By now you are aware that the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, still shell-shocked and wary, but strengthened in countless ways by our unity and resolve, returned to the stage of Orchestra Hall in early February. At the musicians’ request, Maestro Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, conductor emeritus and music director from 1960 to 1979, was invited to conduct the first pair of “homecoming” concerts. Stan, now 90, was an early and vehement critic of the path the Minnesota Orchestral Association (MOA) chose and had become our “go-to” conductor for many of our self- produced performances. Fittingly, he chose to open the program with his own arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, with which he had opened Orchestra Hall in 1974. Fans and supporters were on hand at the rehearsals and in force at the performances to share the emotion and to soften the anxiety of returning to the building that had come to symbolize the priorities of an Association that had lost its way.
After 16 months it was easy to imagine that being locked out was the new normal—that we would remain in limbo indefinitely. Much of the story beggars belief. It begins with a very private board with highly top-down governance, poor investment decisions following the financial crisis of 2008, secretive board leadership with limited understanding of the art, and a community that trusted that all was well.
Shielded from public view, a new business model was developed that would focus on using Orchestra Hall for “Pops and Presentations,” rentals, corporate events, and a much-diminished “in-house” orchestra. No longer would the hall’s main function be that of home to a world-class orchestra. The mission statement of the Minnesota Orchestral Association was changed; any reference to the orchestra itself was removed.
Gradually it came to light that President and CEO Michael Henson had misrepresented the orchestra’s finances to the Minnesota legislature while seeking funds for the renovation of Orchestra Hall. Management meeting minutes state that the MOA would manipulate endowment draws in order to “announce” balanced budgets for the purpose of obtaining state funds, but show extreme deficits a year later in preparation for negotiating a contract with the musicians.
Orchestra Hall would be closed for renovations for a full year. Construction was originally planned for the final year of our previous contract. But shortly after securing $14 million in state funds, it was announced that construction would be delayed and would now coincide with the expiration of the musicians’ contract. Meanwhile—and this came to light only much later—months before the lockout began, the MOA had bought up myriad domain names that contained the words “orchestra,” “symphony,” and “save.” In the year leading up to the lockout, while laying off staff, Henson received $200,000 in bonuses, bringing his compensation to more than $600,000.
It is not a stretch to imagine that the first (and at the time, final) contract offer containing cuts of 30-50% and more than 200 changes to work rules was intended to incite the musicians to go out on strike during the closure of Orchestra Hall. We offered binding arbitration. The lockout was imposed with dizzying swiftness, at midnight of the day our contract expired. Within hours the MOA cancelled all services for the next two months as well as health insurance coverage for musicians and their families.
In December 2013, when the lockout had already lasted 14 months, the City of Minneapolis called on the MOA to demonstrate how it was fulfilling the terms of their lease, which required that Orchestra Hall be operated as a performing arts center. In fact, since construction was complete in August, all performing arts events had been moved, cancelled or rescheduled (save for the Symphony Ball, a political fundraiser, and two college Christmas concerts). The initial response from Henson was found to be inadequate, and the city began to pursue next steps that could lead to the loss of the lease. Save Our Symphony Minnesota (SOS-MN) was instrumental in researching the terms of the lease and keeping this issue moving forward.
After our December community meeting, we announced our winter-spring concert series, which would include guest artists Joshua Bell, Kevin Cole, and Itzhak Perlman, as well as a Grammy concert with our former music director, Osmo Vänskä, who resigned during the lockout. Soon after that, a small group of board members began to meet quietly with our negotiating committee. With grim humor we began to refer to it as the Silent Night moment, similar to the Christmas truce of World War 1. It took a great deal of work to build enough trust for the musicians to view the other side as legitimate partners in seeking resolution, but it led to what would become an actual negotiation between these same parties. We worked out of public view throughout the holidays and into January. By January 11 we had a tentative agreement, which was ratified on January 14.
The first year of the three-year agreement calls for a 15% cut from our 2012 (pre-lockout) scale. The second and third years promise pay increases of roughly 2% and 3%, respectively (to levels that are about 13% and 10% below the 2012 scale). Musicians will contribute more to the cost of health insurance. And of the 200+ proposed work rule changes, we agreed to about 12. It seems unfortunate that this would need to be specified, but we now have a guaranteed minimum number of classical subscription-type weeks. And there will be quarterly (at minimum) meetings between the members’ committee and the board chair. Accepting a cut is, of course, no one’s idea of a victory, but we think we are now at a point from which we can start to rebuild. We believe that our stand will prove a bulwark against similar attempts by other orchestra managements to devalue our industry and art.
As of this writing, it is unclear if Osmo will be asked to return or whether he would accept. We ardently hope for both. [Things have changed since the article was written. Please see the sidebar. — Ed.] Many of our players are fulfilling their commitments elsewhere and have until August 31 to return. Only fifty were here for our “homecoming” concerts.
The MOA has been roundly disgraced by media and industry watchers around the world. New board leadership is now in place, and there are signs that assurances of a new era of “collaboration” may actually have some validity. Yet we also understand that it will take time to turn around a board of the size, make-up, and governance structure of the Minnesota Orchestra board, recent changes in leadership notwithstanding.
The institution that was run so far off the rails now faces enormous challenges. A contract settlement is only the first step necessary to getting the organization back on track. A disastrous decision to eliminate a physical box office except for two hours before a concert has meant our patrons are experiencing extreme difficulty with ticket purchases. The website has been unable to handle the volume of traffic and callers have faced two-hour waits.
The new board chair has assured us that he is addressing our two most pressing issues: the lack of a music director and the continued presence of an executive director who has divided the institution and alienated the entire community. [Please see sidebar. It has been announced that Michael Henson will step down on August 31 from his post as president and CEO. — Ed.]
We hold no illusions about what we may face in three years. For now, we do know that the eyes of the community are watching. The days of the Minnesota Orchestral Association acting unilaterally and in secret are over.
In addition to the indispensable support that came from the AFM and ICSOM, we had very meaningful help from SOS-MN, Orchestrate Excellence, and Young Musicians of Minnesota for their creative and tireless work on behalf of great music and keeping a first-class orchestra in Minnesota. They are all still very much engaged.
Special thanks go to our Local 30-73 and its president, Brad Eggen. It’s impossible to tabulate the depth and breadth of their expertise and generosity, and we are at a loss to express how profoundly grateful we are.