Picking Up the Pieces: The Minnesota Orchestra Plays It Forward

Mark MacNamara on February 5, 2014
Minnesota Orchestra
The Minnesota Orchestra photographed on stage at Orchestra Hall after a performance.

At precisely a quarter to eight tonight, February 7, at the newly renovated Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis, 77 members of the Minnesota orchestra will abruptly finish warming up and leave the stage. This is a convention the musicians adopted from European orchestras and part of the ritual they’ve developed during their 16-month lockout. It is to say, “We are absolutely united.”

Fifteen minutes later, at exactly 8 p.m., the house lights will dim and then brighten, a subtle metaphor in itself for these last months, and then the players will file back on stage, one by one, heads held high, and bow.

The moment they appear, you will hear such a roar and a howl as you may never have heard, a commotion that will go on for several minutes, from an audience overcome with delight that their orchestra is finally back, after 474 days of a management lockout over the terms of the musicians’ contract.

Among the musicians will be Manny Laureano, principal trumpet player with the Minnesota orchestra for 32 years. He’ll be feeling as if he were coming home after a combat tour. Which might sound blasphemous to some vets, but after such an interminable lockout — the longest work stoppage in American orchestra history — that’s what he’s be feeling, and he’ll gladly soak up the applause and feel a lump in his throat.

At 58, and so late in his career, Laureano was stunned by the idea that you could put your whole life into something and then have it taken away, and so blithely, and how that could lead to such anger and depression. And so now relief and yet, at the same time, there will be some uneasiness on his part — after all, a quarter of the orchestra is gone — but also a worry about how this is all going to turn out and concern whether everything can be put back to the way it was, to ‘the way we all remember.’



Laureano’s worry aside, the news from Lake Wobegon these days is good. The orchestra community has a future again and most musicians believe they won the battle against “Minnesota’s political and financial elite.” The minimum base salary will fall to $96,284 this year, down from $111,566, but Minnesota remains among the nation’s top ten salaried orchestras. While musicians must pay more for health care, and did lose millions of dollars during the lockout, the settlement arrived in time to deflect the loss of unemployment benefits (from $400 to $600 a week) on Feb. 1, and the last of COBRA in March.

Moreover, their venerated leader, former Music Director Osmo Vänskä, who resigned last October 1st because of the lockout, will be back on the podium — not on Feb. 7th — but on March 27-29 conducting the Sibelius Symphonies No. 1 and 4, for which the orchestra just won a Grammy for “Best Orchestral Performance.”

But of course, everything has an edge of uncertainty. Is Vänskä coming back for good? And how long will it take for the orchestra to recover, to replace the twenty some musicians who have gone on leave and may or may not return, or who have resigned or changed careers?

Under the terms of the settlement the association is required to hire only enough musicians over the next three years to bring the total back to 84, which is what it was before the lockout. The orchestra had been at 95, its optimal strength.

Incidentally, at one of the last auditions, in October, 2011, a candidate for principal bass applied but by one account was so insulted by the tone of the interview and the salary offered that he withdrew.

“We are basically bonded together forever.” — Horn player Ellen Smith

But the real story of the lockout, and a lesson for other orchestras, is how the musicians in Minneapolis bonded and never broke, how they supported each other with cash and connections, with grocery cards, time shares, babysitting, and just time on the phone late at night, and all the while they kept playing, and became more united each week, even as babies were born and loved ones died, even as one member was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I would say that people who felt reserved before feel a bond now,” said horn player Ellen Smith before the settlement. “We are basically bonded together forever.”

And yet ...

Since the settlement, some musicians feel reluctant to express it, but a few say that despite the bond they may never get over their mistrust of management. “Trust is the real issue,” Manny Laureano will tell you, “and so it’s great to be home but there’s a lot of your heart left out on the battlefield.”

Conspiracies and Other Theories

Last March, a few days before the end of the San Francisco Symphony strike, composer and principal bassoonist Stephen Paulson was at home, north of the city, down in his lair and machine shop, with all of his personal history, drawers to the ceiling, full of music and memorabilia marked with the various orchestras he’s played in; and a small framed photo of his father sitting with his grandmother in a Jewish stetl in the Ukraine.

Paulson was explaining the process of making reeds, the nimble-fingered matter of taking cane wood — recognizing its particular personality is an ever so subtle talent in itself — then splitting it, cutting it, bending it, and finally, for hour after deliciously meticulous hour, in the spirit of the finest jeweler, using a mandrill to scrape the proportions of thickness and thinness to the nearest atom.

A good reed lasts two weeks.

So what about the strike? we asked Paulson; he was not optimistic. He’d been in several strikes in 45 years as a professional musician: in Rochester and Pittsburgh, the ‘big one’ in San Francisco in 1997, and then the one that was about to end, although he didn’t know it just then. To Paulson, this unsettled strike seemed different.

“There was a time when a strike meant something; the union had sort of equal power and that was how you worked things out. But now we’re living in a time when just the respect for unions has been eroded. It’s as though there’s a movement afoot, a true conspiracy to bring us down in status in the world. I do believe that. I don’t know why they do it because it’s not about who’s right, it’s about who has the power. That's what it feels like. So in that sense, I'm frightened.”

“As a friend of mine put it very well,” he went on, “‘when did we become the fat that needs to be trimmed?’ I fear there’s a philosophical thing going on that’s anti-union and anti-musician. It’s just fashionable now. I don’t see why these people [management], who are all reasonable and progressive, would buy into this Tea Party-like philosophy. I just don’t understand it. I know these people; I like these people.”


Among the takeaways from the Minnesota lockout is that its intractability was in part because there was no one, until the very end, who could say about the other, and then act on the feeling, “I know these people; I like these people.”

In the end, the settlement seemed more like an act of quiet desperation. Who reached out to whom first is unclear, but one story is that two musicians, cellist Tony Ross and principal trombonist Doug Wright, extended a hand to long time board member Ron Lund, and so began a series of long conversations. At first, the topic was simply music philosophy, which gave way to a discussion about goals and finally a unified goal. From that agreement, which was critical, the conversation opened up to the specifics of a compromise.

“It was a different set of faces from the board. People we knew to be fans of the orchestra, people who actually came to concerts ... with those faces we found more trust in what they were saying. It was a two-way street but we felt we were listened to for the first time in a year.” — Principal trombonist Doug Wright

“It was a different set of faces from the board,” said Wright the other day. “People we knew to be fans of the orchestra, people who actually came to concerts, and were supportive over the years. And with those faces we found more trust in what they were saying. It was a two-way street but we felt we were listened to for the first time in a year.”

As an aside, there was also some grease applied from downtown, word that if there was no settlement, the city might cancel the Minnesota Orchestra Association lease on Orchestra Hall, which had just gone through a $52 million renovation. Incidentally, the renovation has been a sore point for several reasons. One was that the Minnesota Orchestra Association’s claim to the state legislature that it was fiscally sound (in order to justify a loan to renovate the hall), and a year later that it was poverty-stricken, had “never passed the smell test” as one outside observer put it.

And then there has been a question about the quality of the renovation, itself. Emily Hogstad, the partisan blogger who, nevertheless, offered some of the most insightful and colorful commentary throughout the conflict, recently pointed out some of the shoddy work: “Floors that are easily stained. Seats that weren’t reupholstered with the rest. Shoddily constructed signs.”

But as for takeaways, the consensus among everyone we spoke with was the need for better communication, much more often. One view, held privately, is that both sides but particularly management seemed to want to ban any communication, which became a huge source of bad blood and distrust.

The Minnesota Pops

After the settlement, two board members who had played a significant role in the lockout, Jon Campbell and Richard Davis, both bankers, resigned, leaving Michael Henson, the orchestra’s CEO, as the only remaining member of the MOA’s lead negotiating team. From the beginning Henson has been a focal point of the musician’s ire.

“Even if they settle this and if he’s still the head of it,” one musician promised before the settlement. “I will not be part of that.”

The animus against Henson was not merely his perceived abrasive and condescending management style but the feeling he had demonized musicians to the press. Also, there was the fear that his goal was to turn the pay structure from salary to hourly wage, and worse that he was going to rent out the hall and the musicians to the highest bidder, and turn the whole group into an English pops orchestra, or a chamber ensemble to play at the whim of the likes of Lady Mary on Downton Abbey.

In fact, there was no move toward a per-service contract; Henson claimed in an interview with SFCV in December that that was never even contemplated. But what about the notion of a lesser, more commercial orchestra, we asked. On that point, Henson seemed to hedge:

“I think there was a lack of sophistication, and perhaps both sides got themselves entrenched and couldn’t figure out other areas where there could be communication.” — Consultant Anthony Knerr

“Now, as with any orchestra, you have to do a range of activities, including, obviously, Pop concerts and quality concerts and some of that activity. That, I think is strength because it actually shows the orchestra can perform and actually access different audiences. But a great orchestra is about practical music and it’s also about a great orchestra being adaptive. As part of trying to make ourselves available and relevant going into the future, we also introduce a chamber music program within the contract with the idea of showing our great musicians in a number of formats and performing venues across this community to actually make sure that our great classical music actually reach far more people. So this was about looking at how can we have a great orchestra, and how can we adapt to the changes and differences of our society…”

In the near future, Henson will need to articulate his definition of ‘practical music’, and it will be interesting to see whether and how he reaches out to musicians. And whether and how they respond, and what leverage each side can bring to bear. For musicians, this is the most critical issue remaining, ‘a real difference of philosophy’ as one musician put it. What’s going to be the orchestra’s mission and what will become of its professional character in the coming years, and who will decide it all?

There is speculation that, despite his ringing endorsement from the board in December’s meeting, Henson may not stay for long. And now there’s a new board chair, Gordon Sprenger, the former CEO of Alina Health System and an orchestra board member since 2006. Traditionally, it’s the board chair who sets the agenda; Sprenger has yet to reveal his vision of either the orchestra’s identity or the financial foundation on which it’s built.

A Question of Productivity

Robert Flanagan is Professor of International Labor Economics and Policy Analysis (Emeritus) in the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He wrote the book on orchestra economics. It’s titled The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras: Artistic Triumphs and Economic Challenges. His thesis is that what inevitably kills orchestras is not only declining audiences but the inevitability of “cost disease.” In sum, performance revenues can never keep pace with performance expenses, partly because there’s no real downward pressure on expenses from productivity. As a result, orchestras are inevitably limited by boutique economies that reflect the nature of a particular place, less the laws of supply and demand.

Then throw in a Great Recession, such as in 2008, which drains endowments as well as ticket revenue, and disaster is inevitable. Referring to the 25 percent increase promised by the board to Minnesota orchestra musicians in 2007 (phased in over the contract’s four-year span), Flanagan noted, “the people who pushed that through are as responsible for the problem facing the orchestra as the people now asking for a raise.”

His advice is that while boards should be careful in deciding what they can afford, musicians should be careful in thinking in terms of comparable compensation. And so boards must master “the art of living with deficits” and musicians must “learn to live with the luck of where you’re located.” Neither side should get locked into a sense of entitlement.

That seems to have been a great part of the drama in Minnesota. Musicians felt entitled, or had earned, the right to be compensated among the top 10 orchestras in the country; Henson felt he was entitled his $202,000 bonus for 2011 and 2012; and the people of Minneapolis felt entitled to high quality music at about the ticket price they were used to.

The Minnesota Orchestra’s financial problems were laid out in a highly contested report released in June 2013 by Anthony Knerr, head of a New York financial analysis firm and former Executive Vice President for Finance and Treasurer at Columbia University. Knerr’s analysis of the orchestra was based on audited financial statements and an October 2011 strategic plan (since redone) for 2012 to 2015. The report complimented the MOA on its plan but was not sanguine about the future.

In the report’s conclusion, Knerr wrote, “Only gifted artistic and executive leadership, skilled and transparent financial management, shared understanding, and collegial responsibility by the Orchestra and the musicians and the ongoing support of a generous community will allow this superb symphony orchestra to have the solid financial base that it requires.”

In an interview before the settlement, Knerr predicted that lack of productivity will continue to be a problem, as well as certain unfunded liabilities. He also said, referring to the onset of the lockout, “I don’t think either the musicians or the unions really understood what the growing financial problems were, and didn’t have a good sense of the disparity.”

In another interview after the settlement, he added, talking about why the settlement had taken so long, “I think there was a lack of sophistication, and perhaps both sides got themselves entrenched and couldn’t figure out other areas where there could be communication. It seems there was no one who could say, ‘Guys, we’re all in this together. We’ve got to reach an accommodation and the way to begin is to get this outside of lawyer’s hands.’ ”

Beyond Stereotype

Michael Savage, not the former director of the San Francisco Opera, but Michael Savage, the querulous-id of talk radio, that diminutive Falstaff ever clad in bubble shades, simultaneously Jewish mother and conservative scold; that Michael Savage said this about the musicians during the San Francisco Symphony strike nearly a year ago: “They’re greedy, they’re foolish, they’re gonna put themselves outta business. Advice from The Savage Nation: Take less money or you’ll be home tuning your clarinet in the basement if you keep this up, or worse yet teaching at Berkeley without tenure and with no healthcare. Then you can really get left wing.”

It may be outrageous to suggest, as Stephen Paulson does, that there’s a “true conspiracy” to bring down musician’s unions in this country, and that board members, donors, directors — and for good measure throw in surrogates for the Koch Brothers and Ayn Rand — are sitting around in the smoke-filled ether plotting ways and means. Nevertheless, there is an animus toward musicians and their unions these days. And not just among tea partiers.

“There’s an ideology alive and well that’s anti-union throughout the nation,” said Doug Wright, who was adamant that Minnesota Orchestra musicians were not driven by their union: “They weren’t guiding us in any way. I think there’s a lot of misconception on many orchestra boards these days as to just how involved unions really are.”

But beyond the union affiliation, musicians face a murkier problem, which is that they don’t attract much respect for their knowledge of the music business. That’s a reflection of the Savage stereotype accepted by less worldly boards — and a less worldly public. In fact, there may be some truth in the stereotype, although less so now when music schools, and not just the top ones, offer courses in business and, in particular, entrepreneurship.

Musicians have their own stereotypes, of course, based on the Wolf of Wall Street-like image of those asset-backed traders and financiers who created something like $1 trillion in losses during the Lesser Depression.

But put aside the stereotypes; the closing argument from musicians in Lake Wobegon is that it’s the musicians who are out in the lobby before and after performances talking to the public, who hear from their fans, who are teaching students out in the community, who know very well what the public wants to hear, and have a lot of ideas about how to strengthen the program, as well as the relationship with the audience.

That seems a key point, whichever side you’re on. Unless you see the audience and the musicians, the donors and board members all as equal partners you’re stuck in the dialectic of management against musicians and the ready cry from both sides, ‘our way or the high way.’ And so you miss the guiding desire. Of course, money and benefits are big, but what musicians really want is a place at the table.

Musicians have not been included in the discussions about a new business model for this orchestra, Wright told us, “Which is unfortunate, because there is a stage-full of creative thinkers here who know the business as well or better than anybody. My hope and prayer is that other orchestras don’t follow this example, that at least they learn what not to do.”