Kevin Smith had been answering questions about himself for nearly two hours. Grew up outside L.A., middle-class parents, got his degree in music and went into stage management. Ran the Minnesota Opera for 20 years. He runs, he reads, he cooks, travels and plays piano.
The meager breakfast of sweet rolls and fresh fruit had disappeared long ago and the coffee had gone cold, so the Minnesota Orchestra president got up to walk back to his cabin at a funky little resort near Detroit Lakes, Minn., where orchestra members spent a weeklong residency this fall.
“You know, I’m really not that interesting,” Smith said, stepping out into the sunshine.
True: His biography contains no dramatic rags to riches arc, no galvanizing conversion experience, no mythic mentor.
Yet, there is something curious about a man who decided at age 63 to forsake his retirement and take on the most difficult reclamation project in the American symphonic industry: putting the Minnesota Orchestra back on its feet after a devastating two-year labor/management war.
The evidence of his success over the past year abounds. He has secured generous new donations for the orchestra and balanced its budget. He has galvanized community interest in its work and reconciled mistrustful partners. And he has struck new contracts with the musicians and their famous music director, Osmo Vänskä.
Smith is also the guy who woke up one morning and thought it would be a coup if Minnesota were the first orchestra to tour Cuba after President Obama moved to restore diplomatic ties. So he made it happen.
Self-taught in administration (“I’ve never read a book on leadership or management”), Smith early in his career revived the Minnesota Opera from the brink of insolvency. He has an ability to distinguish what is serious and what he can laugh at. He is confident in what he knows and, more important, what he does not know. Perhaps most intriguing, he understands the difference between power and authority.
“I had more authority at the opera than I do here,” Smith said of his position at Minnesota’s largest arts organization. “But I have more power here. I have this huge talented orchestra. What can we accomplish with that? You have to lead rather than rule.”
With his spiky gray bangs, perfectly trimmed beard and frequent smile, Smith could be the benevolent ruler of a distant planet on “Star Trek.” A skeptical Capt. Kirk would spend the entire episode trying to figure out how this wise philosopher-ruler has achieved such harmony among his people.
“The first thing that struck me about Kevin is that every constituency respects him,” said Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras.
As much as Smith is defined by an unflappable and unpretentious manner, there must be an inner drive that made the orchestra job appealing.
“Kevin didn’t need to do this,” said Dan Berg, financial adviser to the Minneapolis Foundation and Smith’s longtime friend. “He’s a community guy and I think he concluded there was no one better — I’m projecting that — but he had a unique position.”
A track record of respect
“I think it’s just a miracle” that Smith agreed to take on the task of rebuilding the orchestra, Judy Dayton kept saying over and over during an interview.
Doyenne of Minnesota’s most famous philanthropic family, Dayton oversees the Oakleaf fund, which in fiscal 2015 contributed $3.1 million to the orchestra. She lobbied Smith to take the job he had filled as an interim after Michael Henson left in August 2014, a casualty of the 16-month lockout.
“If there is one person who got me to the orchestra, it was her,” Smith said.
Dayton and the rest of the orchestra’s philanthropic network knew Smith from his years at the opera and they respond well to his sharply targeted ideas, his enthusiasm and earnest integrity.
For example, as the orchestra considered the cost of the Cuban adventure, Smith went to former Carlson Companies CEO Marilyn Carlson Nelson and her husband, Glen, for funding. After listening to the orchestra in an epic Havana concert, a buoyant Nelson told a reporter that the trip — which cost nearly $1 million — was “worth every penny.”
Smith also secured the buy-in of another important constituency — Dayton’s friend Vänskä. The orchestra’s music director knew Smith casually through the opera but felt a rapport on their first meeting.
“I could trust him,” Vänskä said. “To some people, ownership is a huge thing but that is never Kevin Smith.”
Smith had no illusions about the gravity of the situation when he took over as interim boss.
During the lockout, some board members had received e-mailed death threats. Musicians lost 16 months of salary and staff had undergone cuts.
“There was a lot of post-traumatic stress syndrome,” Smith said.
Leadership swiftly changed after the settlement in February 2014. New Chairman Gordon Sprenger put five board members and five musicians in a room with wine and snacks, and told them to talk to each other, much like couples’ counseling.
At the behest of Dayton and others, he then called Smith, who had retired from the opera four years before. Smith agreed to do what he could.
“Things had gotten so toxic and negative that first and foremost Kevin just wanted to get everyone to start listening to each other,” said principal trombone Doug Wright.
That ethic of transparent communication and respect is perhaps Smith’s greatest asset. It came into play earlier this year when he negotiated a contract extension with the players and Vänskä — who had quit during the lockout and returned only after Henson left the orchestra.
The contract talks were “different from any model that I’ve ever been involved with,” said Wright.
Securing the orchestra’s most valuable assets allowed Smith space to think about the future rather than stew in the past.
“I got the feeling that he understood the job was to look ahead and have a vision on how to position the orchestra,” said Rosen. “When I asked him about the Cuba thing, he said he watched the president’s announcement and woke up the next morning and said, ‘We’re going to go.’ I give him a lot of credit for showing people an orchestra on the move.”
He’s been there before
Smith came to the Minnesota Opera as a freelance stage manager in 1981, as the company teetered on bankruptcy.
Smith became the opera’s “accidental CEO,” in Berg’s words. One of the few left standing amid the cost-cutting and disorganization, “he grew into the role,” said Berg.
Dale Johnson, the opera’s artistic director, has known Smith since they worked in New York. What distinguishes Smith’s success, he said, is an ability to create consensus.
“Every single board meeting was significant,” Johnson said. “You could see in everyone’s eyes, whether they disagreed or challenged him, you could see that the board trusted him. They gave him the benefit of the doubt.”
His opera experience explains how Smith was able to quickly rally the orchestra. He listened and he learned — primarily from opera board member Sandy Bemis, known as a wise counselor.
“Sandy functioned as a mentor to me,” Smith said. “There were a lot of emotions at the time and Sandy was able in this elegant way to articulate how we had a responsibility not to take the easy way out but to commit to excellence. He was thoughtful, respectful, and I have tried to behave that way in my career.”
Several people talk about Smith’s lack of ego. He agrees, to a point.
“I have as much ego as anyone else,” Smith says firmly. “But it’s in making everyone around me successful. It doesn’t have to be about me.”
Finding a model that works
It sounds like New Age rhetoric, but Smith truly has pushed authority down to the musicians.
Interestingly, in what might be called the Minnesota Model, the only other major U.S. orchestra with such a high degree of artist participation is the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra — itself recovering from a brutal lockout.
On a recent day, Smith buzzed from meeting to meeting as committees worked on the 2016-17 orchestra season.
“It’s exciting stuff; I love these meetings,” he said.
Filling a concert weekend in December 2016 was the biggest issue. Smith wanted to avoid the “Messiah,” but finding a replacement was tough.
Musicians and staff tossed suggestions around like baseball cards at a trading show. Could Dvorak 8 work, or Tchai 5? Do we do the Elgar? Beethoven 6 might look good there, or Mendelssohn 3. Move Brahms 4 into the summer? How about Haydn?
“Haydn is boring,” Smith said to friendly catcalls around the table.
“Kevin is the ideal person for the job right now,” said bassist Kate Nettleman, who was in the meeting. “I have sat in a room with him more than once when he’s said something difficult to hear, but done it in such an honest, direct way that the tension or guardedness around the subject deflates.”
Loosen up and have fun
Smith had spent a long day watching musicians in Detroit Lakes, working on his computer and making some calls. By evening he was ready to relax and listen to a jazz quintet of orchestra players. “There was something I wanted to say this morning,” he said. “I’ve told people we need to lighten up and try to have fun.”
Perhaps it is his Southern California roots or his career in the arts, but Smith is determined to breathe some fun into every corner of the orchestra.
Board member Karen Bachman, who has known him for 30 years, recalled an opera fundraiser at which Smith dressed as a Venetian gondolier in striped shirt and straw hat.
“We still call him Guido,” Bachman said. “There’s a lightness and absence of ego that allows him to be open to other points of view.”
Smith and his wife, Lynn, live in St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill neighborhood. Their two daughters are grown and have landed in successful situations in New York.
A weekend affords him the chance to hunker down and enjoy the Zen and instant gratification of mowing the lawn and trimming hedges. He’s a great cook, too, say friends who have dined at the Smith house.
“It’s the best place to go for a dinner party,” said Kathy Graves, a public relations consultant who worked with Smith at the opera. “His grilled halibut is so good.”
Both Smiths are fitness buffs. Lynn retired from her job as a Target executive and became a personal trainer at the Sweatshop, a fitness shop near their home. Before his meetings the other day, sitting in an office that even middle managers might consider modest, he said he had run that morning, but only a few miles — as if he had something to apologize for.
He needs to stay fit. Vänskä said Smith has promised to stay in the job as long as the music director is there — through 2019.
“Kevin is a new and fresh thing during my years here,” Vänskä said. “It has been a fairy tale.”