Minnesota Orchestra lockout: What have we learned?

by Jay Gabler, Minnesota Public Radio
January 16, 2014

ST. PAUL, Minn. — After 15 long months, the lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra musicians has ended. We asked some of our staff here at Classical Minnesota Public Radio to share their thoughts: What have we learned? What's the takeaway? Are there lessons for the future? What are the next steps?

Brian Newhouse, managing director of classical programming:

"While I wasn't involved in any way in the negotiations, I know and admire people who sat on either side of that tense table. My takeaway: nothing is as simple as it seems. If the issues laid down there were easy, it wouldn't have resulted in a lockout, especially one of this duration. What grieved me during the lockout — besides missing Friday nights with a fabulous orchestra and our audiences — was witnessing the simplification of Guys In White Hats vs. Guys in Black Hats. There is always a story underneath the story, and that is where the deep, deep fissures lie. Looking forward, I think the real work begins now: how will musicians and management really heal the rifts that opened up? Boy, I don't know, but they've made this formal start, and I wish them every bit of luck in their process."

Suzanne Schaffer, Performance Today producer:

"What I learned during the Minnesota Orchestra lockout:

"Musicians and management can hold their breath much longer than I imagined. I never, ever thought the lockout would last 15 months.

"After orchestra strikes in Detroit, bankruptcies in Hawaii, and even the collapse of the symphony in Syracuse, I was astonished at the antipathy publicly expressed by orchestra musicians, administrators and board members toward each other. That made this orchestra crisis stand out from others we have covered on Performance Today.

"Music as we know it did not end, as I feared it might. Despite the sadness of the lockout situation, I heard great performances that shone through the cracks, some played by the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra and some by ensembles that were new to me.

"I'm really glad you're back."

Mike Pengra, producer:

"I hope we've learned from this battle never to take our arts organizations for granted. The Minnesota Orchestra was — and hopefully will again be soon — one of the world's finest ensembles. Watching the lockout unfold and deepen was like watching two good friends go through a bitter divorce, and we, the listeners, were robbed of dozens of excellent performances in the months during the lockout. I'm encouraged by the agreement, but mourn the casualties...the concerts cancelled, the musicians who left the orchestra for greener pastures and the conductor who resigned. I really hope this is the start of a rebuilding process that will bring the Minnesota Orchestra back to where it was — and beyond."

Vaughn Ormseth, manager of community impact:

"The end of the lockout is euphoric news to those who love the Minnesota Orchestra and its music, but forgive us if we're not all yet jumping for joy. The joy's there, no doubt, but feels fragile and disabused, like the muted elation some Shostakovich finales achieve after prolonged sonic austerity. And to try to answer 'What have we learned?' risks implying that the heartbreak now easing was somehow necessary, a rite of passage yielding wisdom for the orchestra's future. Ahem.

"Still, the impasse did clarify certain issues and energies, at times hopefully. Orchestral music may speak to fewer ticket-buying Minnesotans than it did or could — a stark fact — but the passion of those to whom it does speak has now surely registered with the broader community, sparking new connections. The breakdown also prompted welcome scrutiny of jaw-dropping disparities between public funding for world-class music and sometimes less-than-world-class sports.

"The orchestra's deserved renown, and Vänskä's sustaining role in it, was reaffirmed regionally and nationally. The pre-emptive strategy of the board in dealing with the union got stinging notice, while the union's own agenda seemed harder to gauge. (Was it always just the orchestra's?) Good, smart, generous people in the administration, in the ensemble, and on the board were unnecessarily demonized. There are no easy answers out of all of this, but perhaps a few new signposts.

"Going forward, let's remind ourselves — and everyone we know — how sublime this orchestra can be and let its music-making redirect what hurt surely remains."

Brad Althoff, managing producer of national classical programs:

"I'm thrilled that an agreement has been reached — truly. Let the music making commence! Will the ensemble sound the same as it did before the lockout? Hopefully, but only time will tell. Personally, something that I struggle with is the amount of time that was lost. It took over a year to reach an agreement between management and musicians, and it's difficult to believe that the outcome is now any different than it would have been if the negotiations had taken only a few weeks. In some ways, it was like watching a couple you know well spar, threaten divorce, file the paperwork and then get back together. You wish them well, but you're wary about going to their house for dinner."

Bob Christiansen, host:

"This lockout has been a tragedy for far too long, and I'm glad it has been partially resolved. I say partially, because it caused us to lose Osmo Vänskä. Until he is restored at the helm of the Minnesota Orchestra, this wound will not be healed and their first-class status will be compromised."

Jay Gabler, digital producer:

"Before the lockout began, the Minnesota Orchestra appeared — to many — to be an unassailable bastion of excellence. By all accounts, the orchestra was playing at a world-class level, and the Orchestra Hall renovations seemed to be evidence of Minnesota's renowned commitment to supporting excellence in the arts. Over the course of the past year and a half, though, we've watched the orchestra crumble: its administration reviled, its musicians scattered, its conductor departed. At the moment the lockout ended, the eviction of the orchestra from its own hall seemed to be a real possibility.

"What have we learned from this? We've learned that artistic excellence isn't enough. The environment for American orchestras is now so extremely challenging that all the acclaim in the world can't guarantee any organization's continued success, or even its existence. Moving forward, the Minnesota Orchestra will need to return to artistic excellence, yes — but, also, will need to take very significant steps to diversify its revenue, to find support (financial and otherwise) in previously unexpected places, and to build a transparent organization that rewards people's expectations (both internally and externally) for honesty and trust when it's time to make hard decisions in a business that's only going to get tougher in years to come."

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