Michael Henson, president and CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra, will step down in August, it was announced late Thursday.

Some viewed Henson's departure as setting the stage for the return of former music director Osmo Vänskä, who resigned last October but has indicated he might wish to come back.

Henson, who joined the orchestra in 2007, oversaw the $50 million Orchestra Hall renovation, and spearheaded $110 million in overall fundraising, but he became a divisive figure during the bitter, 16-month labor dispute that ended in January.

During the lockout, in the fall of 2012, the musicians issued a vote of no confidence in Henson.

Then-board chair Jon Campbell dismissed the criticism, calling Henson "the perfect leader at this challenging time" and saying he "has the full confidence of our board."

Gordon Sprenger, who took over as board chair in January, publicly praised Henson, but the board reportedly was divided on whether he should stay or go.

Henson addressed the orchestra's "serious financial challenges," Sprenger said in a statement Thursday, and he leaves it "secure, on more solid financial footing.

"It is never easy to be an agent of change," Sprenger said.

Moving forward

"In light of today's announcement, we look forward to working with our board and future management to move the Minnesota Orchestra forward," said musicians spokesman Blois Olson in a statement, adding that musicians hope to "build upon the legacy of artistic excellence this community has supported over the past 110 years."

"It has been my privilege to serve the Minnesota Orchestra for the past seven seasons," Henson said in a statement. "It has always been my aim to do what is right for the organization, however great the challenges. The right thing now is for me to work to ensure continuity during this transition to the next phase in the life of the Minnesota Orchestra, which I believe will be very bright."

Return of Vänskä?

Mariellen Jacobson, treasurer of the volunteer support group Save Our Symphony Minnesota, said she is "happy to hear the board and Henson have concluded it was time for him to leave, but I wish it was sooner. I hope we can have some audience and community involvement in selecting his successor."

She added, "I hope it bodes well for the possibility of Vänskä's full-time return."

Vänskä has publicly implied that he would not come back until Henson left. On Feb. 8, the morning after the musicians' first homecoming concert at Orchestra Hall, Vänskä told Minnesota Public Radio that "for any healing to begin at the orchestra, Michael Henson must go."

Vänskä will conduct the orchestra March 27-29 in Orchestra Hall, his first time back in almost two years.

Causing friction

Musicians were "appalled" at news that Henson received a $202,500 bonus in 2011, bringing his total compensation that year to $619,313.

The orchestra defended the bonus based on Henson's fundraising ability and leadership of the building renovation.

In January, Henson announced he would take a pay cut of 15 percent, matching the concession of the musicians.

Drew McManus, a Chicago-based arts consultant who blogs about classical-music issues, said that Henson's departure "removes the main impediment to bringing Vänskä back," but that the interim five months is problematic for the orchestra's immediate future.

"They have a lame-duck CEO who is not well liked while they're trying to fundraise and recover," he said. "It's surprising they didn't just pay his severance and start looking for someone new right away."

Before joining Minnesota Orchestra, Henson, who is British, led the Bournemouth Symphony in England and the Ulster Orchestra in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The orchestra will launch a search next month for Henson's replacement.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046