To our colleagues and friends across North America, all the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra want to express our deepest gratitude and thanks. You have helped us with financial support and offers of employment, both of which have enabled us to withstand unparalleled intransigence on the part of the Minnesota Orchestral Association (MOA). We appreciate the huge support that came from the AFM Strike Fund, which extended benefits to us for a longer period than any other situation has required.
We also acknowledge the support of Bruce Ridge, Brian Rood, and the entire ICSOM governing board, as well as Ray Hair, the IEB, Jay Blumenthal, and the SSD. They have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to provide what we need to try to resolve this conflict.
The continuous messages of concern and understanding from all of you have made us feel less alone. It has been a year—nearly 15 months, now—of stress, uncertainty, and suffering not only for us but also for our families. But for all of you and your extraordinary support and many, many kindnesses, the lockout would be truly unbearable. We sense your presence beside us. Thank you.
Last April, after we had already been locked out for more than half a year, our music director, Osmo Vänskä, notified the MOA board that he felt our early November Carnegie Hall dates could not go forward unless we were back on stage by September at the latest. We were to play the complete cycle of Sibelius symphonies, scheduled for two nights in November and two more in April 2014. Osmo stated that if those Carnegie Hall concerts were cancelled, he would be forced to resign on October 1.
In July the musicians accepted the proposal presented by our mediator, George Mitchell (the same George Mitchell who brokered peace in Northern Ireland and whom the MOA itself had chosen to mediate our conflict). The proposal would have put in place a four-month, concessionary framework during which, with his help, we might negotiate the full contract. The MOA rejected his proposal.
Instead the MOA sent its own contract proposal to each member of the orchestra individually, outside of the mediator’s process and sidestepping the elected negotiating committee. The orchestra unanimously rejected that proposal. A nearly identical offer was made again in August, and again was unanimously rejected. Renovation of Orchestra Hall was completed in August 2013.
On September 26 the MOA made yet another contract offer, this time through the press, containing the now infamous $20,000 “signing bonus” that enabled the MOA to characterize their offer as an average decrease of minus 17%—when in fact the three-year contract proposal contained a regressive pay structure that planned a three-year downward spiral from our last pay rate, starting with a cut in salary of 18% in the first year, down 22% in the second, and down 25% in the third. Our management indicated that further cuts in salary would likely be sought in 2016 as well, a so-called two-step process. Though CEO Michael Henson proclaimed publicly that his salary would be reduced by the same percentage as the musicians’, there was no language in the final proposal regarding CEO or management salary reductions.
The proposal also contained a “poison pill” that virtually guaranteed its rejection: musicians who had committed to work elsewhere beyond October 15 were subject to termination. Many working condition gains negotiated over decades were stripped from the proposal, which also eliminated our personal contracts. Once again, this was a “take it or leave” proposal, distributed through the press, with no possibility of discussion whatsoever.
The musicians unanimously rejected this proposal by secret ballot on Friday, September 28. Efforts to communicate with the MOA’s team over the weekend proved fruitless. On the morning of September 30, the day before Osmo Vänskä’s resignation deadline, we issued a direct request to meet immediately and informed the MOA that we had also notified the media of this request. Our counsel flew in from New York, and by early afternoon we met with eleven members of the MOA negotiating team and management. We presented two offers. First, a modified version of the mediator’s proposal designed to address the MOA’s stated objections. It would have increased the time-frame to a full year and offered a deeper cut than Senator Mitchell had proposed. The second offer outlined a 3-year contract, beginning with an 8% cut and gradually working back up so that by 2016 we would return to the 2012 levels.
The moa caucused for two hours before returning long enough to state that we were too far apart and there was nothing more to discuss. Within five minutes they issued a press release cancelling our November Carnegie Hall dates. Thus, at 4pm, with hours left on the negotiating clock, they ensured Osmo’s resignation, which followed the next morning.
After Music Director Osmo Vänskä’s resignation, board chair Jon Campbell stated that attempts to reach a settlement on a new contract would continue, but not anytime soon. “The time pressures we were under are now removed,” Mr. Campbell said. “We’re probably in a pause for the next few months.” The musicians find it unthinkable that the trustees of the community’s cultural gem would consider the ongoing lockout a matter of such little urgency.
In spite of that statement, we have continued to try to make progress through back-channels. Two of our negotiating team met twice with leading members of the MOA’s negotiating committee in an attempt to begin a dialogue. However, it became clear through these meetings that there is no shared vision or common goals between the musicians and the members of the MOA’s negotiating team. The current direction toward a diminished orchestra, diminished presence and visibility within our own community, and diminished artistic viability is a vision the musicians can neither agree to nor support. Due to this fundamental lack of unified purpose, we viewed the two-on-two discussions as ultimately fruitless. While there was no shouting, there also was no commonality or agreement as to what the future of our organization should be.
It has been heartbreaking to realize that the MOA leadership believes that the Minnesota Orchestra’s musicians are easily replaceable, that its maestro is easily replaceable, and that residencies such as Carnegie and BBC Proms can be casually dispensed with. This proves a profound lack of understanding and belief in the organization’s own product. The MOA has chosen to protect one-third of the organization’s income, the endowment, at the extreme expense of earned and contributed income.
Here are a few of the facts that have been misreported, under-reported, or ignored by the press: For the fiscal year ending August 31, 2013, the MOA spent $13.7 million without paying a single musician or producing a single concert. The MOA’s law firm, Felhaber Larson Fenlon & Vogt, is the same firm that represented Minnesota-based American Crystal Sugar in the almost two-year-long lockout of its workers. The publisher of Minnesota’s most widely read newspaper, the Star Tribune, is a Minnesota Orchestra board member. Each musician has now “contributed” 100% of his or her salaries for more than an entire year to the MOA’s bottom line.
Recently the MOA’s IRS-mandated 2012 Form 990, one of a number of requested financial documents the MOA repeatedly refused to provide to the musicians’ negotiating team, was quietly posted on Guidestar.org. It shows that Minnesota Orchestra CEO Michael Henson was awarded two bonuses totaling $202,500 between September 1, 2011 and August 31, 2012, as he was planning for the musicians’ work stoppage. Coming at a time when the management said they were forced to fire 17 staffers because they had fiscal woes, Henson took home $386,916 in base compensation, $202,500 in bonus and incentive compensation, $9,800 in retirement and other deferred compensation, and $20,097 in non-taxable benefits, for a grand total of $619,313. Given the budget size of the Minnesota Orchestra, Henson’s compensation is 1.9% of expenses, or roughly double the rate of nearly all other top ten orchestras. It should be noted that Mr. Henson has continued to draw a full salary throughout the lockout of the musicians.
After Osmo’s resignation, the first news to lift our spirits came a few days later when he agreed to conduct two concerts, on October 4 and 5, at Ted Mann Hall on the University of Minnesota campus. Those concerts sold out within hours of Vänskä’s announcement. At the eleventh hour we were able to add a third performance. Tickets went on sale for that performance online at 8:00 a.m. Friday morning and were sold out by 8:30 a.m. It was reported that the U of M’s box office website received over 40,000 hits that morning. The concerts were a huge success and incredibly emotional. Our thanks go out to Osmo for agreeing to conduct and to Emanuel Ax, who played two concerti on each program and did these three concerts (six concerti!) in the space of 26 hours. If Manny is playing with your orchestra this season, please take a moment to thank him; he is the embodiment of a mensch.
On November 14 and 15 we performed two concerts with our very dear, 90-year-old conductor laureate, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, who has been incredibly supportive and outspoken in support of the orchestra he led for nineteen years (1960-1979). He conceived a powerfully moving concert that included Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod, Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23 (with the extraordinary Lydia Artymiw), and Brahms Symphony No. 2. On December 14 and 15 we had the pleasure of collaborating once again with Eiji Oue, our music director from 1995 until 2002, and our dear friend Jon Kimura Parker in two all-Tchaikovsky performances at the Minneapolis Convention Center. It’s impossible to convey the depth of our gratitude to all these artists who have stepped up to help us. They are true heroes.
We continue to plan a winter-spring season. As I’m sure you can appreciate, it requires much heavy-lifting. A huge amount of the weight has been borne by cellist Tony Ross for artistic administration and Marni Hougham, English Horn, for every aspect of concert planning and execution. I hesitate to begin to mention individuals because, in truth, everyone plays a vital part in making these concerts happen. Nevertheless, special thanks to librarian Eric Sjostrom (our perfectionist program-guy), librarian Valerie Little (acting personnel manager), flutists Wendy Williams and Greg Milliren (who head the 24/7 PR team and whose writings I have drawn from for this article), our amazing stagehands, and the many friends and family who contribute their skills pro bono. To date, we have produced more than 30 concerts for approximately 30,000 music lovers.
At most recent count, we have thirteen active committees: Advancement and Philanthropy, Artistic, Concert Production, Education, Finance, Hospitality, House Concerts, Logistics, Members, Merchandise, Negotiating, Program Books, and Public Relations/Marketing. All arose organically to meet a need. And all are staffed by our multi-talented musicians and their spouses. Our amazing solidarity, especially while many of us are enduring extreme hardship, is a source of inspiration every single day.
We held a “Community Meeting” on December 9, open to the public, at which we reported on what we have accomplished during this year of the lockout and expressed our gratitude for all the ways the community has supported us. It was our low-tech ver- sion of an annual meeting at which we tried to set an example for transparency.
We expect to have announced our winter-spring “season” by the time you are reading this. Proceeding with our own self-produced concerts while locked out has served a two-fold purpose. By paying our players for what has averaged one week of work a month, we have been able to bring the orchestra together both for the obvious morale boost and to keep alive not only the perception, but also the reality, that we are indeed still an orchestra. In addition we have tasked ourselves with providing concerts to a community that is starved for great symphonic music.
It is clear that the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra have a deep conflict in vision with our management. Management has made negotiations entirely about money at the expense of the mis- sion, while the musicians believe that carrying out our mission with competence will ensure financial success. As you know, as part of the “new business model,” the MOA changed the mission statement, removing the word “orchestra” altogether. This was done in secret, without knowledge of or input from either the musicians or the community at large. Prompted by community outrage, the MOA has returned to an abbreviated version of the former mission statement that reinstated the word “orchestra” and simultaneously emphasizes financial sustainability.
Our first priority remains what it was at the outset: to reach a fair settlement with the MOA that returns our orchestra to the stage at Orchestra Hall. Our goal has never been to “win.” When we began negotiations a year and a half ago, our goal was to reach an agreement that allowed our orchestra to thrive. After all that has happened, we have had to modify that goal; we now seek an agreement that would allow us to begin to rebuild our depleted team.
We have an opportunity to convert the immense amount of attention this organization has received into a positive force behind a new way of doing things. Together with the board and community, we want to rediscover a way of working that is inclusive of all constituencies rather than divisive and secretive. We need a model that preserves and grows the “product” rather than diminishes it. We would argue that the path toward greatness is far less risky than the path toward mediocrity. The “good enough” orchestra excites no one. The great orchestra inspires buy-in and pride. We know that in decades past we have accomplished great things, working together with our board. We still believe we can do so again.
Our gratitude goes to the many bloggers and journalists who have shed light and understanding on a complex situation. We thank our devoted audience and followers, community leaders, and all those who believe in the power of great music and stand together with us in support of a world-class orchestra for Minnesota. While we hope for and work toward the day when we, the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, can begin the process of rebuilding the Minnesota Orchestra, we have promised our community and ourselves that we will keep the music alive.
This ordeal has taught us that people do matter. Our institutions are guided by the personalities and values and character of the people who sit in the seats of power. Our orchestra has suffered grievously as a result. And we musicians are, of course, real people suffering as a consequence. Nevertheless, we continue to believe in the institution. We continue to fight for an orchestra Minnesota can be proud of and for an art-form that represents to us the highest aspirations of our lives.