Minnesota Orchestra board steps up

Michael Henson will be leaving the Minnesota Orchestra:

The Minnesota Orchestra announced Thursday night that its president, Michael Henson, whose decision to seek a substantial pay cut from its musicians led to a bruising 16-month lockout when they resisted, would be leaving his post at the end of August.

The departure of Mr. Henson could pave the way for the return of its former music director, Osmo Vanska, who resigned in frustration when the lockout dragged on. After the lockout ended this year, with the musicians agreeing to a smaller pay cut, Mr. Vanska said that he believed for the orchestra to heal, Mr. Henson would have to leave.

This put the orchestra’s board into a bind: musicians, critics and many fans were clamoring for Mr. Vanska’s return, but to bring him back they might have to get rid of the administrator who executed their strategy to try to put the ensemble on sounder financial footing.

“Michael has always supported the orchestra’s artistic mission, and when the board asked him to address the serious financial challenges of the organization, he faced this issue directly, re-organizing administrative staff and helping to deliver a musicians’ contract agreement that was difficult but necessary,” the chairman of the orchestra’s board, Gordon M. Sprenger, said in a statement. “It is never easy to be an agent of change, but Michael leaves the Minnesota Orchestra secure, on more solid financial footing and established in a beautifully renovated venue that will meet the needs of our organization, audiences and community for decades to come.”

While the official press release said Henson’s departure was “by mutual agreement,” what almost certainly happened was that the Board told him he had to go. There will be much speculation on why they made that decision; it’s certainly possible that it was to get Vänskä back, but it’s likely that there were other reasons as well. There were likely a lot of people in the community unhappy with the decisions made by Henson and the Board over the past few years who were reluctant to further support the orchestra without a clear change of course, which this would appear to represent.

Replacing a departing orchestra CEO is never easy, and has gotten less so over the years. But the Minnesota Orchestra is in a better position that many other orchestras to do so. While still an institution facing some real challenges, it’s clearly not unmanageable – which is not the case for all of its peers. Delaying Henson’s departure for a few months gives them time to do a proper search as well as saving face all around.

I was not expecting this. It was not the path of least resistance for the Board to do this so soon after ending the lockout, and they deserve credit for not waiting until they had no options at all. I hope they show the same good judgement with regard to getting Vänskä back on board. It may be they’re waiting until his appearance with the orchestra in a couple of weeks to make that announcement; that would certainly be a good time to do so.

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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