The latest bad news from Minnesota

There have been several developments in the trench warfare that goes by the name of “Minnesota Orchestra negotiations” recently. The first, and (to my mind) least consequential, was DomainNameGate. Emily Hogstad, who has done remarkable commentary and reporting throughout this dispute, discovered more or less by chance that the Minnesota Orchestra Association had been buying up a rather suspicious bunch of domain names:

So. While you were attending the last show in the old Orchestra Hall – earnestly cutting checks for the Building for the Future campaign – flipping through your shiny brochures for the 2012-13 season – the Minnesota Orchestra was spending money (presumably, your money) in a concerted attempt to buy a domain name relating to “saving the orchestra.” (Implication: they knew a big persuasive chunk of people in the future would view their actions as destructive, and they knew they had to guard against those people.)

Oh, but wait, you say. Yes, this sounds awful, initially, but maybe the MOA wanted to keep the name on hand for a fundraising effort!

Nope. Wasn’t done for a fundraising effort. Want to know why I know?


Yes, on May 24 and May 25, 2012 (2012!), they bought all those domain names, anticipating the moment when the audience would connect with Save our Symphony in Detroit and unleash pro-musician havoc into our corner of the world. If it was for a fundraising campaign, they should have chosen one or two and stuck with them.
I don’t know the MOA’s side of the story since the MOA doesn’t reply to me, and never will reply to me, except to tell me to shut up. In the immortal words of Michael Henson in a closed-door donor meeting that one of my readers was at: “Blogs are senseless and must be ignored.” Maybe at some point the MOA will speak to the mainstream press about this. But until the MOA explains what the heck is going on here, do you want to know what this looks like?

This looks like deliberate, predatory domain buying meant to outwit and irritate angry patrons and donors.

This looks like the MOA colluding even more intensely with Detroit than we’ve been led to believe.

This looks like the destruction was premeditated and preordained from the beginning. From BEFORE the beginning.

This looks like the MOA didn’t just want to pick a fight with musicians.

This looks like the MOA wanted to pick a fight with their patrons.

To me, it just looks pretty pathetic (although Emily came to that conclusion as well, it seems). It’s so last-century to think that buying up domain names will prevent anyone from starting a robust online website related to the issue. And it’s very last-century to forget about Facebook and Twitter.

Drew McManus went further:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most folks won’t be shocked to learn that the MOA was digging the proverbial trenches for a long term siege well in advance of talks officially breaking down. Simply put, it is a clear indication that the employer had little to no intention for negotiating in good faith.

The real head-scratcher here is how brazen the MOA’s domain squatting efforts are. For instance, the WHOIS records clearly indicate that the MOA purchased and currently owns the domain names and made the deliberate decision not to register the names with what is known as domain privacy; which does an enormously effectively job at masking the owner’s identity. The service is inexpensive and can be applied at the same moment the domain name is registered.

I suspect that they were just clueless about domain privacy. But buying up domain names in preparation for a work stoppage is evidence of nothing but thinking ahead; albeit, in this case, in a rather dated fashion. It doesn’t come within a thousand miles of the legal definition of bad-faith bargaining. If putting forward proposals with the expectation that the other side wouldn’t accept them while simultaneously preparing for a work stoppage was bad-faith bargaining, most of the orchestra managements and local unions in this country would be in violation of the law every other year or so. Locking up domain names that the other side might use after negotiations broke down and a work stoppage ensued might be better evidence of bad-faith bargaining than what actually happened in Minnesota; that really would suggest that the party in question wasn’t trying to reach a settlement. But even that would be pretty small beer.

And can I take a moment to protest this particular headline from NPR?

Behind The Latest Round Of Bruised Feelings At The Minnesota Orchestra

Orchestral labor negotiations, with very rare exceptions, are not about “feelings.” By the time most settlements are reached in tough negotiations, the parties are plenty mad at each other. They don’t settle because they’ve had a Kumbaya moment; they reach an agreement because both parties believe it’s in their best interests to do so. Musicians get infantilized enough; can’t we be treated as grown-ups when our livelihoods are at stake?

End of rant; more worrisome was the announcement by BIS, which has produced the recent award-winning Minnesota Orchestra recordings, that they were “postponing” plans to record the orchestra in September:

The Minnesota Orchestra was due to record the third and sixth symphonies by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in September under the baton of Music Director Osmo Vänskä, a Finland native and world-renowned exponent of the composer’s music.

The Orchestra’s recording of the Sibelius second and fifth symphonies, released by BIS in early 2012, received a Grammy nomination.

BIS officials say they are withdrawing from the September sessions because they no longer believe the orchestra is “in good-enough shape” to meet the exacting standards the label requires, according to a document obtained by MPR News.

Orchestra President Michael Henson agrees with the Swedish label’s decision, and said he hopes the session can be rescheduled for the spring.

“This seems a very logical thing to do, in terms of making sure the orchestra is fully prepared for these recordings and is allowed ample rehearsal time and preparation time,” he said.

Vänskä had set a Sept. 9 deadline for the orchestra to rehearse so it could be ready for the recordings and for upcoming Carnegie Hall dates.

My guess is that the reason they came to that conclusion was because Vänskä told them that there was no chance for a settlement that would meet his September 9th deadline. Michael Henson’s unbecomingly eager acquiesence in the decision is both embarrassing and troubling; doesn’t he get that both BIS and Vänskä are half-way out the door with this decision? Or is it just that he doesn’t care?

Perhaps the latter; the most worrisome news came on August 16th, when Minnesota Public Radio reported that mediator George Mitchell (!) had made a proposal for how to proceed, only to have it shot down by MOA leadership:

The Minnesota Orchestra rejected a proposal to enter mediation with the musicians’ union after its members accepted it, according to a document obtained by MPR News.

The negotiations led by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell are secret at Mitchell’s request. However Mitchell has proposed a so-called play-and-talk deal in which management would end its 10-month lock out of the musicians on Sept. 1.

That would allow a rehearsal before the Sept. 9 the deadline set by Music Director Osmo Vänskä to prevent his resignation. Under the Mitchell proposal, the musicians would return for two months under the terms of their old contract. If there is no contract deal by then, musicians would take a 6 percent pay cut.

If another two months passed without a deal, then the lock out would return. According to the document, the musicians accepted the deal, but management rejected it.

A musicians’ representative said the musicians had no comment. A management representative said the process is confidential and also declined comment.

Apparently Vänskä’s deadline is having no effect at all on focusing the minds of the board and management of the Minnesota Orchestra. It is true that, as Charles de Gaulle once said, cemeteries are full of irreplaceable people. But Vänskä, at this point in time, really is irreplaceable for the Minnesota Orchestra. His departure would be devastating, and he’s laid down as red a line as a line can be – if the orchestra isn’t playing by September 9th, he’s gone.

The only grey patch in this very dark cloud was the fact that neither side was willing to comment on it, suggesting that the mediation effort was still ongoing. But even that grey looks pretty dark at this point.

About a week ago, Alex Ross pleaded:

…While Fletcher criticizes several of the musicians’ talking points, he places more pressure on the board and management. I hope they listen. I cannot bring myself to believe — despite mounting evidence — that they actually want a drastically reduced orchestra, its assets stripped, its ambitions narrowed, its activities no longer relevant to the outside world.

I’d love to agree with him. But too much evidence has mounted for me to do so. The folks running the Minnesota Orchestra want a much cheaper and smaller orchestra and don’t care how much damage is done in the process of getting there. They are quite willing to destroy the orchestra in order – in their minds – to save it.



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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