Osmo joins the party

It’s been a bad week for the management of the Minnesota Orchestra, and this very public letter from their Music Director was was likely the cherry on the cake:

Dear Members of the Minnesota Orchestra Board and the Musicians of the Orchestra:

In the last few years, the Minnesota Orchestra has truly established itself as a world-class orchestra. Critics and audiences around the world praise what we have achieved together. The national and international attention we have attracted through our Beethoven and Sibelius recordings, our Carnegie Hall and BBC Proms engagements, as well as our crucial work at home is the result of the invested talent, energy and commitment of an exceptional group of artists, not merely competent professionals.

The Board is justifiably proud of the results which the Minnesota Orchestra has achieved; many other Boards would be delighted if their own orchestras achieved anything like the level of the Minnesota Orchestra. This is all the more gratifying when you compare our costs with our peers in Chicago, New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles.

The Twin Cities area is such a special place. No metropolitan area our size can boast the award-winning cultural offerings that we do. We are the home of several Fortune 500 companies as well as many other innovative businesses. Our downtown is thriving, our unemployment low. Smart, creative people choose to live here because of all the Twin Cities has to offer. No other market our size has an orchestra such as ours, playing at the same level as the greatest orchestras in the world. A metropolitan leader as cultured as this must protect, preserve and cultivate such an asset.

But now I fear we may be on a path to diminishing greatly, if not destroying, the Minnesota Orchestra as an artistic and cultural leader. While there is no progress in the contract negotiations; while players are unable to rehearse and perform together; while some are obliged to seek jobs elsewhere – I am desperately anxious about the risk posed to the quality and spirit of the orchestra for the future. I become deeply emotional when I listen to our latest Sibelius recording edit of the 1s1 and 4th Symphonies, first because the music is so moving and superbly played in the hands of our musicians, and second because I fear that to preserve our reputations I may need to consider letting go of the remaining recording projects we have planned. I will also be in a position to think seriously about the viability of bringing a diminished or compromised orchestra to Carnegie Hall for our four concerts in the 2013-14 season, plus international touring thereafter, including a re-invitation to the BBC Proms.

It is difficult to imagine that the current negotiation process will sustain the orchestra’s future. Rather, the process may rob us of the chance of having a world class ensemble for years to come. When the lockout is over, the Twin Cities may have a “professional orchestra,” but inevitably not the same one, nor a highly regarded one. Will anyone—either the Board or the Musicians—be able to reflect back with pride at what was accomplished during this season? The Association and the Musicians must come together to mitigate any more damage.

It is clear that the orchestra’s finances are deeply troubled and finding a solution must balance business and art. I urge the Board and the players of the MO, from the bottom of my heart, to seek new and creative ways–without insulting or demeaning–to pursue these negotiations, to re-establish a common vision, to identify a path forward, in partnership, to a financially and artistically sustainable future. There must be some way to re-establish trust and bring both parties to negotiate once again.

The Twin Cities is a unique and great place to live. The 109-year-old Minnesota Orchestra is a great orchestra. We are all proud of what we have achieved here. The world-class Orchestra Hall this orchestra needs and deserves is only months from completion. Once again, many other orchestras envy our significant accomplishments.

Nine years ago, you brought me here and entrusted me to lead a world-class orchestra, which I have enthusiastically and faithfully done. It is my responsibility as Music Director, and one that I take extremely seriously, to maintain and develop the artistic level of this great orchestra. If the orchestra does not play, its quality will most definitely diminish. Please, do what it takes, find a way, talk together, listen to each other and come to a resolution of this dreadful situation.

Sincerely, s/Osmo Vänskä

While this is ostensibly a plea to both sides, it seems to reinforce the points made by the musicians about the cuts management is proposing. To say that “the process may rob us of the chance of having a world class ensemble for years to come” begs the question of just what part of the process is putting that all at risk, which are management’s proposed cuts and their intransigence – as I’m sure Vänskä knows.The reference to the orchestra’s budget size relative to other orchestras is hardly a coded message of support for the board’s crusade to make the budget even smaller.

I suspect that he is taking a real risk by going public, although there are potential consequences for him sitting mute in the corner as well. In 2008, Junichi Hirokami was fired from his position as music director of the Columbus Symphony after publicly supporting his musicians during a labor dispute. I can’t imagine those running the Minnesota Orchestra would be stupid enough to do the same to Vänskä, but it wouldn’t be the first dumb thing they’d done during this negotiation.

So good for him. This whole episode has featured so many conductors and music directors behaving admirably that I’m going to have to rethink my tribal biases about conductors.

Note: a commenter pointed out that my original version of this post contained a truncated version of the letter from Vänskä (it ended after the words “mitigate any more damage.”) My apologies for that (and thanks to the commenter for the catch). I should be careful when using free online OCR software, and should probably be more careful when writing posts late at night as well.

But the additional text doesn’t change my conclusion. Saying that the institution’s finances are “deeply troubled” and that “finding a solution must balance business and art” is essentially content-free. The first statement almost goes without saying for most American orchestras, at least when viewed from certain perspectives, and the second is little more than a platitude. (I would happily trade the Minnesota Orchestra’s finances for those of my own orchestra, yet the solutions our board and management are pursuing do not involve cutting musicians’ pay, for example).

I continue to believe that the management of the Minnesota Orchestra would far rather Vänskä had continued to stay quiet than to come out with this statement, even though he did throw them a few bones.



About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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