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.”

Unhappy history

The roots of the dispute help explain some of the hard feelings impeding a resolution.

Musicians made concessions in 2009 and then were asked again in 2011. They rejected a proposal for an immediate 10 percent cut in wages followed by a two-year freeze. The proposals, they said, “outline a path toward financial sustainability that is artistically unsustainable.”

When the current contract talks began in April 2012, the board proposed a 32 percent cut in base salaries. Musicians never made an economic counterproposal until Monday.

As the deadline for Vänskä’s decision approached, the board made public two proposals — including a last offer that would have cut wages by 25 percent in the third year but promised a $20,000 bonus for each of 84 musicians. That was rejected by musicians and on Monday the board rebuffed two union proposals that called for much smaller cuts.

At a rally for musicians Tuesday evening outside Orchestra Hall, retired University of Minnesota professor Kim Munholland said he’s been attending orchestra concerts since 1963. The board “has alienated so many longtime season subscribers, they’re going to have a hard time raising money in the future,” he said.

Vänskä’s legacy

Campbell said Vänskä “will hold a distinguished legacy in the history of the Minnesota Orchestra.”

He led the orchestra on four European tours, including two appearances at the BBC’s Proms, the world’s largest classical festival. The band also won two Grammy nominations for its acclaimed albums on the Sweden-based BIS label.

The label’s CEO, Robert von Bahr, said Vänskä “has brought the orchestra to the very forefront of the world’s best orchestras.” By resigning, Von Bahr said, the conductor “shows that he is a man of his word with a great personal integrity, who looks at music first, and the rest later, if at all.” As for his future job prospects, “we are not at liberty to discuss that. His career is going forward in a big way, that much is certain, because of him and his musicianship.”

Vänskä has guest-conducted around the world with increasing frequency in recent years.

The bigger surprise Tuesday was the resignation of Kernis, who did not pull punches in a letter to the board.

“I have personally never seen two sides that show such unwillingness to sit down together and attempt to tackle the major challenges that confront the orchestra,” he wrote, calling Vänskä’s departure a “heavy penalty for the choices made by both sides this year.”

Kernis is not alone.

“It’s really insane, this intransigence,” said New York-based critic and composer Greg Sandow, who said Vänskä’s resignation in the midst of labor strife is unprecedented.

“They can’t or won’t find a solution,” Sandow said. “They are putting something that is in their heads above the orchestra’s survival.”

Staff writers Kristin Tillotson and Claude Peck contributed to this article.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299

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