Finally, they are ready to meet the world.
The Minnesota Orchestra departs Thursday for a nine-day European tour, a high-stakes affair that is the ensemble’s first visit across the ocean since the 2012-14 lockout. Audiences and critics will be eager to hear whether this is the same band that delighted London audiences in 2010.
“This tour is the final piece of re-establishing the Minnesota Orchestra to its previous, historic stature,” said President and CEO Kevin Smith. “We’re ready for critical attention and to evaluate whether this ensemble is the same, or maybe even better.”
With stops in Finland, Edinburgh, Amsterdam and Copenhagen, the tour could be called “the last first” in the orchestra’s reboot.
There was the first concert back, the first full season, the first recording session, the just-released first album from those sessions. Then there was the historic trip to Cuba — the first by a major U.S. orchestra since relations thawed.
Now music director Osmo Vänskä wants to take his ensemble to the sophisticated audiences of Europe and see if they’ve re-found the sound.
“Cuba was very special and we are happy that we were able to do it, but it is a once-in-a-lifetime to do that kind of trip,” Vänskä said. “This is just like we are back to normal.”
Significant roles have been filled in the ensemble. The budget has stabilized through aggressive and imaginative fundraising, the musicians have been “verking hard” under Vänskä and attendance has started to creep up.
“When you work to get an international profile and then give it away, reclaiming that is a huge step,” said principal second violin Peter McGuire.
Maintaining a balance
Stability is always temporal in the U.S. symphonic world.
“I don’t know that there is a sense of any orchestra that is ever in the clear,” said McGuire, who left the orchestra in 2012, largely to escape the unhappiness. He moved to Zurich and played with Tonhalle Orchester for three years. The European tour marks his return. A native of Mankato, he felt things looked healthy enough to head the second-violins section.
“What was interesting to me is the opportunity to help shape the section, finding the vibrancy in that strong, biting sound,” said McGuire. “We will be filling a bunch of vacancies with that in mind.”
Another key, and symbolic, vacancy was filled in June when the orchestra named Gabriel Campos Zamora principal clarinet, filling the chair left during the lockout by the acclaimed Burt Hara, who led that section for 25 years.
Smith has made a priority of diversifying fundraising, while finding opportunities for top givers to contribute. The tour’s $2 million cost is funded by an anonymous donor and the Douglas and Louise Leatherdale Fund. Glen and Marilyn Carlson Nelson funded the Cuba trip.
But grass-roots support appears stronger, reversing a pre-lockout trend. The total number of donors is up 12 percent to 6,776 this year over last. The number of “community donors” — who give up to $2,499 annually — increased by 17 percent. Significantly, 29 percent of those donors are new or hadn’t given to the orchestra in five years.
Businesses have come back, too. Ameriprise paid for a Carnegie Hall trip in February, and U.S. Bank — whose head, Richard Davis, formerly chaired the orchestra’s board —sponsored Sommerfest.
Michael Langley, founding CEO of the economic-development nonprofit Greater MSP, is a new orchestra board member. He’s going on the tour to discuss possible business with European companies and to invite them to hear the orchestra.
“What the orchestra does for us is priceless,” Langley said. “It creates a buzz, and when the right leaders hear quality, that reflects on our community.”
Everyone’s a stakeholder
Smith expects to report a balanced budget for the second year in a row when fiscal 2016 ends Aug. 31. Operating revenue, including ticket sales, is projected to exceed its $8.6 million goal. That includes income from the remodeled lobby — a favorite whipping boy during the lockout. Smith said the business plan created by his predecessor, Michael Henson, has exceeded projections.
Paid capacity is up 5 percentage points, to 73 percent, from the previous year. Adding in free tickets and artist discounts, the orchestra played to 88 percent capacity.
The sobering note — as it is across the entire performing arts scene — is subscription sales. The average package sold five years ago included four concerts. Now it is three.
In 2012, the orchestra administration said its draconian wage proposals were precipitated by a $5 million gap between revenue and expenses. Musicians and their partisans naturally disputed any discussion of a “structural deficit.”
“The $5 million gap was and is real,” Smith said.
Rather than proposing cuts in labor expenses, however, he has rallied all stakeholders to help raise funds.
“Everyone understands we all have something to gain or lose,” he said. “It’s more fun to look for ways to grow than downsize.”
There are now 78 full-time musicians in the orchestra, compared with 93 before the lockout. That number is contractually required to grow to 84 by January and 88 in 2020-21.
A time to play
While the orchestra’s cultural and business transformation has attracted a good deal of attention, Vänskä is ready to make some noise. He is bringing Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto (an artistic partner at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra) and has programmed lots of Beethoven and Sibelius.
“There has been so much news about us, that now we want to give news about our playing and music-making,” Vänskä said. “This [tour] is the best way to do that.”
When the plane touches down later this week in Lahti — the Finnish city whose symphony Vänskä once led — it will mark his first visit with this orchestra since 2003.
“I’m sure it’s going to be very emotional,” he said. “It’s a great hall and I was so involved with it when it was built.”
Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw is one of the meccas for symphonies, and the orchestra’s concert there Aug. 24 will be broadcast live on Minnesota Public Radio.
“I think it does mark the end of a transition of getting the orchestra back on its feet and fully functioning,” Smith said of the tour. “The lockout becomes a component, an important one, of our history.”