16 September 2012
Not much has happened on the Orchestral Apocalypse front since I wrote last. I thought maybe there’d be stuff in the Sunday newspapers about this week’s developments, but…no dice. I’ve recently been reminded – politely – that the local reporters I’ve been snarking at lately are good people who are doing their best in a very difficult confusing situation. Sigh. This is no doubt true. So if any reporters are reading this, I’m sorry if I’ve come across as insensitive over the last couple of weeks. I’m not frustrated at you: I’m frustrated at the infrastructure. I’m pissed that no one has the time or resources to give this story the attention it deserves. Newspapers can’t afford in-depth coverage; news broadcasts don’t have time; bloggers aren’t experts and don’t have access to important people; and then the public gets screwed. We live in a media-rich world in which no media source is rich enough to be able to cover all the stories that deserve to be covered. And that just sucks. Boo.
This morning I published a very long blog entry called “A Hundred-ish Questions for Minnesota Orchestra Management.” In it, I (you guessed it!) ask management a hundred questions, give or take a few, about the direction they want to take the orchestra, from the point of view of a dedicated patron and orchestra lover. I’m planning on sending multiple physical copies out in a week or so.
And I’m also planning on asking someone from the musician’s negotiating committee to pass a copy along, if they feel it would be appropriate to do so. (Obviously it will be up to them if they actually deliver it.) (Edit 9/18: I’ve heard from a reliable source that it will be most likely to get to those in charge via mail, so that’s what I’m going to do. Soooooooo, dear management, keep checking your mail, guys! Because I will keep badgering you about this! xoxo) So if you’ve got a question you want to ask management, comment away. This may be your best chance to catch their ear.
Although there may not have been many developments lately, there has been some interesting analysis going on…
Writer and composer Colin Eatock wrote a blog the other day called “When Should a Conductor Speak Up“? It discusses the question: where’s Osmo? At the end of his article Eatock concludes: “But if the management of the Minnesota Orchestra ‘wins’ this dispute, and forces a harsh contract on the players, and Vänskä seems content to go along with it all, then the artistic damage done will be on his head.” Them’s fighting words, Mr. Eatock! I’m not sure if the situation is that simple. Osmo is going to have to choose the least worst option from a bunch of very bad options, and his decision of how to handle the situation is going to be a deeply personal one. I don’t think we should be judging him quite yet. IMHO. *shrug* Still, an interesting article.
(But while we’re on the Osmo topic… This will be a bit of a flight of fancy, so hang on tight. In September 2009, Vänskä renewed his contract until 2015. To refresh your memory, the stock market crashed in the fall of 2008. [Remember the suspension of the McCain campaign? Ahh, yes. Those were...interesting times.] In September 2009, the Dow Jones was at about 9500, down from a high of roughly 13,000 in May of 2008. Not that the Dow is the be-all, end-all of economic data; I’m just using it to back up my own personal recollection, which is that, in September 2009, even the anemic recovery we’re currently experiencing seemed a ridiculously optimistic proposition. Ridiculously optimistic. I’m guessing that Minnesota Orchestra management was quaking in their boots: if they see financial disaster coming now, surely it seemed even more alarming and imminent back then? Right? Anyway, here’s where I’m going with this: one of the things Vänskä must have thought about before renewing his contract for such a length of time was whether or not the orchestra seemed likely to be financially stable through 2015, and whether or not his musicians seemed likely to be relatively happy with the musicians’ contract everyone knew was going to be re-negotiated in 2012. I’ve only met the man once in a CD signing line so I can only surmise; but I wonder: if he had known this was coming, would he really have wanted to stay? What numbers did he see when he was deciding whether or not to sign his new contract? Who did he discuss financial issues with? Did he look at statements and projections himself? Did he trust what the CEO and/or board of directors told him? What kind of picture was painted to him about the organization’s fiscal future, back in the dark uncertain days of 2009, that nonetheless reassured him enough to sign a contract past 2012, when everyone knew the musicians’ contract expired? Did some financial catastrophe hit the Minnesota Orchestra between then and now that was unforeseeable in September 2009? Or was Vänskä just not paying any attention to money? That idea seems hard to swallow; we all know the dude’s a notorious perfectionist. Would a man who brings a metronome to a Minnesota Orchestra rehearsal really not spend hours poring over his orchestra’s financial statements and projections while making a decision whether or not to stay until 2015? Is this perhaps a point in favor of the musicians’ claim that different people have been shown different numbers at different times? What do you mean, the tinfoil hat isn’t attractive on me? I think it’s a lovely look! … I don’t know. It’s just a thought I’ve been having, and it won’t go away. Feel free to tear it apart in the comments.)
Here’s another interesting article from violist Robert Levine, called “On governance.” Excerpt: “We also assume that most board members know what they’re doing. I’ve come to realize that’s not really true in most places. There’s very little formal training or support for board members, so new board members often model their behavior on what they see around them – which is to say that boards tend to perpetuate how they work and how well they function.” Read the whole thing; it’s thought-provoking.
TPT Almanac ran a segment about the SPCO negotiations on 14 September. Newsflash: Carole Mason Smith and Dobson West are in the same room and on camera together and not killing each other! I’m so impressed, guys!! Eye contact is…negligible to non-existent. But still! I can’t imagine Minnesota Orchestra management doing something like this (psst: Minnesota Orchestra management: that’s your cue to prove me wrong). Anyway, Carole and Dobby, let me hug you both. Yes, even you, Mr. Dobby. It will be a very very very brief hug because to be frank I don’t trust you farther than I can spit, but still. A hug. Congratulations, guys. Let’s do more of this in the future!
(I feel like a marriage counselor.)
Here’s some late breaking news I found just as I was wrapping this post up…
Looks like the Minnesota Orchestra had a great concert this afternoon at Lake Harriet. Look at this crowd… Holy frigging crap. That doesn’t look like the Minnesota Orchestra at Lake Harriet; that looks like the New York Philharmonic in Central Park. And when you remember that this concert was only scheduled twelve days ago, and that it wasn’t advertised on the Minnesota Orchestra website…well, um, wow. Congratulations, you guys. If any of my readers made it to the show, talk to me! The comment section is, as always, open to everyone.
The Minnesota Orchestra musicians have also announced a second concert: Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra raise money for Community Emergency Service. This concert will be in Edina on 23 September 2012 at 4pm. I’m working that day, too, so I won’t be able to make it. Anyone else able to go? I’m not sure how many of the musicians will be there, but I’m sure you’ll be in for a treat regardless of how many make it.
18 September 2012
The big news of the day comes from this video of the Minnesota Orchestra Lake Harriet concert.
It’s definitely worth a watch, but if you can’t or don’t have time, here’s the meat of the message transcribed:
When we hear that $14 million in taxpayer money is being plowed into building a new lobby for Orchestra Hall, but that the budget for filling the hall and paying the salaries of those who fill it with great music has to be slashed by thirty to fifty percent…that’s upsetting. And we know it’s upsetting to a lot of you as well. I actually had no problem paying my share of the tax that built Target Field. But if we had built that ballpark – if we had built that little jewel in the Warehouse District and then the owners of the Twins had turned around and told us they could only afford to have the St. Paul Saints play there – that would have made me pretty upset. That would have made me feel like I had been duped into paying for a building rather than paying for the continued existence of major league baseball in the state of Minnesota, which is what I thought I was paying for. Minnesotans know the difference between major and minor league sports teams, and we know that you know the difference between major and minor league arts. You have always supported the best, and it has made this one of the greatest places not just in this country, but in the world to be an artist or a musician.
Those words come from violist and certified badass Sam Bergman. Who knew violists could orate?
This video made me realize that musicians have one key advantage that management will never, ever, ever have: passion for this orchestra. Let’s face facts. Jon Campbell and Richard Davis (and maybe Henson, too, to a certain extent, but I’ll leave him out of the analysis for the moment) aren’t particularly invested in what happens here. Hardly anything is at stake for them. No matter how it ends, Campbell will still be employed at Wells Fargo, collecting money and enjoying health insurance coverage. There he’ll go back to meeting (or not) with the unwashed, unsatisfied rabble. He’ll go back to dealing with allegations that Wells Fargo has been dodging taxes. He’ll go back to dealing with the headaches of being on the board of a non-profit health care organization that was associated with a debt collection agency that used “aggressive and possibly illegal attempt[s] to collect payments [from patients]…even as the patients were seeking emergency treatment and other health care services.” (Google Accretive for the whole awful story. I don’t know exactly what Campbell had to do with all this, if anything, but it is an unavoidable fact that, being on the Fairview board of directors, he’s been battling fallout from scandal this summer.) According to this website, he’ll go back to being the director of Peregrine Capital Management (“a boutique equity firm“) – the chairman of Fairview Health Services – a trustee at the Minneapolis Foundation – the Chairman of the Board at the Greater Twin Cities United Way – the Director at Abbot Downing (which “provides comprehensive services to ultra-high-net-worth clients“). God only knows what else he’s got on his plate besides that. Same goes for Richard Davis. No matter what happens to the Minnesota Orchestra this fall, he will go back to US Bancorp, and back to enjoying the $25 million Forbes says he has earned there in the last five years. He’ll go back to being praised as the new “golden boy” of Wall Street by the New York Post. At least according to this website, he’ll go back to being a member of the Board of Governors at the American Red Cross – a member of the board of directors at The Clearing House – Chairman of Financial Services Roundtable – Director of BITS Financial Services Roundtable (which “represents 100 of the largest integrated financial services companies providing banking, insurance, and investment products and services to the American consumer”). In other words, Campbell and Davis both have so many responsibilities and commitments that the Minnesota Orchestra is probably roughly priority #3,955 for them…and understandably so.
Soooo…remind me again why they’re on the orchestra’s board of directors? Why do they have a hand in making such consequential far-reaching decisions? Is it because of their money? Their power? Their influence? Is it too much to ask that the minimum qualifications for a seat on the board of directors of “the greatest orchestra in the world” be money, power, and influence plus “basic knowledge of how a major orchestra works” plus “enthusiastic passion for first-rate symphonic music” plus “deep-seated respect for all of the organization’s employees”? Really? Is the bar for management really set that low when the bar for musicians is set so high? Question: how are we expecting Campbell and Davis to make informed decisions on behalf of the orchestra when they’re off doing a billion other things, and busy making a billion other dollars doing them? Yes, they’re rich – obscenely so - but no matter how much you idealize and idolize the wealthy, you’ve got to admit that the ability to amass money doesn’t turn a person into an omniscient all-knowing superman who is able to magically keep track of all the specialized s*** that must go down at all of these companies, charities, and organizations. Especially when the IRS and state attorney general enter into your professional life.
Guys, it’s okay to admit you can’t do everything. None of us is God. Sometimes as fallible human beings, we bite off more than we can chew, and that’s okay. But you’ve already bitten so much off that you’re not going to be able to swallow, much less digest, without having to deal with some serious stomach problems and/or clogged toilets.
I think I’m going to add that to my Hundred-ish Questions: how on earth are you able to keep up with the needs of all the organizations you either work at or serve? It just strikes me as being patently impossible. Jack of all trades, master of none.
So anyway. The point of that ramble is this: the passion advantage currently stands at 1,000,000 to 1. The musicians are winning. And according to this metric? They will always win. Why? Because money alone can’t buy passion. No matter how many millions you have in the bank.
In other news, this article called “The Commoditization of Symphony Orchestra Musicians” has been making the rounds, and is worth a read.
Also, here’s a short video from progressive group Minnesota 2020 about keeping the best musicians in Minnesota. Not much, if anything, new in there, but it’s a video, so…have at it.
This week has been relatively quiet, hasn’t it? We’ll probably start hearing more within the next few days, though. The SPCO meets with management today. There’s been no word yet if management has approved the formal language of the proposed contract, or if the musicians are still expected to give feedback on it without having the language in place. Minnesota Orchestra musicians and management meet on Monday. This may well be the calm before another storm the likes of what we saw on September 4 and September 5. If the SPCO releases the formal language of their proposed contract within a day of Minnesota management releasing something big…I will be forced to wonder if some kind of coordination is happening in an attempt to influence media coverage. Because bad news is always more powerful when it’s given all at once, as opposed to released on a drip.
Okay, okay. I’m taking off the hat now.
There are a few miscellaneous things I wanted to pass along…
(1) I haven’t actually had time to listen to this yet, but Star Tribune writer Graydon Royce was kind enough to stop by the blog the other day, and he passed along this link… “I would also refer you to a forum in which I participated last week with blogger Drew McManus and Orchestra League president Jesse Rosen on WQXR, New York… http://www.wqxr.org/#!/articles/conducting-business/2012/sep/14/how-troubled-orchestras-can-bounce-back-and-flourish/ ” Like I said, I haven’t had time to listen yet, but maybe you do! Tell me what you think. You can stop by the comment section below to read all Royce’s feedback.
(2) I forgot to mention that a statement by Osmo was read at the Lake Harriet concert. It’s a thing of beauty:
“When I arrived in Minneapolis in 2003, I set many lofty goals for the Minnesota Orchestra. I knew that with hard work and dedication to our art, we would be able to achieve them and take our place among the greatest orchestras in the world. Our musicians have met every challenge I set out for them, and I could not be prouder of what we have achieved. And I also believe that, if we stay focused on our mission of bringing great music and great musicians to Minnesota and the world, we can have even greater days ahead of us.”
Frankly this was a way more pro-musician statement than I was expecting at this stage of the game. Consider for a moment… I don’t think anyone was expecting him to say anything at this event (were you?) This was a pretty anti-management event. It was put on without management’s permission or support, and included a fiery speech attacking management’s proposals. And by submitting a statement to be read at it, Osmo gave the event his subtle, tacit approval. I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, but from where I’m sitting, this statement struck all the right notes. Bravo. This isn’t the first standing ovation I’ve given Osmo Vänskä, and it certainly won’t be the last.
(3) MPR has a new article out today called “Twin Cities orchestras make public appeal amid contract negotiations.” I personally found it pretty slapdash for an MPR report, but maybe I’m just having a bad day. Let me know what you think. I was concerned about the omission of two things in particular: (A) the fact that SPCO musicians haven’t yet seen the formal language of management’s contract, and (B) the fact that working conditions remain a vitally important focus of the negotiations at both orchestras (commentators and journalists really, really need to highlight the importance of these, since 99% of the population doesn’t understand what working conditions mean to professional orchestral musicians). I’m still interested in / puzzled by Minnesota management’s claim that the musicians have offered no counter-proposal. I know there’s more to the story than that. Management has been demonstrably disingenuous on their website, so why would they start telling the truth now? I know these musicians; they’re some of the smartest people you could imagine. And let’s be honest: the long-term fiscal health of the orchestra is a h*** of a lot more important to them than it is to anyone on the board of directors, including Michael Henson (we all know he’ll find another high-paying job elsewhere after this is all over, no matter how it ends). Maybe for whatever reason the musicians can’t or don’t want to speak about this, and that’s understandable, but at some point when we’re doing the autopsy of these negotiations, it would be interesting to hear more about the whole “lack of counter-proposal” thing.
Michael Henson also said something hilarious in the MPR report:
Minnesota Orchestra President Michael Henson said management is incredibly respectful of the musicians and their talent. But he too says transparency is now what is needed, particularly as the contract deadline is now less than two weeks away.
Bold mine. Hahahahahaha. What a dry sense of humor. Oh, those Brits!
However, this statement from Henson comes as a great relief to me. Because if Michael Henson believes that transparency is vitally necessary, then clearly there’s no excuse for him not to be working on my Hundred Questions, right? If transparency is key, he should not only take two minutes to acknowledge he received my questions, but he should be answering them, too. Soooo….cool beans! I can’t wait to hear from him. Let’s put the kettle on; I’m sure he’ll be here any minute… *dusts off the sticky at the top of the page, which, you may notice, now includes a link to the hundred questions, a PDF version of the hundred questions, a doc version of the hundred questions, and an offer to convert the hundred questions into whatever format anyone on the board desires*
Okay, the snark of those last two paragraphs is too much for even me to handle. Paging Michael Henson. Reality called, and they want you back. Come join us, Mr. Henson. The waters of reality are warm, refreshing, and inviting.
Let’s end on a high note. The Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra have begun a petition to “keep world-class musicians in the Minnesota Orchestra.” I’ve heard that over 1000 signatures were gathered at the Lake Harriet show (!), and right now, less than 36 hours after releasing that petition, the musicians are looking at an additional 950+ names. (If you haven’t already, please take a moment to sign yourself!) So, if those Lake Harriet numbers are indeed correct, within the span of a couple of days, the musicians have gotten approximately two thousand signatures supporting them, without the money, PR advantage, and web presence that management has. Also remember, the people who share things on Facebook and read orchestra blogs and sign change.org petitions are a tech-savvy demographic that skews young (and probably liberal). And as consultants are fond of reminding us, the young aren’t the core audience at Orchestra Hall. Think of what those numbers might climb to if we’re able to reach the coffee concerts crowd.
In that MPR article, a PR consultant named Jon Austin said, ”The number of people whose hearts and minds they are competing for, frankly, is pretty small. Probably could fill the Minnesota Orchestra Main Hall and maybe overflow into the lobby a little bit. But it’s a pretty small number.” LOL. Sorry, I just can’t let this stand. This statement may have been well-meaning, I don’t know, but it’s just so factually inaccurate, it’s just…wow. I have no idea what the reasoning behind this “pretty small” assumption was, or why MPR decided it was a judgment worth printing. The Minnesota Orchestra alone has 9100+ Facebook likes, and you know the vast majority of the Minnesota Orchestra’s fans are not on Facebook. Judging by the number of people who attended the Lake Harriet concert on such short notice; the reaction my blog has gotten; and now the number of signatories the musicians’ petition is attracting…I’m absolutely thrilled to be able to tell Mr. Austin that his assumption is flat-out wrong. Huzzah! The number of people who are concerned about the future of the Minnesota Orchestra and the SPCO could clearly fill Orchestra Hall several times over…at the very, very least. Mr. Austin is totally underestimating how many people have opinions about this conflict, either pro- or anti-management, and if performances are affected in the coming weeks (as I’m guessing they will be), that number will climb dramatically, quickly. And that’s not just the wishful thinking of an orchestra lover: we have the data and the attendance and the signatures to back it up. So please, let’s not fall back on the old tired stereotype that only a handful of people cares about orchestral music, because as we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks, that’s just not true…at least not in the Twin Cities. There is more than enough bulls*** floating around out there right now; we don’t need any more. Let’s have a little reality check here: one of the very few things we know for certain about this conflict is that, no matter what happens, thousands and thousands of people care. Period.
Speaking of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Facebook page… (I went there for the first time in a long time to get that 9100 likes figure.) And while I was there I noticed something that y’all may find interesting…
Whenever anyone expresses frustration or dismay over management’s proposals, the Orchestra writes a little note along these lines…
And so on and so forth. Interestingly, there are only two posts they haven’t acknowledged…
As the Internet meme goes…
I did have the thought that it might be worth eventually posting a link to the Hundred Questions on Facebook if I don’t hear an acknowledgment of its receipt relatively soon. I don’t want to annoy anybody, but… Dude, I spent a long time on those questions. It would be really nice to get some acknowledgment, even if it’s something along the lines of “YOU HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO RIGHT TO ASK ALL THESE THINGS, FOR SHAME.” I really don’t think an acknowledgment is too much to ask for.
Am I the only one who feels bad for whoever is running the Minnesota Orchestra Facebook page? You know s/he has no input into any of this, and yet s/he must toe the line as politely as possible, with the threat of being fired by email hovering over his/her head (if this reference doesn’t make sense to you, click this link and look at the questions right above “Website Stuff”). Anyway, tough gig, that. I’m guessing I’d get the termination email sooner rather than later.
I do want to take a moment to praise the Orchestra’s new stock response to patrons’ concerns. It has changed from “look at our pro-management website” to “we will share your concerns with management.” This is an improvement, and a move toward dialogue. I recently had this conversation…
So, um, yeah. I think that kind of speaks for itself. It might be worthwhile to keep checking on that, as I believe this is the first we’ve heard that management is claiming it will eventually update its website “as new questions arise.” Of course new questions have arisen in the last week, and as best as I can tell, nothing has changed on the website except for the section called “Industry News” which is where management gets some kind of weird kinky thrill linking to articles about orchestras in distress. (Fun factoid: positive industry news, or at least non-negative industry news, like what we’ve heard lately out of the National Symphony, Chicago Symphony, and St. Louis Symphony, has never been posted in “Industry News.” I’m not sure what to take away from those omissions besides the fact that management doesn’t really want to provide a comprehensive “view of the current landscape,” and that they must think we patrons are stupid idiotic simpletons who can’t understand the need for sharp concessions unless we only see articles that support management’s thesis.) (Another fun factoid: management officially considers the Huffington Post to be a “reputable news source.” That’s an…interesting perspective. Apparently a blog entry written by an anonymous author on a gossipy website famous for such Pulitzer-eligible journalism as “Kathy Griffin Without Makeup Is Barely Recognizable“, ”Ohio Woman Finds Out Husband Was Her Father“, and “Miley Cyrus Flashes Side-Boob, Talks Sex Scenes, and Losing Her Virginity“…apparently that website is a more reputable, more serious news source than this one. Come on, management. I haven’t even talked about side-boob here once. What do I have to do to be reputable? Turn anonymous, steal others’ work, and start salivating over the Amanda Bynes trainwreck?
I can only assume though if they’ve seen that Huffington Post blog, they’ve seen this one. Don’t pretend you haven’t. Come out, come out wherever you are! I won’t bite; I promise. I may poke at you, and poke hard at times, but I do it out of love, and out of a pure desire to see this orchestra be the best it can be. My first loyalty is not to you; it is not to the musicians; it is to the orchestra as an institution. I swear. Plus, did you see the video I posted of myself? I’m a 5’5″ 90-pound shrimp. You could snap my arms like toothpicks. For God’s sake.
22 September 2012
Not much analysis on my part today, but here’s some news…
From MPR: “Does SPCO, Minn. Orchestra musicians’ skill justify their pay?” FYI, the short answer is “yes.” And the long answer is “yesssssssssssssssssss.” I can certainly think of some people who don’t deserve their salaries, but happily the SPCO and Minnesota Orchestra musicians are not among them.
From MPR again: “Labor talks at SPCO apparently fruitless.” That headline seems just a tad disingenuous; judging by the article, there may have been some fruit, just not enough fruit to end in a final agreement. Heck, that article doesn’t even say if musicians got the final language of the proposed contract that they were waiting for. According to the previous MPR article, talks were scheduled for both yesterday and today, and it doesn’t appear that they were cut short, as I believe they were at a certain point in the negotiations not too long ago. So I’m going to believe there was progress, if only because I want to.
Also, in an exciting twist, the Chicago Symphony is now on strike. Hullo! Atlanta, YOU get a labor dispute; Indianapolis, YOU get a labor dispute; Minneapolis, YOU get a labor dispute; St. Paul, YOU get a labor dispute; Chicago, YOU get a labor dispute! EVERYBODY GETS A LABOR DISPUTE!!!! WOOOOOOOOOO