Art and money are key factors as Minnesota Orchestra rebuilds

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 10, 2014 - 6:02 AM
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Collaboration: Now that conductor Osmo Vänskä has returned, observers say, musicians, management and audiences must all work in concert.

Fans of the Minnesota Orchestra have every reason to breathe easier these days. Osmo Vänskä is back as music director, eager to rediscover the orchestra’s virtuosity.

“Collaboration” is the new mantra among board leaders. The community has rarely been this focused on the 111-year-old orchestra and all stakeholders — still feeling the trauma of a 16-month lockout of musicians — appear to have the will to rebuild.

Yet financial realities that extend from ticket sales to fundraising to endowment health remain issues for an organization that also needs a new CEO.

“This is like a thousand-piece puzzle we all must put together,” Vänskä said recently, as he talked about getting to work.

The orchestra has reported three straight years of deficits (including last year’s abnormal results during the lockout). Balanced budgets in previous years were the result of extraordinary draws from a $58 million endowment that is slowly being rebuilt (total investments including trusts are $147 million).

Lee Henderson, a Minneapolis attorney who became an opinion leader for orchestra fans during the labor dispute, said that the quality of the orchestra clearly will get better and better, “but that doesn’t solve the economics that were there at the beginning and haven’t gone away.”

“The greatest challenge is to get all this enthusiasm focused in a positive direction,” said Paul DeCosse, co-founder of the citizen group Orchestrate Excellence. “If we don’t create common ground, the danger I see is that we could charge off in different directions.”

Contributed funds, comprising about 30 percent of the annual budget, saw a small spike following the rehiring of Vänskä. However, several key corporate leaders left the board after CEO Michael Henson was eased into a resignation. Whether those leaders have taken their money with them — and whether it can be replaced — will not be known until the fiscal year ends in August.

Mark Stryker was rather unsparing as he hit the TweetDeck recently.

“Osmo Vänskä returning to the Minnesota Orchestra is by no means a panacea,” the Detroit Free Press music writer posted on Twitter. “The challenge for the orchestra is not how to sound great at Carnegie Hall but how to create a sustainable orchestra that best serves the needs of the Twin Cities.”

Stryker is somewhat better positioned than other 140-character warriors to offer opinions on the orchestra. He has watched the Detroit Symphony rebound over the past three years, following a six-month strike.

That ensemble took the approach that business as usual would not improve the conditions that led to the work stoppage. Detroit got out into neighborhoods, played reduced-price concerts, developed audiences and replaced an air of distrust with a sense of respect and commitment.

Classical vs. pops

The orchestra is nearly five months behind in announcing its next season. Meetings between Vänskä, musicians and staff have resulted in a draft for the 2014-15 season that emphasizes a stronger diet of classical concerts.

“We’re going to test to a high degree the appetite of the community to buy tickets for classical concerts,” said board member Ron Lund, who has sat in on planning sessions. “A lot of people have felt classical music won’t sell, and I think that was probably behind the decision to diminish classical in the past and enhance pops concerts. We’re now beyond that.”

Box-office results from the 23 classical concerts the orchestra has played since returning Feb. 7 offer both hope and caution.

On one hand, the orchestra has achieved its attendance goal for the truncated season, with 12 more dates through the end of July.

However, average attendance of 1,600 per concert is essentially the same as it was in 2011-12, the last full season in Orchestra Hall. In the new hall’s configuration, that figure represents 77 percent of capacity.

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