Machiavelli wasn’t a Finn

The former battlefield known as the Minnesota Orchestral Association continues its explorations of the very outer limits of the envelope:

Musicians returned to playing concerts for the Minnesota Orchestra this weekend, but the turmoil that has followed the organization for more than 16 months resurfaced Saturday.

After a homecoming concert Friday at Orchestra Hall, musicians and board members were met Saturday with the first direct comments from former music director Osmo Vänskä on the state of his old orchestra.

Speaking with classical music host Brian Newhouse of Minnesota Public Radio, Vänskä reportedly said, “For any healing to begin at the orchestra, Michael Henson must go.”

Henson, the organization’s president and CEO, was a lightning rod for criticism from musicians and their supporters during the just-concluded lockout.

“We are surprised Osmo chose to register his comments with the news media when those conversations belong within the Orchestral Association,” Gordon Sprenger, new board chair of the orchestra, said in a statement Saturday night. “This weekend is a time to celebrate that the Minnesota Orchestra is performing onstage in the renovated Orchestra Hall, and we are sorry to pull any focus from that celebratory event.”

Of course, Vänskä isn’t “within the Orchestral Association,” as Sprenger’s comments after he was elected board chair made very clear:

Many people in the Twin Cities, have bluntly said they want Osmo Vanska back as music director and Michael Henson gone as President and CEO.

Sprenger chose his words carefully when asked about both situations but said he has a great deal of confidence in Henson.

“I think what has happened in just the last two weeks should give people confidence that he is a very, very good, outstanding leadership for the orchestra,” Sprenger said.

Sprenger pointed to the way orchestra staff under Henson’s leadership was able to put together an entire season just 10 days after the settlement was announced. Sprenger said he is sure he will hear the musicians opinion on Henson when he meets with them next week.

“But I think it’s important that right now we focus on getting the orchestra up and going,” he said. “We obviously need strong management  as well as we need outstanding musicians, and I think we have both of those.”…

As for Vanska, Sprenger noted that the acclaimed director “did resign during this time.”

“There are people who have said that we should consider bringing him back,” Sprenger said. “Frankly, where we are right now is we are focused on ensuring that we do have artistic excellence in the orchestra, and with a contract now settled and a new board leadership team in place, frankly the board will now turn its attention with appropriate deliberation to examining this whole issue of artistic leadership for the orchestra. And that will include anybody that has thoughts about Osmo.”

Even assuming that the board is very divided over the settlement, over Henson, and over Vänskä, and that Sprenger is trying not to make that division worse, these are rather discouraging comments. There are no rational criteria by which Henson could be judged to be a  “very, very good, outstanding leader for the orchestra.” It’s hard to know which is worse: that Sprenger didn’t know how the musicians would react to that statement, or that he did know and didn’t care.

Sprenger was brought into the situation as someone who could heal the internal chasms within the MOA. He had the luxury of coming into the situation without being tagged as a partisan in the MOA’s internal wars and with no obligation to stand firmly behind a controversial CEO. It looks to me as if he’s gone some distance towards throwing that inestimable advantage away at the very beginning of his tenure.

And citing the fact that there was a kinda sorta rump of a season put together by MOA staff misses the point completely. To be blunt, it’s not much of a season – the only stars are the ones that the musicians recruited on their own for their lockout series. Given that a core job of staff during a labor dispute is making sure that there’s a season in place for when the dispute ends, and that a good staff is going to be working on that continuously, the rump season is actually rather a poor showing.

Of course, as Graydon Royce pointed out, Vanska being quite so direct about the leadership issues may not have helped the Board resolve them:

When Gordon Sprenger, the newly elected board chairman, took the stage at intermission with musician Douglas Wright, he was immediately met on Friday night with a few shouts of “Bring Back Osmo!” referring to the former music director Osmo Vanska. On Saturday night, the crowd was more raucous and emphatic with its challenge to Sprenger. In both cases, Sprenger acknowledged the sentiment but made no commitment other than to say, “We’re on it.”

…The board, however, clearly does not enjoy having the thinly veiled conflict (actually Osmo removed the veil) between its two most-public figures being turned into an ultimatum. This isn’t said to discount the validity or the sincerity of the opposition, only to state a fact of nonprofit leadership and human nature. The board is made up of volunteers who give large amounts of money to the orchestra, who endured 18 months under the critical public microscope and are now being told, “Fire this guy and hire this guy.”

Boards like being given ultimata no more than do musicians – a fact that, had the Board remembered it two years ago, might have prevented a lot of grief. It’s hard for a Board to do the right thing when the impression left by doing so is that it’s just buckling to force majeure.

But bringing Vänskä back, and letting Henson go, is the right call on the merits. Charles de Gaulle once famously remarked that the cemeteries of the world were full of irreplaceable people, and in the long run that’s true. In the short run, however, Vänskä disproves it. There simply isn’t anyone the MOA could find in the next couple of years who could fill the gap his departure left –  the bare handful of conductors who could are either unavailable or would refuse to work with Henson for the same reasons Vänskä has cited.

That’s not to say that the board might not have some rational objections to bringing Vänskä back. I suspect that some on the board believe that he’s not good for ticket sales (or that they’ve been told that), although the outpouring of public support for his return should ameliorate those concerns. But there’s simply no question that he’s the best choice – realistically, the only choice –  if the board wants the orchestra to return to the extraordinary level of playing they’d achieved in the years prior to the lockout.

Letting Henson go is the right call as well, regardless of what the Board decides about Vänskä. Clearly he’s built strong relations with many members of the board, which will make it harder. And there have been significant achievements during his tenure, although many were jeopardized or lost due to the lockout.

But there will no real rebuilding of internal relationships while Henson is running things. I’m sure it’s hard for the board to understand the depth of the loathing the musicians feel towards Henson; many board members haven’t had the experience of being deprived of their living and their vocation for over a year. And, while bad labor relations are seldom entirely the fault of one side, that doesn’t matter at this point. The musicians aren’t going anywhere.

I know that, if I were on their orchestra committee, I would refuse to be in the same room with Henson, and would simply ask the union to meet with management and tell them “no” to anything they wanted until he left. The likelihood that the Minnesota Orchestra committee will handle the situation in a more measured way should blind no one to the impossibility of rebuilding that relationship – which, from what I’ve been told, was very bad long before the lockout.

The decision the MOA board must make is whether Vänskä or Henson is more important to the orchestra’s future at this point in time. The fact that Vänskä resigned may serve as an excuse not to hire him back, but it’s not a reason. This is as important a governance decision as they have ever faced, and it needs to be made on a rational basis.

If forced to predict, I’d guess the board won’t dump Henson until it becomes absolutely clear to them that he’s lost the confidence of a critical mass of the various external constituencies. That may well be longer than Vänskä is willing to wait – which, of course, would mean that they’d be looking at replacing both a CEO and a Music Director at the same time. But hanging on to Henson is the course of least resistance, and that’s usually the course taken by institutions run by human beings.



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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  • Two weeks welcome home concerts, Friday and Saturday evenings were virtually sold out, but to a hopeful music starved orchestra fan base. Continued high attendance at concerts given three or four times a week will not be as well attended. However, if Osmo Vanska is not brought back, attendance will fall off precipitously and very importantly, the orchestra will lose about 1/3 of its contributors, though not necessarily 1/3 of its dollar amount of contributions. The notion that Mr. Sprenger is a fresh face in this dispute is nonsense. He was on the orchestra board for quite a while before the lockout and was no doubt supportive of the “new business model” that led to the lockout. Like many on the board, he is able to hide behind the banker “Poster Boys” Campbell and Davis, now removed from the board, who the public deemed as two of the three prime movers of the lockout. I can understand a half hearted defense of Mr. Henson in public, but by saving face he is inflicting damage, which may be unrepairable in the near run.

    Why is Mr. Vanska so important to the rebirth of this orchestra? To say that he is in large part responsible for turning a very fine orchestra into a great orchestra would be an understatement, yet its not that relevant to the situation on the ground. Mr. Vanska has become a cause. He is revered by the musicians (as far as any music director can be revered by musicians) and a public that has taken sides with the musicians and now view Osmo as their “Poster Boy”.

    Like it or not Mr. Sprenger, Osmo must be brought back, and as a side effect of the ill conceived lockout he will no doubt require a reasonably long new contract and Mr. Henson’s head. And by the way to say that Henson was responsible for the rapid construction of the rest of the season? Give me a break, I’ll bet it was Bob Neu who did most of the leg work.

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