For the last 16 months, the audience of the Minnesota Orchestra stood up for artistic excellence and for former music director Osmo Vänskä. The audience provided standing ovations throughout and sat in tearful silence following the Vänskä concerts in October. The board of the Minnesota Orchestral Association (MOA), in countless public statements during the lockout, did not seem to listen to arguments about either point. With the musicians returning to work, the MOA has a chance to revisit how it thinks about artistic excellence and Osmo Vänskä — by listening to its audience.
For this orchestra, excellence and Vänskä are wrapped together. The just-announced Grammy is affirmation from the rest of the world that Vänskä and the orchestra musicians had achieved the pinnacle of excellence before the lockout.
After staging their own sold-out classical music concerts during the lockout, the musicians have been working with the MOA to create a 2014 concert schedule that focuses on artistic excellence substantially more than the pops-oriented schedule submitted by the association to the city of Minneapolis in December. The audience is responding by crashing websites to buy tickets. This suggests that the attempts to downgrade the quality of the orchestra were misguided. It also suggests that any further efforts to denigrate the quality of the programming will have long-term negative consequences.
Vänskä’s status was not resolved by the agreement between the musicians and the MOA, which has been eerily quiet over the last couple of weeks on that subject. Why? Can the MOA seriously think that it is in the best interests of the orchestra not to rehire Vänskä?
In the last 10 years, Vänskä did more than anyone to raise the worldwide reputation of his organization and our state. No sports figure came close to parallel accomplishments. Vänskä took a good orchestra and made it great, producing three Grammy nominations (including two in a row) and the recent Grammy Award. Vänskä was the orchestra’s best fundraiser and its greatest box-office draw.
Alex Ross of the New Yorker magazine called the orchestra the best in the world after a Carnegie Hall concert in 2010. The orchestra and Vänskä’s Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony brought the house down at the 2010 London BBC Proms — the Super Bowl of classical music. Vänskä and the orchestra were scheduled for four concerts this season at Carnegie Hall (never done before) and similarly scheduled for an extended stay at the BBC Proms in 2015 (unheard of for an American orchestra). The MOA — as part of its brass-knuckle negotiating strategy — canceled the latter two events last fall, directly resulting in Vänskä’s resignation.
In short, Vänskä was and is the face of the franchise. There are reports that he is willing to return. The musicians and the audience clearly want him to return.
If there was a lesson to be learned from this ordeal, it is that the audience has earned a say in how the orchestra is run. The orchestra now truly belongs to the people of Minnesota. It is not the Minnesota Orchestral Association’s orchestra, nor even the musicians’ orchestra. The audience buys the tickets and is the only group that can return the orchestra to financial stability with its contributions. The decision about Vänskä will have a huge impact on audience members’ willingness to open their wallets and make donations, in addition to buying tickets.
Perhaps the board thinks the audience does not care whether Vänskä returns. I encourage those of you who do care to either write online comments at the end of this commentary or to e-mail me at email@example.com stating why you want Vänskä to return and whether or not you will make donations if he does not. I will package the e-mails I receive and submit them to the MOA board.
If the board thinks Vänskä should not return to lead the orchestra, then it should tell us — the audience — why. Make the business case why he should not return and do it publicly. Tell us what happens over the next several years with no music director and little likelihood that a conductor of any stature would come to Minnesota. And tell us who is going to make the donations that would support the long-term financial stability of the organization.
If Gordon Sprenger, as the new board chairman, promptly makes the administrative changes necessary to ensure the return of Vänskä as the artistic leader and music director, the orchestra will quickly heal and flourish again. If he vacillates or is silent on Vänskä, then healing — if it occurs — will take years. The audience is listening.
The standing ovation that will take place at the opening of Orchestra Hall on Feb. 7 will be only for the musicians — an unfortunate byproduct of the lockout strategy. I can only hope that the board will listen and begin to earn back the lost trust from the audience so that it may one day, too, get a standing ovation at Orchestra Hall.
Ensuring the return of Osmo Vänskä with a new five-year contract would be a good first step.
Lee A. Henderson is an attorney and music lover in Minneapolis.