Back-channel Minnesota Orchestra talks go nowhere

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 8, 2013 - 10:46 PM

Six weeks after the resignation of music director Osmo Vänskä, the Minnesota Orchestra dispute appears further than ever from a resolution.

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The labor dispute involving the Minnesota Orchestra has already cost it its music director, Osmo Vänskä.

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It didn’t seem possible, but the Minnesota Orchestra standoff has grown even more intractable in the six weeks since music director Osmo Vänskä resigned after contract talks collapsed.

Informal conversations between ­representatives of each side ended abruptly after just two meetings.

Musicians are planning concerts on their own into next spring, and outside observers are floating alternative ­solutions, rather than simply hoping for a negotiated settlement in a historic stalemate that has seen musicians locked out for more than 13 months.

“It’s gone way beyond a labor dispute,” said former Gov. Arne Carlson, who wants Gov. Mark Dayton to impanel a task force to deal with the issue. “What do you say we try some new paths?”

After a brief flurry of talks failed to produce a deal at the end of ­September, two representatives from each side agreed to meet informally. After a hopeful start, that effort ended after a Nov. 4 meeting between board members Doug Kelley and Nicky Carpenter and ­musicians Tim Zavadil and Doug Wright.

“It was very apparent from our perspective that they were not going anywhere,” Zavadil said of the talks. “We know there are some board members who are ready to try to solve this in a different way, and we hope they can become empowered to start future discussions.”

Kelley said on Friday that he and Carpenter told the musicians that money that Marilyn Carlson Nelson had raised as part of an effort to reach a deal in September would be available until the end of the year.

He also said he believed the board could raise even more money “if we could come to an accommodation.”

In addition, Kelley said he and Carpenter offered to ­create a group made up of board, management and musicians to discuss artistic issues, managing the endowment, programming, marketing and input on guest artists.

Kelley said the musicians considered this “window dressing” and saw no reason to continue.

“I said, ‘We’re going backward,’ and they said ‘It’s not worthwhile talking,’ ” Kelley said. “I was blown away that they would walk away.”

In a letter to board members, Zavadil and Wright said, “There is no shared vision or common goals between the musicians and the members of your negotiating team. Due to this fundamental lack of unified purpose, we view the current 2-on-2 discussions as ultimately fruitless.”

Finding an alternative

The musicians continue to produce their own concerts, including two next weekend and two more in December. Zavadil said there are more to come, pushing into next spring.

Cellist Marcia Peck said the musicians’ priority is to get a settlement, but others in the community are wondering aloud whether the players should form their own organization.

Attorney Lee Henderson, a key player in the community-based “SOS: Save Osmo” effort, is the latest person to ask the city of Minneapolis to cancel its lease with the Minnesota Orchestral Association and cut a deal to put a newly formed “Minnesota Symphony” into Orchestra Hall.

Henderson argues that the Minnesota attorney general, who oversees nonprofits, should go to court and take control of the MOA’s endowment — on the premise that the organization is not fulfilling its charter of presenting concerts.

“The only thing you can do is take a totally different direction — without irritating the philanthropic community, which is the challenge,” Henderson said in an interview.

Mayor-elect Betsy Hodges has supported the musicians publicly. There are seven new members of the City Council, which puts the issue of the lease in play.

“She has been a very strong advocate, and that’s a very different tone from the outgoing mayor,” said musicians’ spokesman Blois Olson. “If Orchestra Hall is available, we’d be happy to perform there and negotiate like another prospective ­tenant and their landlord.”

Michael Henson, CEO and president of the orchestra, said the board would be “happy to talk” with Hodges. “We have always had a constructive relationship with the city,” he said.

Out on their own

There is precedent for musicians breaking off from a parent organization. The Tulsa Symphony Orchestra was formed in 2005 out of the bankrupt Tulsa Philharmonic.

“The idea was that musicians would be integrated into all elements and govern themselves,” said Linda ­Frazier, a Tulsa board ­member.

Frazier said the Tulsa Philharmonic had very few of the assets of the Minnesota Orchestra, but was able to raise money to purchase the bankrupt organization’s music library and ­instruments.

The symphony is well-regarded in Tulsa, Frazier said, but “it’s hard for the musicians to make their ­living.”

If the Minnesota musicians were to gain control of the MOA’s endowment (estimated at $150 million) their ability to pay themselves would be greater than Tulsa.

However, there are the mechanics of running an organization — marketing, development, education, outreach, hall maintenance.

In 2012, the MOA spent roughly $14 million on costs other than players’ salaries.

Carlson has championed the use of public money as part of a comprehensive plan. However, Dayton found the waters very cold when he tested that idea with the Legislature in September. Sen Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, questions whether the state could overcome the political hurdles and objections from other arts organizations to kick in funds.

“For public money to be a factor, you’re going to have to get something more concrete, a meeting of the minds,” Cohen said. “We would have to be the last money in.”

Hopeful, or hopeless future?

For nearly a year, Laurie Greeno and Paula DeCosse have led Orchestrate Excellence. The citizens’ group continues to meet with both sides, pushing for an accord.

“We are profoundly discouraged,” Greeno said this week. “It seems in many ways to be intractable.

“Musicians had said emphatically that there is not a common vision, and that is the root of the issue,” Greeno added. “If we could get some conversations going around that vision, it might produce an opening.”

Musicians are holding concerts, DeCosse said, “but they can’t sustain that ­forever.”

Even with Vänskä’s future hanging in the balance in late September, negotiators couldn’t settle.

“I never thought that would happen,” DeCosse said. “It was a Rubicon moment, and looking back it was the lack of communication, bitterness and a lack of trust.”

Henson said he still has hope, despite the collapse of the informal conversations.

“We’re still processing this,” he said. “But you have to remain hopeful.”

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299

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