Save the Minnesota Orchestra!

Osmo Vanska
Osmo Vanska
Minnesota Orchestra @ Orchestra Hall
Minnesota Orchestra @ Orchestra Hall


Under the baton of Maestro Osmo Vanska in recent years, the Minnesota Orchestra has played beautifully. When they performed at Carnegie Hall in March 2010, a New Yorker reviewer said, “The Minnesota Orchestra sounded, to my ears, like the greatest orchestra in the world.” As Minnesotans, we loved the music produced by the Orchestra and the praise from New York City.

Alas, the Orchestra’s entire 2012-2013 season has been cancelled due to an unresolved dispute over the musicians’ compensation. As a result, some key members of the Orchestra have left for positions elsewhere.

Even more ominous, on April 30, 2013, Maestro Vanska in a letter to the Orchestra’s Board of Directors said, our “musical policy of excellence in symphonic music programming . . . is now under critical threat.” After noting the need to prepare for scheduled recording sessions in September and Carnegie Hall concerts in November (“one of the most significant goals of my entire Minnesota Orchestra tenure”), Vanska said that if those concerts were cancelled, “I will be forced to resign.”

The dispute started last September when the Board proposed a new contract with the musicians that called for an average annual salary of $89,000 with a minimum of a 10-weeks annual paid vacation, a comprehensive medical plan and defined benefit pension plan. This represented a huge decrease from their compensation under the prior contract and was necessitated, according to the Board, by the immediate need to stop additional significant draws on the Orchestra’s endowment.

According to public information, the Musicians rejected this proposal, but have never made a counteroffer on compensation. Instead, they have proposed a review of the Orchestra’s finances and binding arbitration. Such a financial review has been undertaken, but not without apparent disputes regarding some of its details. The Board rejected binding arbitration as inconsistent with their fiduciary duty to guard the endowment.

Most recently the Board proposed submitting the dispute to mediation next week (the week of May 20th), but the Musicians apparently have not yet responded to this proposal.

We are obviously saddened by the ongoing dispute between the Orchestra’s Board and the Musicians. We also have empathy with the Musicians on being presented with a proposal last Fall for a large reduction in compensation. No one wants to be subjected to such a jolt.

Early last December I sent an email to Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton saying the “Orchestra’s cancellation of many concerts has left a major void in the cultural life of the Twin Cities and thus has caused a major negative impact on the quality of life here and in the State as a whole.” After noting that “over the years Dayton family members have been strong supporters of the Orchestra . . . [and] the cancellations have to be particularly sad for you and your family,” I implored the Governor “to become involved in this matter. Publicly invite both sides to meet with you at your office to explore how this dispute could be resolved. If there are any mediation services the State can offer, perhaps that could be offered as well. I also wonder whether there is any State funds that could be provided to help pay for the renovation of Orchestra Hall so that the gifts for same could be re-directed to the endowment to help pay the musicians.”

I received no response from the Governor, and there have been no public reports of his being involved in any way to try to resolve this dispute. I, therefore, reiterate my plea for his help.

On May 5th the Musicians had a full-page ad in the StarTribune that, among other things, called for the Board leaders “to step aside so that truly civic-minded and globally aspirational leadership can step forward” to resolve the dispute. This was a totally unfounded and unwise move by the Musicians, in my opinion. The Board members, some of whom are friends of mine, are all honorable citizen unpaid volunteers who have given of their own time and financial resources to help the Orchestra. Therefore, on May 10th I sent an email to the Musicians that said the following:

  1. “As we understand, the Musicians have never made a counteroffer on compensation. As a retired lawyer, I have been involved in many negotiations to settle legal disputes. The normal process in such negotiations is offer and counteroffer, often with many iterations. A similar phenomenon often occurs in buying a house. Wake up. Engage in the process.
  2. The Musicians must recognize that the national financial collapse of several years ago has caused damage to the finances of many corporations, organizations and individuals and made it more difficult for non-profit organizations to raise charitable contributions. In addition, the low interest rate policies of the Federal Reserve System have made it very difficult for all persons to obtain significant income on their endowments and savings. As a retiree, I am very aware of this phenomenon. So too the Musicians have to be aware of these facts.
  3. The financial problems of our Orchestra are not unique in the U.S. The Musicians obviously are aware of this.
  4. To respond to these facts, as the Musicians have done, with calls for binding arbitration, financial studies, no further negotiations unless the lock-out is ended and resignation of the honorable, unpaid volunteers on the Orchestra’s Board is unreasonable and irresponsible.
  5. In our opinion, the Musicians have known enough from the first day of this dispute to make a counteroffer of reduced compensation, undoubtedly as an initial position by the Musicians the reduction would be modest. But it would facilitate the negotiation process.”

The Orchestra’s website has information about the dispute as does the website for the musicians. The dispute has received extensive coverage in the Minnesota media along with full-page ads by the Board and the Musicians. And the New York Times had an extensive article about the dispute.

End the dispute! Save the Minnesota Orchestra!

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

4 thoughts on “Save the Minnesota Orchestra!”

  1. Duane, the Minn Orchestra is already gone.The management decided upwards of 2 years ago to rework the orchestra into a popsy broadway showtunes organization. They developed a good plan which has been expertly carried out. Over two years ago, they raised 50 million to rework the building into some kind of meeting hall, convention center etc. to match their vision of the type of music they want to be played. They worked up a “financial crisis” and locked out the musicians in order to downsize and get rid of the expensive people. ( Bert Hara’s website lists 22 current vacancies.).

    It’s all over but the resignation of Osmo.Osmo is certainly not going to risk a recording session with 22 greenhorns (probably more with the passage of time) who have never played together. Osmo has very little interest in the outcome since he has done quite well for himself during the lockout. He is far away the front runner for the Chicago job when Muti finally dies or throws in the towel. I can’t imagine him wanting to continue in Minn under the current management. For that matter, I can’t imagine any serious musician wanting to play broadway showtunes, so who is going to apply for the openings? College seniors from Iowa Sate? So even if they “settle” the contract, we will have a third rate band instead of a world presence.

    With respect to the allegation that the musicians have acted in bad faith, I can certainly think of an analogous situation. If a prospective client asked me to quote on drafting a contract and I said $5,000, would I make a counteroffer if he said will you take $3,500? Makes one wish law offices employed bouncers. To the best of my knowledge the management simply asserted that they were coming up 6 million short, but made no effort to go to the public for the deficit, nor to increase the efforts of their development people. The 50 million for the building came in quickly and easily. What was the problem with raising the 6 million? The answer is plain to me: they didn’t want to raise it because they wanted to trash the existing orchestra and replace it with something cheaper and smaller.

    We really must congratulate the management for executing their design flawlessly. The public relations campaign has been effective and the control of the press has been perfect. They positioned the musicians in a “no win” corner and have successfully avoided any real debate on the kind of an orchestra we want in the future.

    In fine, my friend, the battle is lost. The good guys have been thrashed by the capitalist republicans. They may have lied and cheated, but they won. I don’t see myself going to a concert until the present gang of philistines have been driven out and 10 to 15 years have passed for rebuilding.

      1. DWK: as someone who has followed this situation closely and had conversations with many, many people inside and close to the organization, I find Jim’s accounting of the situation accurate. I would be curious to know which specific points you disagree with.

      2. My original post explains my views on the Orchestra situation, and I do not need to engage in a point-by point debate with my friend, Jim Hart.

        The public silence of the parties during the mediation by George Mitchell is encouraging.

        On August 20th at 6:30 p.m my church, Westminster Presbyterian, 12th & Nicollet, is hosting a community forum on the situation— I hope to be there and learn more and contribute to the discussion.

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