After bitter labor battle, Minnesota Orchestra seeks harmony

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Feb. 1, 2013: Locked out musicians from the Minnesota Orchestra, led by conductor Osmo Vanska, center, played a concert at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Battle scars from a 16-month labor lockout won’t magically disappear when Minnesota Orchestra musicians gather to rehearse this week at Orchestra Hall.

They will no doubt make beautiful music together at homecoming concerts this weekend. But offstage, tensions linger.

“It’s going to be tough,” said cellist Marcia Peck, a 42-year member of the orchestra and a musicians’ negotiator. “We have to work through lots of hard feelings. But I’m going to put ego aside and do whatever it takes.”

“The important thing is to turn the page and move forward,” said Michael Henson, the orchestra president and CEO whose ouster was urged by locked-out musicians and their allies. “Everyone needs to put the hurt behind us, be positive and collaborate. I think it’s possible.”

Members of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Detroit Symphony, who have been through similar trials, say that leadership change helps, along with openness in communication and the sharing of artistic decisionmaking.

At the Minnesota Orchestra, board chair Jon Campbell, whose decisions were lambasted by musicians during the lockout, is being replaced by former Allina CEO Gordon Sprenger, who with no baggage and a fresh perspective could steer the orchestra to a more collaborative future.

Henson, who runs the orchestra on a day-to-day basis while the board chair oversees the whole institution, has given no indication he will leave his post.

There has been speculation that music director Osmo Vänskä, who resigned last fall, would return only if Henson were gone, said Mariellen Jacobson of Save Our Symphony Minnesota, a grass-roots support group formed during the lockout.

“The MOA [Minnesota Orchestral Association] has to rebuild trust with the community, and Henson has broken that trust, so it’s going to be hard to rebuild if he remains a major player,” she said.

Henson, who has said he will take a 15 percent salary reduction to match that of the musicians, has yet to meet with them. Sprenger on Tuesday had the first of a series of meetings with musicians.

Tony Ross, who has led the cello section for 21 years and was a key player on the musicians’ negotiating committee, said the mood is “still tense. I don’t know what the feelings will be when we walk in there to rehearse for the first time. There are still a lot of raw nerves and bruises on both sides, but probably more on ours. The musicians were the ones who went without pay and benefits for so long.”

A unified front

Everyone seems to agree that two things are essential to the peacemaking process: a focus on common goals, and presenting a unified front to convey mutual trust and win back the community’s favor.

Both sides also hope to capitalize on heightened public interest and the personal bond with patrons that musicians built during the lockout, through concerts and outreach.

Demand for tickets for the homecoming concerts crashed the orchestra’s website the morning they went on sale.

Sprenger said the orchestra sold more than $1 million in subscriptions last week. “That tells me the community that is most anxious about the music returning is going to be showing up at the hall,” he said.

Look for an onstage make-nice appearance at this weekend’s concerts by a musician and Sprenger.

The musicians feel a stronger connection with audiences and the public, Peck said: “It’s a lot more personal, like the public is more engaged. The eyes of the community are on us more now.”

Labor expert John Budd, an economist at the University of Minnesota, said that for management, “It would be a mistake not to show respect for what the musicians accomplished during the lockout, and build on their attempts to connect with the ­community.”

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