Divided Minnesota Orchestra board faces big leadership decision

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 27, 2014 - 8:31 PM

A divided board today will weigh CEO Michael Henson’s future and the possible return of ex-music director Osmo Vänskä.

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Vänskä is to lead the orchestra in concert March 27 to March 29.

Photo: TOM WALLACE , Star Tribune

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The Minnesota Orchestra board meets Friday to consider the fates of former Music Director Osmo Vänskä and President and CEO Michael Henson.

Hanging in the balance is the return of Vänskä, who resigned in October during the historic, 16-month labor lockout, as well as the question of the board’s confidence in Henson.

Sources on both sides say that the board remains deeply divided on the Vänskä-Henson situation and that the dilemma needs a quick resolution.

New board chairman Gordon Sprenger has praised Henson, while Vänskä has said that for the orchestra to heal, Henson should depart.

Musicians, who accepted a 15 percent pay cut in a new collective-bargaining agreement last month, have called for Henson’s ouster and Vänskä’s return.

Public groups have also suggested the only way for the orchestra to rebound artistically from the bitter labor dispute is for Vänskä to return.

Vänskä quit Oct. 1 when no contract settlement had been reached between musicians and the board. After a deal was made on Jan. 14, he hinted he would be amenable to a return. However, he had confided to friends previously that the price for his return would be Henson’s departure.

Shortly after the contract settlement was ratified, Vänskä sent a terse e-mail to Henson saying, “Michael, I think you should resign.”

That antipathy became public on the first weekend that the orchestra returned to concerts, Feb. 7-8. Audiences chanted, “Bring Osmo back!” at both concerts.

Significant support for both

Vänskä and Henson each have significant support on the board, which is why the outcome of Friday’s meeting is difficult to predict.

Vänskä has propelled the orchestra’s artistic ascendancy over the past decade — particularly since 2009. Henson has leveraged that reputation into concerts at Carnegie Hall and the BBC Proms as well as an ambitious recording schedule. He also raised nearly $100 million in a capital campaign that included $50 million for a renovation of Orchestra Hall. The building project became a lightning rod for critics, who wondered how the orchestra could afford a brick-and-mortar initiative while seeking draconian concessions from its musicians.

Proposals had been floated in January for a new working arrangement that would bring back Vänskä and keep Henson, perhaps in a different role. Vänskä’s public pronouncement on the first weekend of concerts, however, made it plain that he was not willing to compromise. Even supporters on the board reportedly expressed irritation.

Vänskä continues to maintain a home in Minneapolis and keep a busy guest-conducting schedule around the world. He will lead the Minnesota Orchestra March 27-29 in the Sibelius Symphonies No. 1 and 4. The recording of those two works won a Grammy Award in January. The late March concerts will be Vänskä’s first at Orchestra Hall since June 2012

There is significant pressure on the board to make some decision on Vänskä’s fate, whatever it is, before that weekend of concerts.

 

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299

 

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