Minnesota Orchestra wastes no time putting troubles behind it

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 30, 2014 - 10:14 PM
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Kevin Smith, Minnesota Orchestra’s interim president, said the organization has moved past strife.

Photo: RICHARD TSONG-TAATARII • rtsong-taatarii@startribune.com,

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Kevin Smith has put out the word: If you want to help the Minnesota Orchestra, no idea is dumb and no donation too small.

Last week’s announcement of $13.2 million in private donations, including an extraordinary $10 million gift, certainly buoyed Smith’s new job as the orchestra’s interim president.

But the windfall doesn’t lessen Smith’s ardor for democracy and collaboration as he leads Minnesota’s largest and oldest performing-arts group out of its darkest period.

“The dynamic here is not out of control, but it’s wild right now,” said Smith as the orchestra prepares a month of season-opening concerts and events — including a gala Friday with Renée Fleming. (Remember? She sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl.)

So if you have thoughts on how the orchestra can avoid long lockouts, big annual deficits, public scorn and international ridicule, come on in.

Smith is betting team spirit will sell tickets to the orchestra’s first full season in three years, win grass-roots donations and burnish a brand badly damaged by the longest lockout in American symphonic history.

Smith, longtime head of the Minnesota Opera, is only temping as the orchestra board searches for a permanent replacement for the departing Michael Henson.

He is determined to harness the heat of pitchfork crowds who cried for revolution a year ago.

Ultimately, Henson resigned and former leaders Jon Campbell and Richard Davis left the board.

“One of the great outcomes is that the community realized it can’t take the orchestra for granted,” Smith said. “The energy that was focused on strife has been transferred to supporting the organization.”

Smith, soothing as a therapist, says the orchestra needs “successes.” The big donations qualify. Increased ticket sales for Sommerfest were a good baby step. A fiscal 2014 deficit under $1 million on a $21 budget (preliminary and unaudited numbers) was better than expected. Ticket sales are brisk for the new season. Community activists recently shared some love with staff, board and musicians — and raised another $290,000.

“Corporate, music lovers, citizens, board, musicians — it takes an entire community to support an orchestra,” said board chairman Gordon Sprenger.

Twelve directors left the board, disenchanted with how Henson was ushered out. But Sprenger and the board pivoted toward recovery by hiring Smith, an eminence grise in the Twin Cities arts community. Perhaps more significant, Dianne Brennan has taken over as chief fundraiser. Brennan spent 15 years heading development at the Guthrie.

The orchestra cannot say yet if it reached a goal of nearly $10 million for the fundraising year just ended. Last week’s big gifts are aimed at the endowment and next year’s budget.

Brennan has been working the phones, hearing from disaffected donors but also from people happy to give again.

“The fog is dissipating, and we’re finding that most people are still with us,” she said.

Former rivals join forces

Donations of $13.2 million are nearly impossible to upstage, but Smith’s summer of love manifested itself best when former rivals sat down together.

  • MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA

    What: Season-opening events include benefit gala Sept. 5, season sampler Sept. 13, free concert at Lake Harriet Sept. 14, and subscription season launch Sept. 26-27.

    Tickets: 612-371-5656 or www.minnesotaorchestra.org.

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