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.

“We’re very pleased with the community response,” said Cindy Grzanowski, director of marketing for single-ticket sales. “In terms of capacity being flat, that’s a tremendous achievement, because we’re up against a lot of unknown odds.”

That is true, but rarely has attention been more fixed on the orchestra than it is now.

Looking ahead, the challenge is to manage the erosion of season-ticket buyers, who once provided the backbone of the orchestra’s earned revenue. In the past five years, the move to single-ticket decisionmakers has accelerated. Marketers can’t start selling subscriptions for 2014-15 until the season is announced, probably at the end of this month or early June.

Back in the community

The orchestra was in Hibbing this weekend as part of the Common Chords program.

Small ensembles played at a Hibbing senior-citizen residence, hospitals, schools and a Salvation Army center. The full orchestra performed at Hibbing High School on Friday night.

Cellist Marcia Peck, who was there, said the musicians’ mood is very positive.

“We have the main bricks in place — a settlement, a contract and Osmo back as music director,” Peck said. “Now that those issues are resolved we can look forward to putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

Four months after the contract was settled, the musicians have kept their independent Minnesota Orchestra Musicians website operating.

They actually produced the recent concerts with Vänskä that were part of Northrop Auditorium’s reopening, and they continue to make community and school appearances.

Some board members privately have grumbled that the separate organization represents mistrust and a competing interest. Why is there still a need for a separate musicians’ organization with its own programs and public-relations effort, they ask.

Board chair Gordon Sprenger did not indicate those concerns in a statement that said the Northrop concerts had been committed to before the labor dispute ended.

“The board’s intent is that musicians will play an integral role working with board and staff to plan Minnesota Orchestra programs and projects, with all constituents working together,” Sprenger said.

Miles to go

Seven months ago, in the wake of Vänskä’s resignation during the lockout of musicians, several bloggers more or less declared the orchestra dead. If it broke apart, this argument went, then something new might be able to grow up in its place.

Lund recalled those assessments last week as he expressed surprise at the organization’s resiliency.

“There’s a lot of healing to be done, but in terms of the orchestra walking out and performing, the recovery is more rapid than I thought it would be,” he said.

Board leadership has turned over, and Henson will leave in August. Sprenger has begun soliciting names and retaining a search firm to find Henson’s successor. He did not suggest a timetable.

Henderson, looking in from the outside, wonders if there are governance problems the board needs to examine.

“There is no way you come through something like this and not find the need to rebuild in a lot of places,” he said.

Regardless of the answers, everyone seems to agree that the effort will not succeed without a new ethic of collaboration among all the stakeholders.

“The institution won’t make it without musicians, board, executives, music director and donors all committed to the same path of reinvention,” Stryker tweeted. “They’ve got a lot of work to do.”

 

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299

Staff writer Kristin Tillotson contributed to this article of

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