For Minnesota Orchestra, a fresh start

  • Article by: LEE A. HENDERSON
  • Updated: November 12, 2013 - 5:55 PM

We have an ensemble, a venue and an endowment. All we lack is a vision.

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It’s time. Not long ago, music critics were gushing about the Minnesota Orchestra, calling it perhaps the best orchestra in the world. Today it lies in shambles, the result of a bitter contest of competing philosophies. The Minnesota Orchestral Association (MOA) has sought to slash costs and reduce the quality of its product, arguing that that will be easier to fund within the community. The musicians want to continue to be a world-class ensemble and to make a living at comparable pay scales. While much of the debate has been around economics, what is really at the heart of this dispute is the vision for the future — an orchestra reduced in stature or one that continues to aspire to be among the best in the world.

In many ways, this dispute mirrors a current debate in our society — do we live in a world of scarcity, where there are limited resources and hoarding is the goal, or do we believe there are an abundance of resources so that if we work together, we can do great things? People of good faith have different opinions on the scarcity vs. abundance paradigm and it is reflected in the current orchestra stalemate.

These fundamental philosophical differences make it difficult to reach a negotiated agreement. Even former Sen. George Mitchell was unable to bridge the gap. Thus, it is time to move in a different direction — to create a new organization built on collaboration and a shared vision, not confrontation and leverage.

I believe in the abundance model. With creative thinkers, an engaged audience, and forward-looking managers and donors, we can re-create the world-class orchestra we once had — as a newly formed Minnesota Symphony. Nothing about aspiring to greatness is easy and this will not be, either. Here is what needs to be done:

Philanthropy. We need one or more philanthropists in the Twin Cities to provide major transition gifts over a multiyear period and to provide leadership among those who believe that a world-class orchestra is both the correct objective and achievable. Current members of the MOA board who share this vision are welcome to join this new venture.

Governance. A new governance model is needed — one that encourages collaboration, not confrontation; growth in revenues and endowment giving, not more cuts; and creativity in promoting the future of the art form, not a pessimistic view of the future. To do that we need a CEO of national stature to run the new organization, with a commitment to these growth objectives and a creative eye for ways to expand the reach of classical music and preserve it for future generations.

A home. A world-class orchestra needs a permanent home. Orchestra Hall has some of the best acoustics in the country and yet it sits silent. Mayor-elect Betsy Hodges needs to assert the city’s power under the Orchestra Hall lease, declare it in breach (when was the last concert?) and take back control of the hall. The new Minnesota Symphony can then call Orchestra Hall home and fill it with quality music every day of the year.

A music director. We need a world-class conductor. Osmo Vänskä took the orchestra from good to great and appears to enjoy working with these musicians. They certainly create magic when performing together, drawing rave reviews, Grammy nominations and creating a synergy not often found between conductor and orchestra. We need him back to lead the orchestra for the next several years. The rumor mill suggests that this might still be possible.

Musicians. The musicians need to commit to stay and rebuild the orchestra. There need to be more concerts and more musicians in the community in small groups, all generating a new excitement for classical music. There needs to be flexibility in the near-term transition regarding pay scales — but always with the vision that the orchestra will be world class and its top-notch musicians paid on par with their peers.

An endowment. There is a $100 million-plus endowment given to preserve the art form by people who loved classical music. They certainly did not give the money for it to be used to pay lawyers, buy newspaper ads and incur administrative expenses without putting on a single concert in more than 15 months. Attorney General Lori Swanson needs to assert the control she has over charitable organizations and separate the endowment from the current board. Putting it in the hands of the new Minnesota Symphony will achieve the goals for which the money was given.

We the people. It’s time for the community to take back its orchestra. We fell asleep at the wheel during the good years and did not do our fair share. This means higher ticket prices and more annual contributions. We need to return to the days when 28,000 people made annual contributions to the orchestra (rather than the few thousand who do today). We just need an organization to give to that is committed to the excellence we have grown to expect.

Imagine an Orchestra Hall — and our orchestra — that makes Minneapolis a destination for hundreds of thousands of people who also eat in restaurants, stay in hotels, shop in stores, attend a play, visit a museum and perhaps decide to move their business (or more of their employees) to such a dynamic community. That is the impact of a world-class orchestra.

In his book “Engaged with the Arts,” author John Tusa writes about the giving habits of Ken and Judy Dayton, of department store fame and two of the most significant benefactors in the history of the MOA: “Few can give as generously as the Daytons of Minneapolis. All can learn something from the attitudes behind the spirit that informed their giving. Then giving becomes not a reluctant duty, an onerous burden, but a pleasure, an opportunity and, finally, an art.”

As a community, we have lost the art of giving because we have lost our vision for the art. Although I have long favored a brokered resolution among the MOA and the musicians, I do not believe it is possible any longer. Major changes are required. If you want a world-class orchestra and you want to join me in implementing these seven steps, send an e-mail to worldclassorch@gmail.com. It’s time.

 

Lee A. Henderson is an attorney and classical music lover in Minneapolis.

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