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.”

As to buzz in the community that Vänskä may be unwilling to work with Henson again, “if that implication is true, it’s an easy choice,” Ross said. “Osmo is our best ticket seller and biggest fundraiser. If you look at it from a strategic point of view, him coming back only makes us stronger.”

Henson skirted the question of whether Vänskä has been invited to return permanently, saying only that the board has not yet discussed it beyond asking him back to conduct some concerts in the coming season.

The musicians are behind Vänskä’s return “10,000 percent,” Peck said, “but if it’s not him, it’s got to be someone of his stature who can infuse everyone from the board to the janitors with his vision, if we are to regain our reputation. Music directors do not grow on trees, and they book themselves five years in advance. We have to hire new musicians, and that’s next to impossible without a music director in place.”

The new contract stipulates hiring seven musicians over the next three years.

Lessons from elsewhere

After its six-month lockout ended last April, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra embraced more musician involvement in programming and other decisions.

A 26-week strike by Detroit Symphony musicians ended in April 2011 with a pay concession of more than 20 percent. Yet in January, the players ­ratified a new contract eight months ahead of schedule.

New board chair Phillip Fisher impressed musicians when he met with them in small groups and asked them what they wanted, said Ken Tompkins, principal trombone for the Detroit Symphony. Getting back on stage and performing turned out to be the best therapy.

“We just concentrated on making the best music we could; that’s our calling, it’s how we relate to the world,” Tompkins said. “Whatever frustrations you need to work out, putting it into your craft goes a long way.”

The musicians’ voice

Both sides in the SPCO dispute agree that a key factor in getting back on a positive track was putting musicians in new management posts. Kyu-Young Kim, principal second violin, was named senior director of artistic planning. “The musicians’ voice is now present in every discussion,” Kim said. “It’s really been encouraging.”

Open communication and power-sharing have been crucial to progress, said Bruce Coppock, who returned as SPCO president last year.

“I’ve probably had more meetings with musicians over the last several months than during the years I was president before,” he said.

Having more seats at the management table doesn’t appear to be a high priority for the Minnesota Orchestra musicians, however. Although more musician influence over programming had been a talking point during negotiations, it didn’t figure prominently in their new settlement. Ross said that while the musicians appreciated contributing to this weekend’s homecoming concert programming, “if management is really good at doing it, we’re happy to let them.”

Right now, he said, what’s more important for the musicians is regaining “the respect we feel has been lost” from management.

Coppock said it’s important to acknowledge that people overcome past discord at different paces.

“There are people in the orchestra, on the staff and on the board who aren’t yet ready to engage in as robust a way as others. We’re trying to give space to those who need it.”

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