building that matters most.

“There is no point in having a great building without having great art inside it,” he said. – Star Tribune, 24 February 2008


The Minnesota Orchestra has raised $24 million toward its $40 million Hall renovation. Michael Henson, president and CEO, told the Orchestra’s annual meeting Wednesday that $10 million was raised in September alone. In other financial highlights, the Orchestra balanced its budget for the third consecutive year even as total attendance declined, and ticket revenue rose 4.4 percent…

“We must balance artistic initiative with fiscal responsibility,” Henson told the noon luncheon in downtown Minneapolis. “We’re quite pleased with these results in a challenging year.” – Star Tribune, 9 December 2009. [In the 2008-2009 fiscal year, the year Mr. Henson is referring to here, the MOA states the endowment draw rate was at 10.7%, over double what they now say is “sustainable” and responsible.]


Michael Henson, Minnesota Orchestra CEO and president, hinted Monday that the organization’s renovation of Orchestra Hall might be expanded. Henson’s optimism came after Gov. Tim Pawlenty included $14 million for the project in the state bonding bill. Coupled with private and corporate fundraising of $24 million, the orchestra has now raised $38 million toward a plan that was announced last summer at $40 million.

“You recall that the project was downsized from $90 million,” Henson said, referring to a previous plan announced in 2007. “If we can generate more money through our fundraising, then it would make sense to grow the project, but it’s too early to say that, and we’ve made a priority to be fiscally responsible.”…

It is no secret that the orchestra has been pleased with its fundraising. Last June, when Toronto architects Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects (KPMB) were chosen to spearhead the renovation, pledges for $14 million had been secured. That grew to $24 million by last December’s annual meeting. An organization’s ability to raise private capital helps its chances in the legislature. Henson said he was pleased that “the governor has shown confidence in this project. It’s a very good day for the orchestra.”

KPBM was expected to deliver sketches last December, but that likely was delayed to see whether fundraising might be robust enough to expand the project.  – Star Tribune, 15 March 2010


A gift of $5 million from Target has pushed the Minnesota Orchestra past a $40 million fundraising goal for its Orchestra Hall building project. With the Target donation, the orchestra has raised $43 million to expand and refurbish the 1974 hall’s lobby and surrounding terraces.

Target’s is the campaign’s largest corporate gift. The state of Minnesota contributed $14 million through state bonding, and one individual gave $5 million, according to Michael Henson, the orchestra’s president and CEO.

At the same time, the organization announced that the building project is part of an even larger fundraising effort it calls the Building for the Future Campaign. That initiative has raised $82 million toward a $100 million goal and has been talked about only within the orchestra and the philanthropic community. The campaign includes $40 million for the building project, $30 million for the orchestra’s endowment and $30 million to support artistic and education programs.

However, Henson said, within that framework it’s possible that more money could be dedicated to the renovation.

The $40 million was a “focused budget,” he said. “By passing that amount, we’re not going to increase the scope of the project, but we will increase the quality of finishes and other aspects that give us additional value.” – Star Tribune, 15 June 2010


So, um.


But those weren’t the only articles I read. Over the course of a lazy afternoon, I carefully studied a couple dozen in which Mr. Henson discusses his work in Minnesota. In none of them was there any hint of an impending apocalypse, or even a “market reset.” True, there were articles about cutbacks in staff after the Great Recession began, and occasional mentions of a “difficult economic climate“, but just about everybody suffered staff cutbacks after the Great Recession began, and of course we all knew we were in a “difficult economic climate.”

Here. Don’t take my word for it; check out Highbeam or EBSCO yourself. The search term you want to use is “Michael Henson” orchestra. Leave any interesting links I may have overlooked in the comment section, especially if they prove me wrong. Because I’d love to be proven wrong. Go ahead. Make a fool of me.

I eagerly await Mr. Henson’s (and Mr. Campbell’s, and Mr. Davis’s) clarifications.

…………………..Because they’d better clarify.

Here’s a final observation from Mr. Henson from August 2010:

“These are much bigger organizations than British orchestras. That requires the right sort of skills and anybody contemplating coming here has got to have the right skill set. But there are some fantastic opportunities in America.”


So. What have we learned?

Assuming the MOA wants to support an orchestra (and at this point, I’m not convinced they do; they can get back to me on that one when they change their mission statement back to include the word “orchestra”), we’re going to keep circling round and round until we agree on the answer to one simple question:

Can you sustain – nay, heighten – the artistry of an orchestra while also cutting its budget by twenty percent over the course of one season? Can you pay twenty percent less for a product and still get a better product? (Especially when you can’t outsource the assembly of said product to China?) Do you believe that an orchestra that pays roughly half as much as the best orchestras in this country – that consists of demoralized dejected players seeking work elsewhere – that has no seniority pay – that has a management team reviled by musicians and music-lovers across the world (and I’m not exaggerating when I say that)…do you believe that such an orchestra will ever become a professional destination for world-class players? (Especially if – sigh; when – Osmo leaves in 2015?) I say no. (Robert Levine, a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras, also says no.) (Arts consultant Drew McManus has also expressed doubts.) I maintain that no matter what Mr. Henson says, easily walkable geography does not a desirable location make.

If you don’t have the money to sustain an orchestra’s quality, should you level with your public and say they can’t support the quality of ensemble they’ve grown accustomed to unless they pony up tons more cash and quickly, or should you promise your patrons the moon in the cynical hope they won’t notice when your orchestra starts to decline? As a patron, what kind of management do you want to have in charge? People who are level with you about the challenges ahead, or people who consistently sidestep the truth over a period of years?

Hopefully we all agree: eventually we’ll reach a tipping point. Obviously we can’t buy a world-class orchestra for, say, $0 a year. So somewhere along that sliding scale between $32 million and $26 million and $0, we’ll lose our “world-class” quality. So where is the Minnesota Orchestra’s tipping point? Is it at $30 million? $28 million? $25 million? $10 million? If we’re going to cut twenty percent, then what keeps us from cutting, say, thirty percent? Forty percent? Fifty percent? After all, that would give us more money to invest in the endowment. It would protect us against another major recession and give us more money to use on educational programs. How about we cut ninety percent? Ninety-five? Ninety-nine? How about the musicians pay us to have the chance to play in a world-class orchestra? All right; now I’m being hyperbolic. But hopefully you understand the broader point I’m trying to drive home here. Where is that tipping point? How close to the bone can we shave without seeing a marked decrease in quality (and an accompanying decrease in financial support)? Do we know? If so, how do we know? And why was the community never given a chance to discuss this? Because we’re not dumb. We could have helped you solve the problem, you know. It’s our orchestra, and we deserve to have a say in its future.

The only way I can reconcile Mr. Henson’s words (without labeling him a self-serving cynic who specializes in painfully inept incompetence) is to assume he honestly believes that a world-class orchestra – (in a golden age of orchestras) – will thrive artistically – (and therefore, financially) – after he brutally gouges the salary and working conditions of his musicians, and misleads and then infuriates his devoted public. Personally, I find that idea to be roughly as realistic as the idea of an obese man flying around the world to deliver toys to every good boy and girl on the face of the earth, and so do many experts in the field. The idea may be comforting at first glance, but in practice, it’s unworkable. But for whatever reason, a lot of people on the board appear to agree with Mr. Henson.

So what do you think? What I think isn’t important. It’s what you, the patrons, think that really matters. (Or, at the least, what should really matter.)

As always, the comment section is open.


Filed under My Writing


I’m just going to leave this here. It speaks for itself. From the Star Tribune

Thursday’s cancellations will have consequences beyond the orchestra.

The Minneapolis Convention Center had projected income of $274,000 from the fall and holiday orchestra seasons, said spokeswoman Kirsten Montag. And the Minnesota Chorale, which had been scheduled for dates with the orchestra in October, November and December, will lose nearly all of its earned income for the fiscal year, said executive director Bob Peskin.

“We’ll have to make up the lost income with further expense cuts and increased donations,” Peskin said.

Orchestra president and CEO Michael Henson said the December dates — which include classical, jazz and presentations in addition to the holiday fare — were projected to make up 19.3 percent of annual ticket revenue. However, the net impact is a wash because the orchestra won’t have to pay rent at the Convention Center or musician salaries and benefits.


Filed under Not My Writing

Minnesota Orchestra Lockout Concert Announcement

The Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra are now selling tickets for their lockout concert at the Minneapolis Convention Center on October 18 at 7:30pm. The program will consist of the Dvorak cello concerto with Tony Ross soloing (……his last time doing so with the orchestra? wouldn’t surprise me) and Shostakovich’s fifth symphony.

You can buy tickets here. They range in price from $15 to $40.

This promises to be one of the most unique shows in the orchestra’s 110-year history. So you should really come. Because we don’t know when we’ll hear the Minnesota Orchestra again. Or how much of the Minnesota Orchestra will still be the Minnesota Orchestra by the time this is all over.

A visual representation of how I’m feeling right now

Anyway. Yesterday I made reservations at a hotel near the convention center. Would any SOTL readers want to think about getting together briefly before the show? I don’t know where yet, or even if it would be feasible, but it would be interesting to get a head count of who would be interested in such a thing. If you want, I can email you at the address you use to comment here and we can try to arrange something. Otherwise we’ll try to say hi at intermission.

Love to my readers.



Filed under Uncategorized

Amusing search queries that people have used to find this blog

I’ll have some stuff to say later tonight or tomorrow morning, but I just wanted to let y’all know that business is booming here at SOTL with tons of Minnesota Orchestra patrons wanting to know what exactly the f*** happened today.

To provide a little lighthearted reading in the midst of the apocalypse, here’s a list of amusing terms that readers have used to find this site. I’ll feature the best ones every day, so if you want to send a coded anonymous message to management, feel free! Just use a search term that will get you to this site, click on a link, and voila (or should I say, viola?). If it’s amusing enough it will be posted here. Have fun!

  • mn orchestra fiasco
  • minnesota orchestra michael henson compensation
  • if i wanted to manage orchestra hall
  • how much does minnesota orchestra management make
  • fire michael henson
  • minnesota orchestra tax dollars
  • michael henson mn orchestra compensation
  • mn orchestra draconian
  • michael henson financial contributions
  • is minnesota orchestra management lying
  • mn orchestra fiasco 2012
  • where does the mone come from for the minnesota orchestra
  • tracking number for wells fargo on receipt
  • how long has richard davis been on the minnesota orchestra board of directos
  • why u no answer
  • are orchestra sales down because of iphone app
  • michael henson ceo pay watch
  • violin crying
  • minnesota orchestra old contract pdf
  • pastlife intertwined heart ring story of us
  • social media and orchestra event pr failures
  • “michael henson” orchestra contributions republican
  • the best of michael henson
  • henson bournemouth orchestra bad
  • dobby
  • dobby character analysis


Filed under Lists, Not My Writing

Is Minnesota Orchestra management lying to us?: Part II: Michael Henson Edition

When I read the latest Star Tribune article on the Minnesota Orchestra crisis, one quote in particular struck me as being so patently absurd, and so directly opposed to everything that had come before it, I felt like I’d wandered into a new upside-down dimension. Either Michael Henson is going off the rails, or I’m becoming dangerously entrenched and reading much too deeply into a couple of sentences, and I’m not sure which it is. If you could convince me I’m crazy, I’d appreciate it. Thanks.

Here’s the portion of the article that made me feel as though a Rod Serling sighting was imminent:

Michael Henson, president and CEO of the orchestra, said on Friday that no immediate financial crisis exists, but he likened the investment funds that help fund each season to a retirement account.

“You can’t spend 90 percent of it in the first four years of retirement,” Henson said. “You need to make it last.”

He indicated the orchestra would like to draw no more than 5 percent annually from the funds; the draw rate has averaged nearly 10 percent over the past 10 years, he said.

Before I begin, I’m going to assume that Henson was quoted accurately, and that his words weren’t manipulated or misrepresented in any way. We should hear within the next couple of days if he objects as to how his comments were portrayed.

With that assumption out of the way, let’s try to unpack this “no immediate crisis” remark.

First, I’d like to say a few words on the nature of crisis.

If you are on track to spend ninety percent of your income in your first four years of retirement, then you are in IMMEDIATE CRISIS.

If you’ve staked the long-term fiscal health of your organization on overly “optimistic economic assumptions and the hope of limitless benefactor generosity,” then you are in IMMEDIATE CRISIS.

If you say on your website that “if the Orchestra continues to operate at its current rate of spending, our endowment will be depleted by 2018“, you are not only in IMMEDIATE CRISIS, you’ve been in IMMEDIATE CRISIS for years.

If your only hope of creating a “fiscally responsible” organization means cutting musicians’ pay somewhere between 25-50%, then you are in IMMEDIATE CRISIS.

If you knew you wouldn’t be able to work for the next few years, and knew your only income would be your life savings, and you knew you’d run out of that savings by 2018, then you would be in IMMEDIATE CRISIS.

If you knew that all American resources would, at the current rate of spending, be depleted by 2018, then newsflash: we would all be in one hell of an IMMEDIATE CRISIS.

Call this what it is:


Financial crises don’t start when your checks start bouncing. Crises start when you make the calculations and realize that all resources will be depleted by a particular point in time (say, 2018) if you don’t make major unprecedented changes (“significant departure[s] from the traditions of the past,” according to management) that run the risk of changing the face of your organization. The risk of such a thing happening is, in and of itself, a crisis. A huge one. Period.

I’m racking my brains and I can only come up with three explanations for this bizarre statement. Leave a note in the comments if you can think of another.

1) The orchestra is truly IN IMMEDIATE CRISIS!!!ZOMG111!!!1!ELEVENTY!!!1!…but Michael Henson either A) lied or B) accidentally said it isn’t. That means that Michael Henson is either A) a liar or B) incompetent.

2) The orchestra is not in immediate crisis, and management is misrepresenting what’s actually in the endowment in order to get a sharply concessionary contract.

3) Henson didn’t actually use those exact words, and didn’t mean to insinuate that the Orchestra isn’t in crisis right now, but he made a statement that led Graydon Royce to feel comfortable risking his and his paper’s reputation by interpreting it in that way. I have no reason not to trust Mr. Royce. (And like I said, we’ll see in the next few days if any statements emerge from Henson disputing how his remarks were interpreted…) If this is true, then that means Michael Henson is communicating poorly at a moment in time when he needs to communicating with crystal clarity. It also suggests that he hasn’t thought enough about how to explain the Orchestra’s problems coherently and persuasively. If you need unprecedented concessions from your musicians because if you don’t get them, the organization as you know it will no longer be able to “survive”…then for God’s sake, run with that. Yes, Campbell and Davis made some pretty damaging PR mistakes within the last few weeks, and that sucks. But Campbell and Davis have s*** to do. Those guys were probably sneaking a five-minute phone call into the Star Tribune in between eating caviar, approving billion dollar mergers, and telephoning Tim Pawlenty to ask if he’d be interested in being CEO of the Financial Services Roundtable (where Davis is a director, FYI). But this is Henson’s full-time jobFor which he is being paid $400,000+ this year alone. He should be fully capable of handling a simple newspaper interview without mucking up his message.

Some additional questions…

If there isn’t an immediate crisis, why tamper with working conditions? How much would the changes in working conditions save the orchestra? Have they run the calculations on that? Why haven’t they made those calculations publicly available with their proposed contract? They’ve got an awesome shiny website with which to disseminate such information…

Also: why not agree to an independent financial analysis?

I’d like to take a moment to discuss the current musicians’ contract, which management is saying doomed all prospects of fiscal sustainability. This shamefully irresponsible contract was signed in October 2007, according to this Playbill article. Michael Henson came aboard in September 2007, so I’m not sure if he had any say in negotiating or ratifying that.

But even if he didn’t, dude was super-proud of how things were going financially at the Minnesota Orchestra as late as July 2010…almost three years into that irresponsible five-year contractIn retrospect, this is a hilarious article to read. [Edit 10/15: This article has since been removed from the Minnesota Orchestra website. Feel free to draw your own conclusions as to what that means. There has been no explanation so far. You can take a peek at the screenshots I took here.] For a bit of perspective, let’s remember that the much ballyhooed Strategic Plan was published in November 2011. In the introduction we read that “the ideas in this plan have been developed, tested, and honed over the last 18 months.” So that means management started working on the ideas contained within the Strategic Plan in the spring of 2010. Insinuation: they were seeing “significant financial issues and unsustainable fiscal practices the organization must resolve to ensure a sound future” before the spring of 2010. (This meshes with the claims of the Open Letter, which claims, “This is a journey that began several years ago, when the Board of Directors of the Minnesota Orchestra recognized that the organization could no longer survive [my bold] based on optimistic economic assumptions and the hope of limitless benefactor generosity.”) So, having established that, I’d like to let Michael Henson from July of 2010 say a few things. Remember that during this time, he had not only been seeing “significant financial issues and unsustainable fiscal practices” within his orchestra for at least the last few months, if not the last couple of yearshe was also, behind closed doors, writing a plan to address those financial issues and unsustainable fiscal practices.

Take it away, Michael Henson of July 2010!

The former Bournemouth Symphony head is strategising his way through the recession – and winning. [my bold]

“There’s no single strategy to beating the downturn,” Michael Henson asserts. “There has to be a whole series of strategies to maintain a focused approach. The priority is continuing the excellence in the artistic work.” With orchestras across the US hard hit by the recession – and management strategies the number-one talking point at the League of American Orchestras’ conference in June – the Minnesota Orchestra stands out as a beacon institution among the bad news. It’s planning a European tour in August (its second in two years), expanding its online content and starting a large-scale renovation project at its home venue – having recently announced the end of a highly successful fundraising scheme. “I would say the support we get from the community is unique,” Henson boasts.

“Minnesotans are highly educated and committed to education,” he goes on, “and with a community this size – around 5m people in the region – we have a wide range of arts organisations, and a collective desire from individuals and corporations to support them.” In 2008-09, contributions accounted for 44 per cent of the orchestra’s $32.5m income. “On top of that, we’ve made some concessions at various points, there’ve been some layoffs and pay cuts in administration,” Henson notes; in August 2009, he took a seven per cent pay cut himself [heh], while Osmo Vänskä, music director since 2003, took 10 per cent [the organization’s fiscal leader took a smaller pay-cut percentage-wise than the music director? classy]. At the same time, Henson negotiated modifications to the musicians’ contract, resulting in around $4.2m in cost savings up to 2012 – mostly through salary and pension reductions, and a wage freeze in FY2010. The orchestra currently numbers 95 contracted players, with six positions open; delaying filling those positions could save up to $1.8m in the long term. [Why are these concessions not mentioned on management’s website? Have they slipped Henson’s mind? Pity, because he seemed awfully proud of them in 2010…]

The orchestra announced in June 2009 that it had raised $14m of its $40m goal for the renovations. One year later, thanks to a last-minute $5m donation from the Target department store chain, it announced it was up to $43m. “The extra will mean we have enough to do it right – to improve chair Y as well as chair X,” says Henson. It also bodes well for the orchestra’s more long-term fundraising programme, “Building for the Future”, which aims to supplement its endowment by $30m, and provide a further $30m for artistic and educational endeavours. Including the renovation funding, the campaign has raised $82m of its $100m target. “Even though we’re in a recession, we have to keep up the commitment to the long-term vision,” Henson continues. “The board agreed to take the risk on this.”

This year, Minnesota will be the only US orchestra represented at the Proms, a fact with added significance for Henson. “We have already made six live broadcasts this season on the BBC,” he notes (another echo of his Bournemouth days). “Our appearances at the Proms, the world’s greatest music festival, have grown from our close relationship with the BBC and will contribute to the process of increasing our visibility.” Its 2010 tour will also take it to the Edinburgh Festival and the Concertgebouw Amsterdam. “We have to keep up our international presence,” Henson says, indicating again his multi-stranded approach to building up the orchestra’s standing. “It’s all about keeping the key priorities in mind.”

This does not sound like a man (or a board) who has been seeing “significant financial issues and unsustainable fiscal practices” for months or years. Nor does it sound like a man (or a board) who is thinking very deeply about those significant financial issues and unsustainable fiscal practices and writing a Strategic Guide of how to address them. And this surely does not sound like a man (or a board) who is anticipating the necessity of a sharply concessionary contract – a “significant departure[s] from the traditions of the past” – a mere two years later, in September 2012. So of course one has to wonder: was Michael Henson being disingenuous to this reporter, or is he being disingenuous to us now?

In case you were thinking this was just a bad interview…may I present to you the Michael Henson of December 2009

Henson says the last fiscal year was also one of artistic success for the orchestra both at home and abroad.

“We are quietly pleased with the results,” he said. “We are in control of a difficult situation and I think we are looking forward to the future with a similar amount of control, mindful of the economy we face.”

He says the coming year will continue to present economic challenges but he is confident the orchestra is keeping a careful handle on the situation.

That’s nice. But if you were drawing out of the endowment at an average of 10% during this time, then you were (by the parameters you set forth in the Star Tribune yesterday!not in control of a difficult situation. You were not keeping a careful handle on it, and you had no right to be pleased – quietly or otherwise – with how things were going. Yes, I know that when non-profits are struggling, there is a reluctance to admit how bad things are for fear of scaring away donors and fostering death-spirals. But if things are bad, and you sugarcoat them, when the chickens come home to roost, you can’t treat the public like clueless idiots for asking why your tune has changed. You can’t be in a house, smelling smoke, feeling heat, and hearing smoke alarms, while simultaneously telling people you’re totally in control of any fire that may be forming on the property…and then, when the flames start coming out the windows, scold the public – who wasn’t even in your damn house – by saying, “Guys, I’ve been talking about this raging inferno for years. Help me put it out!”

Of course that leads me to wonder: maybe the fire wasn’t actually burning yet?

Here’s another article from December 2008:

As was the case last year, the orchestra drew only 6 percent from its endowment to help address the budget. The $191 million endowment was down 11 percent because of stock-market performance. The board is allowed to draw up to 7 percent, but spokeswoman Gwen Pappas said the organization has been very firm about avoiding that method.

Okay, so… Based on that 2008 article, let’s try to figure out what’s been happening with the endowment draw rate. I’m using an average of 7% for pre-2007 years, even though Ms. Pappas said the organization had been avoiding that percentage, and it may well have been lower…

2002 – 7% or less

2003 – 7% or less

2004 – 7% or less

2005 – 7% or less

2006 – 7% or less

2007 – 6%

2008 – 6%

I obviously don’t have all the numbers, but based on the ones I do, I don’t think it’s particularly outrageous to assume that, if Henson’s “ten percent over the past ten years” statement is actually true, then in 2009, 2010, and 2011, the board must have increased the draw rate to an annual average percentage of 17%+. This seems frankly unbelievable, especially since Richard Davis went on record in December 2010 as saying, “This was a season characterized by disciplined budget management and significant expense cuts, which kept our operations stable in an unpredictable environment.” I don’t know if anyone would call a 17% annual draw “disciplined budget management” (especially not the Richard Davis of 2012), but…okay. I’d be curious to know what all happened in 2009 that necessitated such a dramatic climb in the draw rate. Yes, the crashing economy no doubt had a lot to do with it…but does that explain all of it? (Or, is Michael Henson lying about the draw rate?)

Also, since the post-2009 draw rates were clearly such dramatic outliers, regardless of exact percentages, why didn’t Henson say something like “over the last three years, our draw has increased to an average of 17%+, but before the recession began, it was no higher than 7%”? Were ulterior motives at play? Did he want to make it look like the huge draws were an indication of systemic failure, rather than merely a result of the recession? (This meshes with management’s insinuation that problems have been in place “for many years.”) Did he want to keep the public from placing the blame on him? Did he just pull that number out of nowhere, forgetting that a quick Google search is all it takes to check his statements against Star Tribune articles?

[Important Edit 10/29: More information on draw rates here.]

And why isn’t Henson willing to clearly discuss everything that happened in his tenure, positive or negative? It smacks of a rather desperate insecurity. He was proud to say in December 2009 that he was in control of a difficult situation, and that he was pleased with how things were going. In July 2010 the Minnesota Orchestra felt comfortable posting an article on their website saying, “The former Bournemouth Symphony head is strategising his way through the recession – and winning.” Implication: management thought they were strategising their way through the recession, and winningBut now we’re being told that, “Whoops; our bad; we didn’t actually mean ‘winning’; we meant ‘veering ever-closer toward an inevitable fiscal Armageddon.'” Then why didn’t you tell us then???

Binds like this don’t happen overnight. If the Orchestra’s only options truly are to deplete their endowment by 2018 or impose 25-50% wage cuts, there is an immediate crisis, no matter what Mr. Henson says. Obviously someone, somewhere, screwed up. Badly. And even if part of the blame rests on the musicians’ 2007-12 contract, not all of it lies there. If the problems really were this serious back in July of 2010, and December of 2009, and December of 2008, then Michael Henson knew about them. And he had a duty to say something. Or at least email whoever was in charge of the website and say, “Guys, you might want to take down that ‘Michael Henson is winning’ article…it will come back to bite us in the a** in 2012 when we’re forced to reveal how hopelessly f***ed we are…”

Michael Henson is either misrepresenting the facts now, or he was misrepresenting the facts then. Period.

(Also, I have a funny little factoid for y’all: when you Google “Michael Henson Minnesota Orchestra”, my Hundred Questions are on the first page. So every time Michael Henson does a Google search on himself and his employer, he’s going to be reminded of me. Aww.)

Like I said, convince me I’m crazy. Please. Because this just seems too wild to be true. As always, the comments section is open to everybody.

Update, 9/26.According to the musicians’ blog, at their most recent negotiating meeting, the musicians asked management questions about “inconsistencies found within the Board and Management’s financial information.” I’m assuming at least some of those questions were similar in nature to the ones asked above…? “The meeting proceeded with an assurance from the Board and Management that the Musicians would receive answers to these questions later…” Interesting. Feel free to speculate as to what that means… If I hear or read anything from management addressing what I wrote above, I’ll add it to this entry. If you hear anything, post it below.


Filed under My Writing

Mulling Over Mahler

Most of my practice time lately has been spent prepping the forty-odd-page viola part to Mahler 6. I’ve listened to the piece once a day since I learned I’d be playing it, and I’m now wrestling with a very basic question: do I, or do I not, like this music? I listen again and again, trying to discern some kind of narrative in this ninety-minute mass.

Okay, kids. Gather round.

The first movement begins with a march. It seems to presage the Great War with its grandiose character of pomp, brass, and militaristic pageantry. The grandiosity, however, intimidates more than it inspires. The melodies seep a kind of brave, romantic defiance. They are beautiful at first listen, unnerving at second, and terrifying by twentieth. A strange, listless chorale comes and goes. After five long minutes, just when the thirst for musical violence finally seems to have been quenched, the brutal opening is…repeated. And not just partially so: it is completely, totally, turn-the-score-back-to-the-beginning repeated, with all the strength and savagery of the first go-through. Eventually, a full ten minutes after starting off, we finally move on, but even then the same vicious mood persists for quite a while. After a long protest the music slides into a kind of dreamy moonscape, lit by high tremolo, soft woodwinds, magical celesta. But the dream’s seductive beauty never feels quite right; the memory of that march is always lurking. When the dreamer is awoken, abruptly and without mercy, the militaristic sounds returns, apparently inescapable, inevitable. Things come to a terrifying head at 16:50, when one of the majestic primary themes is twisted in the grandest, most terrifying manner imaginable. As the movement comes to a close, the moods wildly seesaw between heavenly and hellish, wrapping up with a manic, wild-eyed sprint to the finish.

At this point, twenty-five minutes into the symphony, an emotional respite would be more than welcome. (Hint, hint, Mr. Mahler.) Chances are, however, you’re not getting one; many conductors opt to move on to the weighty mid-tempo scherzo instead. (I questioned this decision when I first listened to this piece. Surely the slow movement should be put here, I thought, so I can take a breather from that massive introduction! But then when I found out – spoiler alert! – that the last movement was even bigger than the first, I quickly changed my mind.) At first glance the score looks relatively simple…until you realize that every line contains a new rhythmic pitfall with the capability to derail your whole performance. The emphasis hops from first beats to third beats; fourth beats are sprinkled throughout; the tempo yanks back and forth. The only way I’ve found to keep it all half-straight is by screaming “ONE!!! two three ONE!!! two three” in my head in an attempt to ignore that frequently off-balance third (or fourth) beat. Mahler’s wife Alma famously compared the rhythm of this movement to children playing. As you listen, the metaphor seems apt, even charming…until the orchestra’s bows begin playing a spooky col legno passage, conjuring up the image of little clattering skeletons.

Well, you might say. Bleak ambiguity only goes so far. Things have to start feeling a little more optimistic in the third movement (at 39:30). Right? Wrong. Here we get a theme that is neither major nor minor, neither happy nor sad, neither hopeful nor hopeless, neither yearning nor satisfied…neither black nor white. The only indisputable thing about it is that it is achingly, impossibly beautiful.

So. Apparently Mahler was waiting until the last movement – roughly an hour into the symphony – to express the inevitable heroism, certitude, catharsis, that we’ve come to expect from our monumental symphonic music post-Beethoven.


It certainly seems that way when, at the beginning of the final movement, an emphatic line rises from a misty tremolo (55:00). The stage seems set for a grand resolution indeed. However, before long we realize there will be no straightforward Beethovenian triumph. Instead we find ourselves skidding down the rails on a fast, frantic, frenetic ride, clearly uncontrollable (59:00). This is music determined to charge the gates of hell…regardless of the futility of the task.

Then the terrifying militaristic percussion from the first movement comes back…as well as the creepy celesta-laced dreamscapes. There are some uncomfortable moments of deja vu. We’ve tread a lot of water in the past ninety minutes, but you have to wonder: have we really gotten anywhere?

Then, if you were delusional enough to think you had any idea where this was all going, a percussionist raises a person-sized hammer above their head, and you realize, well, clearly all bets are off. At this point absolutely anything could happen and it wouldn’t be surprising.

In case you haven’t heard how Mahler 6 wraps up, I’ll save you the surprise and stop there. Next time you have ninety minutes to spare, look it up. Just make sure you’re not suicidal at the time.

I’ve read so many conflicting opinions about this symphony. Some feel it’s Mahler’s masterpiece. Others see it as seriously flawed: maybe fatally so. Some find it to be fatally flawed…and yet cite it as their favorite anyway. It is said that Mahler cried at the first rehearsals for it, unable to come to terms with what he’d unleashed. Alma alleged that the hammer blows prophesied the catastrophes that would later shake their marriage. Heck, even now, a hundred plus years after its composition, we can’t even agree about something as fundamental as what order to put the movements in. I imagine I’ll get a dozen comments on this post sharply disagreeing with my opinions, and with everybody else’s. Because that’s just the kind of conflicted reaction this massive music seems to engender.

Personally, I go from loving it to loathing it back to loving it again…sometimes within the span of a few measures. Nothing about it is clear. Everything is difficult. A forceful ambiguity reigns supreme. Mahler assembles us in the concert hall, asks humanity’s most important questions, raises an envelope, announces all the answers are within, takes out a sharpened knife, carefully slits open the flap…

And then throws the envelope into a raging bonfire.

What to think?


Yesterday I said to my mother, impulsively, “I haven’t felt well lately.”

“In what way?” she asked.

“Mm,” I said.

“How don’t you feel well?” she pressed.

I thought for a moment. “I don’t know,” I said, and I didn’t. I wished I hadn’t even mentioned it.

A moment passed.

“Maybe it’s all the Mahler I’ve been playing,” I finally said.

I’d said it as a joke. But as soon as the words were out, I realized they had an uncomfortable ring of truth to them, and I frowned.

I thought she’d laugh at me, but she didn’t. “That could very well be,” she said, and we both fell quiet for a while.


Filed under My Writing

The End of Emily Visits Violaland

Well, my visit to Violaland has officially come to an end.


I’m moving there.

Or at the least, buying a second house there and commuting back and forth between Violaland and Violinland.

Or whatever the metaphorical equivalent to taking an audition on viola and then winning it is.

Yes, I’ve just won a seat in northwest Wisconsin’s best symphony orchestra. (And no, there aren’t a lot of symphony orchestras in northwest Wisconsin, so no, there isn’t a lot of competition for that label, but sshh. Ssshhhhh.)

This October we play Mahler 6.

Well, that’s one way to learn alto clef.


Holy frick. 

And so on and so forth. For forty pages.

So here’s to a the beginning of a new series of blogs called, simply, “Emily in Violaland.”

Now, if you don’t mind, I should probably go.

Because I really need to practice.

Leave a comment

Filed under My Writing