A Frozen Orchestra in Minnesota


Friday, January 10, 2014

The Minnesota Orchestra seemed to have it all: well-paid, world class musicians; a star conductor, Osmo Vänskä; a devoted audience in one of the most philanthropic cities in America. But last year, contract negotiations brought the orchestra to a screeching halt and management locked the players out of Orchestra Hall. An entire season of performances was cancelled, and the conductor quit. Fifteen months later, the situation remains at an impasse. Star Tribune critic Graydon Royce, who has reported on it extensively, tells Kurt Andersen, “without hyperbole, this is the most serious labor dispute in the last 40-50 years in the American symphonic world.”

The dispute is complicated (excellent sources of information are here, here, and here.) At the center of it are steep cuts to the players’ compensation; base pay under the old contract started at around $115,000 per year.

But Royce says the conflict has recently taken on a different tenor, in which “one side [doesn’t want] to be seen as though we’re giving into the other side. It gets beyond money.” At one point, management bought up domain names such as “SaveOurMinnesotaOrchestra” that might be used by the musicians and their supporters — a tactic that surprises Kurt, belying the stereotype of “Minnesota nice.”  “You just got to cut deeper, Kurt, and you can find the ugly side inside us,” Royce tells him.

Meanwhile, the Grammy-nominated musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra have raised $650,000 to fund a winter-spring season of 10 concerts of their own. That season kicks off this weekend with performances of Beethoven, Britten, and Mozart’s Requiem at the Ted Mann Concert Hall at the University of Minnesota.


→ Management’s last offer included an average salary of $104,500 for musicians. Do you think the musicians should have accepted it? Tell us in a Comment below.


UPDATE 1/14: Management and players have reached an agreement ending the lockout.
The musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra accepted a new contract that reduces their pay by 15% from 2012 levels. The musicians will be back in Orchestra Hall by February 1. It is not yet known whether Osma Vänska will return as Music Director.


    Music Playlist
  1. Sibelius Symphonies
    Composer: Jean Sibelius
    Artist: Minnesota Orchestra
    Album: Sibelius Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 4
    Label: BIS
    Purchase: Amazon

    Uploaded by Youtube user Matt Peken

  2. Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, "Choral": IV. Finale: Presto - Allegro assai
    Artist: Minnesota Orchestra
    Album: Beethoven, L. Van: Symphonies Nos. 1-9
    Label: BIS
    Purchase: Amazon


Graydon Royce

Produced by:

Julia Lowrie Henderson

Comments [16]

moonpatrol from Houston

The musicians should see the cup as half-full.

Jan. 15 2014 01:18 PM
Bill King from Riverside, CT

The article didn't include the financial status of the orchestra. Maybe it doesn't have the money to pay the musicians. Look what happened to our beloved City Opera.

Jan. 13 2014 09:37 PM
Howard Levitsky from New York CIty

Please, everyone (including Kurt Andersen!), read this article by Michael Manley, a contract administrator at the American Federation of Musicians:

The entire article will give you the necessary context, but the essential point that has been totally missed by most journalists, including the Studio360 team, is this: When you put a corporate mind in charge of an artistic organization, he'll do what he knows how to do: cut costs to improve the bottom line. If that is achieved, he'll expect a substantial bonus - and Michael Henson got his. The fact that he greatly cheapened the "product" and in this case stopped producing anything at all is irrelevant. A world-class orchestra making no music makes perfect sense from his POV. Here is an excerpt from Manley's article:

[Begin quote] {Regarding] the handsome bonuses paid to Minnesota Orchestra Association President and CEO Michael Henson, at a time when the Minnesota Orchestra was not putting on concerts at all...Really, how could someone who has so flamboyantly, brazenly, and publicly driven the wagon over the cliff, receive such lavish reward? The music director has walked, engagements in the US and Europe have been canceled, the new hall sits empty, and the artistic reputation of the ensemble is in a shambles. Forget bonuses, how does Henson even have a job at this point?

But I realized this question was flawed; it presumes that canceled engagements, an empty hall, a fleeing music director, and a diminished artistic reputation are negatives for the Minnesota Orchestra Association. But what if they aren’t negatives at all—what if they are the goals? In this context, Henson’s tenure is not a failure, but an unqualified victory.

...what is gained when “sustainability” becomes the only value an organization strives for?

A great deal, actually...The Minnesota Orchestra Association has been relieved of [the financial burdens of paying a star conductor, the costs of touring and recording, and the overscale-laden salaries of in-demand star performers] now. The artistic damage is acknowledged, perhaps, but also seen as irrelevant. The aspiration to maintain or build on their artistic brand, which took decades to achieve, is not part of the Minnesota Orchestra Association’s plan for the future; financial sustainability and “having the orchestra we can afford,” which means, in this context, the orchestra which the board decides that it will pay for, is the only real goal. And, if that orchestra is a mediocre shadow of its former self, so be it. [End quote]

Please, Mr. Andersen, if you are going to ask whether the musicians deserve their pay, please also ask whether a CEO who destroys the artistic mission of the organization deserves handsome bonuses! Your audience deserves a followup to your story.

Jan. 13 2014 07:19 PM

Like it or not, the MN musicians have managed to keep their compensation pegged closer to the growth in GDP, rather than CPI like the rest of us over the last 50 years.

If they can afford to they need to stay on strike. [Aside: If average income of 1963 ($4,396) had kept pace with the growth in the overall economy ($654B to $15.7T in 2013), average income would be around $106,000.] The rest of us need to earn more, not insist that those who have managed to protect their income stream over the last 50 years, join us in the basement.

Jan. 12 2014 02:27 PM

Yes they should. I'm not saying it's right or fair, but our society pays experienced educators, to whom we entrust our kids from age 5 to mid teens for a greater amount of time than they are home with us and awake, far less, not to mention social workers, psychologist, school counselors, and how about that minimum wage?

Is there something that one is owed when one opts for a career catering to an elite? or "culture"?

I'm an MD, and I know what is the starting salary for pediatricians in the NYC area (not a cheap venue).

Apologies- I love music and love to watch their hands move as they create the beautiful sounds that blend but we need a bit of perspective, perhaps.

Jan. 12 2014 02:18 PM
Kristi Seehafer from Nashville, TN

This is just another example of the depths that NPR has sunk to. The "facts" presented left out 99% of the story of this lockout, and left the impression that the musicians are simply greedy. No mention of the millions of dollars spent by management, not only to renovate the hall, but to pay for questionable expenses during a whole year when the musicians were locked out. No mention of the egregious working conditions that management wanted to impose on the professionals who produce the music.

This lockout is nothing more than management following tactics fed to them by the League of American Orchestras. In the guise of "supporting the arts", what they actually do is teach managers how to cut pay and benefits for musicians while maintaining bloated staff pay and numbers. MSO management has learned it well, and the Star Tribune is nothing more than an accessory to the crime.

Jan. 12 2014 11:28 AM
Julie Myers King from Cleveland Heights, OH

While I appreciate your presenting a story on this difficult situation, I am disappointed with the framing of your question regarding the musicians' salary at the end. It is unfair to ask that question without including some important perspective such as the pay of their management (including bonuses), the amount of money spent on their new concert hall, and comparable pay of other great American orchestras.

Jan. 12 2014 10:57 AM

I'm disappointed you interviewed someone from the Star Tribune, a news organization that has consistently underreported this situation; they have someone on the MOA board, and are known to inject bias into their reporting when they have a finger in the pie. It's been stunning to me to see how otherwise talented corporate leaders have gone against the Minnesota tradition of directly supporting the fine arts, instead they are trying to bend the work rules and of course put in the new $55 million lobby designed for their private parties and weddings. I don't blame the musicians for rejecting proposals (work rules) to be virtual art slaves to the 1%'s weddings and corporate events. That's the real story here, which you would find out if you dug further, and honestly, is pretty obvious when you read the renovation was of the *lobby*. The lobby. I know that all these corporate CEOs etc on the board are smart - they must be because they have had many business successes between them - but they are demonstrating that they don't really know the heart of business: get this, the musicians and orchestra as a performing body are the factory and the product. This is not an effort where you can just "slash costs' or "outsource" thereby reducing overhead. You *must* invest. These players are playing at a tremendously high, world-class level with a great amount of effort required to maintain their performance levels. There is no way around the need for investment in your product and factory, an investment that's made by the musicians yes, but must also be on the part of the Association. The short-sightedness of the board is coming back to bite them. The good news is that the Orchestra musicians are themselves learning new things such as how to run a season and raise funds, and many are getting fabulous opportunities internationally. There may be silver linings, but the demise of our orchestra won't be one of them.

Jan. 11 2014 11:33 PM
David from Studio 360

Kurt Andersen’s question at the end of the segment contained a misstatement. The "base pay" in the last offer from Orchestra management was not above $100,000; it was the average pay, at $104,500. We’ve corrected the text above, and we regret the error in the show as it was broadcast. Thanks to all of you who pointed out the discrepancy, and particularly to the thorough and diligent blogger Emily Hogstad.

Jan. 10 2014 03:27 PM
Emily E Hogstad from Eau Claire, WI

Your base pay numbers are wrong: embarrassingly so. We in the Upper Midwest are working our tail ends off to save this orchestra and get it back to work, and consequently, concerned citizens have spent a lot of time and energy trying to get the facts out there...usually in the face of a corporate media that is more often than not owned by Minnesota Orchestra board members or their colleagues. It does us a great disservice and disrespects our hard work as volunteer citizen activists and journalists when such easily fact-checked untruths are unquestioningly propagated in the media. Please do your research next time. It won't take much effort.

Thank you,
Emily E Hogstad
author of Song of the Lark blog
(which broke the domain name story)

Jan. 10 2014 02:45 PM
Rolf Erdahl from Apple Valley, MN

"Do you think the musicians should have accepted it?" There's a real media push to position the MOA "offer" as a reasonable one, rejected by those socialist union thugs in the orchestra. IT'S NOT ABOUT THE MONEY!!!!! And if it were, casual cursory glances at MOA offers make it clear why the MOA's offers were rejected by the musicians. Each of these offers was a suicidal downward spiral, with increasing decreases in musician pay (and decreased MOA responsibilities to raise money). A similar cursory look at the offers the musicians have put forward and at Sen Mitchell's play-and-talk proposal makes it VERY puzzling why the MOA didn't accept those and work with good will and transparency towards a settlement everyone could live with, at the same time as fielding an orchestra.

There has been a complete and total breakdown in trust in the veracity or competence of the MOA leadership.

You should also pose some question as to whether people feel the current MOA leadership is up to the task and on the right track, despite industry-wide consensus they have senselessly, needlessly crippled one of the world's great orchestras, and betrayed their trust to their musicians and the citizens of Minnesota as stewards and custodians of a great orchestra.

Jan. 10 2014 02:03 PM
Margaret Johnson from Minneapolis

No, the musicians were right to reject management's last offer, as it included several traps for the musicians (that were overlooked and not reported by the media, Mr. Royce included) that virtually guaranteed its rejection, including the fact that it was regressive and would have incentivized musicians to leave the orchestra.

I find it interesting that this article does not mention that the players were LOCKED OUT by their management. Also, your "base pay" numbers are wrong.

Jan. 10 2014 01:22 PM
Mike from Minneapolis, MN

No the offer was regressive, not as high as you cite above, and ending the contract at a disasterously low level but more importantly as is often glossed over this dispute is really about the integrity and sustainability of the Orchestra. While the Board and Management focus on the bottom line and near term financial success, and define the success of the orchestra based on the financial statement, the musicians have made a compelling argument that this "slash the product" strategy will ultimately lead to the unwinding of the orchestras appeal and the longer term death spiral that so many mis-managed organizations sucumb too. Unfortunateley the mainline local media in the Twin Cities has done a generally poor job covering this admittedly complicated story and tend to focus on financial numbers provided by management with little challenge. Case in point - the management has stated publically that should the existing $6M deficit continue the endowment would be exhausted in a few years. Over $100M endowment, in a few years, exhausted by overspending $6M per year. The math doesn't add up. No one is suggesting they should continue $6M deficits but when they make these proclamations and the media repeats them without question it doesn't help the public gain true insights into the motivations or agendas of the parties involved.

Jan. 10 2014 10:06 AM
David Assemany

The $100K figure used in your question is factually incorrect. You really need to make a correction, unless your intent is to mislead.

Jan. 10 2014 09:18 AM
elizabethjerickson@gmail.com from Minneapolis

Absolutely not! First of all, the management had enough money to pay their CEO well above the salary of comparable orchestras, including giving him TWO $100,000 bonuses in the same year. This, while screaming poverty and insisting on cutting musician's salaries a whopping 30-50 percent does not sit well with anyone closely following this story. Second, the 200 hundred plus changes in the proposed contract are so absurd, no professional musician could possibly take the contract seriously. On what planet should a CEO have the final say over the music director in areas like auditions and hiring musicians? The thought that Michael Henson, CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra knows more than Osmo Vanska in this area is insane. Third, the Minnesota Orchestra Association (MOA) has the 6th largest endowment in the country; somewhere around $150 million dollars. They were also able to raise close to $100 million dollars during the economic downturn, half of which was used to remodel the lobby and ruin the acoustics inside the concert hall. There were so many opportunities for the MOA to come clean and admit they were having financial issues, but instead, they lied to the donors, patrons, Minnesota State Legislature, and the city officials. They could have chosen to stabilize the finances before breaking ground and made sure that our world class orchestra would be safe and in tact. Instead, they callously made public statements that the musicians were free to go elsewhere and we lost many incredible stars. The musicians know that to accept this outrageous contract would mean losing many more people to great orchestras who treat their musicians with respect as opposed to the MOA, which treats them as the enemy. The CEO and two bankers that cooked up this mess belong behind bars.

Jan. 09 2014 11:37 PM
Performing Artist 52 from Minneapolis, Minnesota

The one and only final offer from the MOA was always an average base pay of $89,000 not $100,000. The benefit package is separate from the base pay. The MOA bases their base pay on all the other musicians hired during the year needed for larger orchestrations or guest artists for pops concerts.

Jan. 09 2014 10:34 PM

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