They were outside instigators — organizing a community uprising four years ago when the Minnesota Orchestra’s board of directors locked horns with union musicians.
Paula DeCosse and Laurie Greeno formed Orchestrate Excellence to push for solutions to the bitter 16-month lockout while MaryAnn Goldstein rallied partisans around the musicians through Save Our Symphony MN.
How times change. All three are now inside the tent as orchestra board members, and they have been tasked with producing the Symphony Ball, the organization’s signature fundraising gala.
“Until you’re involved, you really don’t know how it runs,” said Goldstein in a recent interview. “Being on the board makes you step up and act on what you think is important.”
And what is important to these community organizers is to stretch the boundaries of the ball, to invite the hoi polloi who might assume that this symbol of upper-crust society is outside their grasp.
They made it a point to invite every orchestra musician to the ball — a first — and to book Minneapolis hip-hop artist Dessa, who has even written two pieces to debut with the orchestra before she performs a separate set.
“We’re trying to expand the footprint of the organization and the ball, and dispel the conception that ‘It’s not for me,’ ” said Greeno, a former General Mills executive.
The goal is to draw 700 people to the sit-down dinner at the Hilton and 500 more to the after-party at Orchestra Hall.
Oh, and to raise more than $1 million.
This will be the 61st Symphony Ball. If the organizers achieve their goal, attendance would match the first soiree in 1956. The swells raised $15,000 on that night, which featured an 11 p.m. fashion show and a midnight waltz.
The ball had a unique cachet in an era when fundraising events were rare. More than 3,000 of the Twin Cities elite paid $15 each for the 1961 ball, when the Viennese ¾-time cadences wafted through the warm air until 2 a.m. (A news story quoted a wistful patron: “It is a ball in the sense that it lasted all night.”)
In 1967, Vice President Hubert Humphrey and his wife, Muriel, danced the frug, joining the Ordways, Daytons, Whitneys, Ankenys and Pillsburys. Governors, mayors and congressional representatives were regulars at these affairs. The Japanese ambassador was a guest in 1964 and Danny Kaye conducted a 1973 concert at Northrop Auditorium before ballgoers were whisked back to the Radisson South for a late supper and dancing.
“That was Marilyn’s first ball she was in charge of,” said board member Luella Goldberg of the current chair, Marilyn Carlson Nelson. “I can remember getting people onto buses after the concert and back to the Radisson. It was a production and a half.” Dinner wasn’t served until 11 and the hardcore stayed overnight for a brunch buffet the next morning.
Architect Philip Johnson came to check out his IDS Center in 1972 at the “Crystal Court Ball,” held months before the Minneapolis landmark opened.
“In those days, it was more elite because of the cost of the ticket,” said Goldberg, the legendary former board chairwoman and a lifetime director. “Without some of those families, we wouldn’t have the orchestra today, but our aim today is to be more inclusive and reach other parts of the community.”
There was an almost surreal atmosphere to those long-ago balls, she said. The orchestra (known as the Minneapolis Symphony until 1968) would perform for an hour or two and patrons could dance to this magnificent ensemble playing Strauss waltzes.
“It was such a night of anticipation. It was an unbelievable feeling to dance to the orchestra you revered.”
Once a dance band, now guests
For years, the orchestra players attended the ball as employees who entertained in various ensembles. But now principal musicians have become table guests — celebrity conversation pieces, if you will.
“How better to deepen the relationship between musicians and patrons and board than to share a meal?” said Greeno.
Principal trombone Doug Wright, a union negotiator during the lockout, said the musicians were genuinely touched when told that the board had asked all of them to attend as guests.
“It’s a huge deal,” Wright said. “The three chairs have worked to make this event orchestra-centric and it makes sense to have us sit and talk with [donors].”
In response to the invite, musicians passed the hat among themselves and collected $10,000 to donate to the orchestra. That, Wright said, is unprecedented.
In addition, individual players and chamber groups have donated services, such as music lessons or house concerts, for the night’s silent auction. That might bring in another $10,000.
Inviting the community, too
Greeno, who was the first of the three women elected to the board in 2015, is no stranger to the Symphony Ball. Her mother was one of Carlson Nelson’s lieutenants at the 1973 “Tivoli Ball” featuring Kaye.
However, she, Goldstein and DeCosse acknowledge that they are a shade different from the traditional board member. Their history might have been resented by those who felt bruised by their criticisms during the lockout. They acknowledged that possibility, but felt the challenge was necessary to promote change in the organization.
“I think they knew we wouldn’t be shrinking violets,” said Greeno.
“It was more of a learning curve for me,” said DeCosse, acknowledging that the size of the board — 85 members — was daunting. “It’s taken a long time just to get to know everyone’s names.”
Still, Goldstein said the most common response from board members was, “Thank you for rallying the community.”
Indeed, the Symphony Ball is an interesting microcosm — a reflection of the state of nonprofit fundraising in the 21st century. Depending on your point of view, the “great families” of the Twin Cities could be considered elitists to be mocked, or communitarians responsible for the health of the Twin Cities arts scene.
Still, their impact has been diffused in recent years. While the largesse of a figure such as Carlson Nelson remains significant, philanthropy and support rest more broadly on the shoulders of the community. With democracy comes responsibility. That is a lesson every arts organization — including artists, board members and staffers — is learning.
About 640 people attended last year’s dinner and after-party in the new Orchestra Hall lobby and auditorium. This year, about 1,000 tickets have been sold to both parties, with a goal of 1,200.
The ball chairs have been pushing the event regularly at concerts, inviting everyone who enjoys the orchestra to support its most important fundraiser.
“We need to find a place for everyone in this hall,” Goldstein said. “That’s why we’re bringing in Dessa, and her fans. That’s the future of this audience.”
Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune arts journalist. He can be reached at email@example.com.