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Minnesota: the rights and wrongs of an ugly, endless confrontation

The Minnesota Orchestra, one of the finest between two coasts, has been silent for almost the whole of this season. The board want to cut the musicians wages while spending $50  million on a new lobby – according to one narrative. The musicians are obdurate, according to another.

We asked Emily E Hogstad, a close observer of the orchestra, to give a local rundown of the proceedings thus far, with a view to seeing whether there is any way ahead for the orchestra in 2013.

Here’s Emily’s report:

Before the musicians’ 2007-12 contract expired on September 30, rumors had run rampant that the Minnesota Orchestra was facing financial difficulties. Negotiations were tense. In early September, without telling its musicians, the Minnesota Orchestral Association (MOA) posted the entirety of their proposed contract on the Orchestra website. It included over 250 changes (many related only tangentially to finances) and a reduction in base salary from $109,000 to $78,000, with musicians paying more for benefits. Seniority pay was also nixed entirely.

The next day, the musicians countered with a request for a joint independent financial analysis, claiming that the financial information they’d been given was “contradictory, outdated, incomplete, and deliberately confusing,” and was keeping them from making an informed counteroffer. The MOA immediately turned down the request, citing “unnecessary delay and duplication of effort.” According to the musicians, other papers requested and denied include the 2012-13 budget, an updated audit report, and a confirmation or denial that a decline in contributions from Board members and Board-member influenced organizations was due to the impending negotiations. Management claims that the 1200 pages they’ve given musicians are enough, and that their asking for additional information is nothing more than a “frolic and detour.”

Also worth noting: last year, the MOA removed the word “orchestra” from its mission statement, without consulting musicians, donors, or patrons. They’ve not explained why.

(press photo (c) Greg Helgeson)

According to its website, over the last few years, the MOA has raised $97 million for a $110 million fundraising campaign called “Building for the Future.” $60 million of this money is meant for “artistic projects” and $50 million for the renovation of Orchestra Hall. The renovation focuses on the lobby and backstage areas. In 2010, CEO Michael Henson appeared before the Minnesota State Legislature seeking $14 million in taxpayer money for the building project. There Mr. Henson testified, “On the financial front, we have announced balanced budgets over the last three consecutive years, and we are facing the current economic downturn with stability.”

On November 26, a Minneapolis Star Tribune article called “Minnesota Orchestra’s board walked thin line on finances” sent shock-waves through the local music scene. In it, reporter Graydon Royce revealed that even back in 2009, MOA leadership was planning on running deficits in 2011 and 2012. According to minutes, in September 2009, vice president of finance Bryan Ebensteiner told the orchestra’s executive committee, “Balances in 2009 and 2010 would support our state bonding aspirations, while the deficits in 2011 and 2012 would demonstrate the need to reset the business model.” MOA leadership rejects the idea that it has misled the legislature or the public. Jon Campbell, MOA Board Chair and Wells Fargo Executive Vice President, said in the article, “If it was a cover-up, would we have been that transparent in the minutes?” After this article broke, the musicians held a unanimous vote of no-confidence in Mr. Henson. Judging by both the musicians’ and the Orchestra’s Facebook pages, many patrons wish they could do the same.

Many have asked if the Orchestra’s financial woes have been exacerbated by the renovation. Personally, I can’t say; I’m just a patron, with no access to the books. Management claims that “These donations [to the Building for the Future fund] would not have been contributed to the Orchestra if there were not a building project to support.” However, Mary Schaefle, a local non-profit professional who has been analyzing publicly available information about the Orchestra’s finances, writes, “Unrestricted gifts decreased by close to $750,000 in three years, or almost 25%. I wondered whether focusing on the campaign would have a dampening effect on general, or annual, contributions. We can’t say for certain, but it’s tempting to think that the same effort for the Orchestra as a whole would have eased or erased the deficit.”

The Orchestra has been largely silent this season, but on October 18, the musicians presented a “season opening” concert on their own, selling out the Minneapolis Convention Center Auditorium. New Yorker critic Alex Ross labeled the concert “already legendary.” They will play again on December 15 and 16 at Ted Mann Concert Hall. Those concerts sold out in little more than a week, with, as the musicians’ Facebook page says, “no significant advertising.” The October concert was conducted by former Orchestra music director Stanisław Skrowaczewski, while another former director, Edo de Waart, will be on the podium for the December shows. These concerts are bright spots in what has otherwise been a very dark and silent season in the Twin Cities.

I welcome clarification or justification from the MOA on any of the points I mention. Unfortunately, I and other patrons have contacted the MOA repeatedly, and we’ve yet to receive satisfactory answers to our questions. Local journalist Matt Peiken has a standing offer to interview Mr. Henson; he has yet to respond to the request. Drew McManus has also extended an offer to travel to Minneapolis on his own dime to interview the MOA leadership. So far, we’ve heard nothing.

It is impossible to know where this frustrated music-loving community goes from here.

UPDATE: here

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  1. I really appreciate that Ms. Hogstad specifically welcomes comment from board and management, and that she has asked her questions directly to them (terrible phrasing, sorry.)

  2. Thanks for this excellent article. After reading it, the situation is much clearer, and it doesn’t look good for the Board and its managers- including Henson. To take a $31k per annum salary cut to pay for a “new rug” (or undefined ‘special projects’ “flying carpet”) so to speak, now that would be hard to digest, especially without proof of need, and, to top it all, to be forced to do so in the face of management refusal to provide the proof, well that’s a call for resistance and a real fight. So, from the article it appears compromise was not on the boss’s agenda, and in the face of further embarrassment, especially with public monies implicated, the boss is now circling the wagons.

    Well, this past year in the States we were faced with corporate arrogance in the electoral marketplace, with both parties in the big boys’ pocket, and the more overly blatant of the two landing on its fanny after the people spoke. From the attendance of their specially held concerts, it is clear that the musicians have strong public support. Here’s hoping it can be translated into a fair contract for them.

  3. Ironically, as supersleuth Emily unravels the complex issues of this situation for the rest of us , is it not becoming evident that some things have not changed in the last 200-or-so years? How can we not be reminded of the outrage that Mozart had over the same sort of issues? Cold-blooded management, nickel-and-diming by royalty who lived in the most lavish abundance?

    As we approach yet another anniversary of his death, perhaps we can all pause for a moment and reflect…and maybe even learn something…

  4. Joep Bronkhorst says:

    The longer this goes on, the harder it will be for management to balance the books in future. Like all US orchestras, the MO is dependent on sponsorship and contributions (which accounted for 44% of its 2008–09 income). If sponsors don’t feel they can trust the orchestra (management or musicians), they’ll go and sponsor a sports team instead.

  5. “What are they hiding?” That is the question being asked by donors, supporters, ticket-buyers, and Minnesota Orchestra musicians (most recently, by first-chair cellist Anthony Ross on the statewide television news program “Almanac” last Friday evening). It must be something pretty terrible if the orchestra management and board are so willing to destroy the orchestra in order to keep it from view.

    • In reading about this avoidable tragedy in Minnesota, it makes me fear even more for our own Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in NY state.

    • Wendy Lukaszewski says:

      This situation is so tragic, it breaks my heart. As a community musician, to me, the Minnesota Orchestra is such a beacon of excellence and inspiration, and a great source of pride for all of us. I was more saddened while watching the Almanac segment with Tony Ross and Doug Kelley. Tony was the consummate professional throughout the discussion, presenting his points respectfully, yet clearly. Doug, on the other hand, resorted to insults and condescension toward Mr. Ross and the musicians in general. I think an apology is in order here, as well as atmosphere of respect toward all. Personal attacks and cheap shots don’t advance anyone’s interests, and should have no place in this process.

      • Deborah Harley Healey says:

        I agree with everything Wendy said in her comments. And a question for Wendy: did you go to Stephen Foster Music Camp in the 60′s? If the same Wendy, we rode the stinky Greyhound all the way to Richmond, KY for camp with the Leinke kids.

  6. I want to add an addendum…

    Board member Jon Eisele has just given an answer to the question of why the MOA changed its mission statement.

    To quote from my most recent blog entry…

    Here’s Mr. Eisele’s answer to why the mission statement was changed:

    Our mission statement was changed in our new strategic plan to signify a new emphasis around serving our community. This language change is important, not because the “orchestra” isn’t part of it, but because it communicates a pivotal shift in what we see as the role of symphony orchestras in the 21st century. A shift to a more community-minded and responsive organization is a positive and needed repositioning for our orchestra.

    For those of you who haven’t memorized the orchestra’s old and new mission statements… It went from:

    Our mission is to enrich and inspire our community as a symphony orchestra internationally recognized for its artistic excellence.

    Our mission will be implemented by:

    - Enhancing the traditional core of concerts with innovative approaches to programming and format;
    - Providing the finest educational and outreach programs;
    - Representing and promoting the Minnesota Orchestra and the State of Minnesota to audiences across the state, across the country and around the world through tours and electronic media;
    - Maintaining an acoustically superior hall with a welcoming environment.


    The Minnesota Orchestral Association inspires, educates and serves our community through internationally recognized performances of exceptional music delivered within a sustainable financial structure.

    Seriously, now. Which mission statement sounds like it’s more interested in serving its community? If community service really was at the heart of the Minnesota Orchestra’s new mission, then why remove references to “the finest educational and outreach programs”, “representing and promoting the Minnesota Orchestra and the State of Minnesota to audiences across the state” and maintaining a hall with “a welcoming environment”? I think this is a fair question.

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