The Minnesota Orchestra on Thursday took a giant step away from the turmoil of the past two years and opened a new window on its future.
The orchestra’s board brought back celebrated music director Osmo Vänskä on a two-year contract to rebuild an arts organization that has weathered the greatest crisis of its 110-year history.
“This brings stability, and we can move forward because we have the pieces in place,” said board chairman Gordon Sprenger.
“We’re excited to have Osmo back, and we believe the future of the orchestra is phenomenal.”
Vänskä, who will return on May 1, was in Washington, D.C., preparing for a Thursday night concert with the National Symphony Orchestra. In a statement released by the Minnesota Orchestra, he said he was “very pleased to have this chance to rebuild the Vänskä/Minnesota Orchestra partnership.”
While he has no concerts scheduled at Orchestra Hall in the remainder of the current season, Vänskä will lead the orchestra in concerts at Northrop Auditorium on May 2 and 4.
Tense labor negotiations, begun in April 2012, resulted in the longest lockout of musicians in U.S. symphonic history. Last October, Vänskä, 61, resigned in frustration over the lack of a settlement.
A deal to cut salaries 15 percent was approved in January, but almost immediately musicians and their supporters insisted that the question of artistic leadership be addressed. They made clear they supported Vänskä’s reinstatement.
Tension at the top
A major sticking point was tension between Vänskä and Michael Henson, the orchestra’s CEO and president. On the weekend that musicians returned to Orchestra Hall, Vänskä said publicly that for the institution to begin healing, Henson would need to resign.
About five weeks later, Henson’s departure was announced by a board that was sharply divided. Several directors, in fact, quit in protest, feeling that Henson had been unfairly maligned for carrying out an aggressive fiscal objective in the contract negotiations. Others contended that Vänskä’s presence was essential to restoring the orchestra’s luster.
Almost immediately following Henson’s resignation (which takes effect in August), negotiations began with Vänskä. Sprenger would not reveal details of those talks, but sources said that at one point Vänskä was offered a position that was less than full music director.
The terms of the two-year deal provide that Vänskä will lead at least 10 weeks of concerts in each of the next two seasons. In addition, his annual salary, reported in the 2012 tax return at $1.176 million, will be cut by the same 15 percent the musicians took.
“It feels like this chapter of it is over,” said principal trombonist Douglas Wright of Vänskä’s return. “There is a lot of work in front of us and quite a bit of healing that needs to take place. But this is a major step in that direction.”
Brings a rigorous work ethic
Vänskä held the post for 10 years before resigning last October. His fate, alongside that of the Minnesota Orchestra, has drawn international attention. He became a folk legend after resigning in protest, then more openly aligning himself with musicians. He said in a March interview that every corner of the organization needed to be cleaned for the orchestra to regain its place in the orchestra world.
He came to Minnesota from the Lahti Symphony in his native Finland in 2003 and quickly established a rigorous work ethic. Critics and other observers from the symphonic world credited him with elevating a good orchestra to world-class status — with a particular focus on music of late Romantic composers (Bruckner, Mahler, Sibelius, Nielsen) and Beethoven.
His recordings with the orchestra received several Grammy nominations. This past February, the disk of Sibelius’ first and fourth symphonies won the award.
The orchestra received glowing notices on trips to Europe, including the BBC Proms in London, and to Carnegie Hall. However, attendance at Orchestra Hall has not seen a rise commensurate with the growing reputation.
Annual concert revenue, for example, dropped by about $1 million from 2004 to 2012. Part of that decline resulted from fewer concerts, as the administration sought to cut costs.
The orchestra balanced budgets in 2009 and 2010 by making extraordinary draws on its endowment and then declared deficits the following two years, with a $6 million shortfall reported in 2012.
Save Our Symphony Minnesota, a citizens group that formed during the lockout, congratulated the board, saying, “we believe the return of Maestro Vänskä as music director will foster healing and increase ticket sales and donations.”
Sprenger said the silver lining in all the upheaval is the attention the orchestra has attracted in the community. “We’re basking in this moment right now,” he said. “But we are discussing with musicians and Osmo about engaging the community.
“The community knows more about the orchestra than it ever has.”