Osmo Vänskä's departure shakes Minnesota Orchestra

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 3, 2013 - 11:09 AM

The renowned music director had set Sept. 30 as a deadline to prepare for Carnegie Hall concerts.

The resignation Tuesday of music director Osmo Vänskä left everyone involved in the Minnesota Orchestra’s bitter labor dispute reeling and facing an uncertain future.

Representatives of the board and musicians said no new talks are scheduled. Musicians prepared to stage their own concerts this weekend, which would have been the orchestra’s season opener.

The orchestra’s international reputation took a further hit Tuesday when Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis resigned after 15 years as director of the orchestra’s Composer Institute, saying he was “baffled and dismayed at what has been done to allow the dismemberment of this superb orchestra at the height of its powers.”

For two sides that have had a total of two face-to-face meetings in the past year, the question of an end game now rises. Will the board try to rebuild an orchestra while musicians strike up their own band?

“The ball is in their court,” said Tim Zavadil, the head musicians’ negotiator. “We’ve got to prepare for concerts.”

Zavadil said the sense of disgrace is a key reason why “we need to keep doing concerts by musicians. We have a legacy that we are trying to uphold.”

Board chairman Jon Campbell acknowledged the orchestra had suffered a black eye. “I don’t like the pain,” he said. “I don’t like the reputational hit, I don’t like what happened to musicians, to Osmo. There are so many things I don’t like.”

However, Campbell said, the 110-year-old orchestra still has assets that are strong and “sometimes you have to accept pain to support the long-term needs of the orchestra.”

Chicago-based arts consultant Drew McManus called Vänskä’s departure “artistically catastrophic, because the job becomes that much less attractive to a music director of equal caliber.”

Sad day for orchestra

For months, the music director’s threat to resign had been a leverage point in the lockout that began one year ago.

In a letter to the board last April, Vänskä said he would quit if the lockout forced the cancellation of concerts Nov. 2-3 at New York’s Carnegie Hall. He set a deadline this week for musicians to come back to work. Face-to-face meetings Monday between the two sides — their first since January — failed to yield an agreement and the board canceled the Carnegie dates.

“It is a very sad day for me,” Vänskä wrote. “I send my deepest thanks to everyone involved for what we have achieved together and I wish the Minnesota Orchestra all the very best for its future.”

Less than three hours later, most of the orchestra’s remaining musicians were on stage at Hopkins High School, playing a scheduled educational concert.

“It’s hard to get these guys to smile on a day like this,” said principal trumpet Manny Laureano, who served as conductor.

The concerts Friday and Saturday night at Ted Mann Concert Hall in Minneapolis will feature pianist Emanuel Ax in a program that was supposed to be staged at the remodeled Orchestra Hall. Musicians say they plan four or five additional programs this fall.

In an interview, Campbell said it is far too early for the board to consider drastic steps in reshaping the orchestra, such as hiring temporary replacement musicians.

“Reacting in a knee-jerk fashion to these emotional and anxious events we’ve been through in the past few days would be a mistake,” he said. “My assessment is that we are going to pause for a bit here.”

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