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When a tree falls

Last June, an extraordinary thunderstorm ripped through my fair city, leaving half a million without power and downing an astonishing number of beautiful old trees.

On my daily walk to the coffee shop, a tall tree lay across 34th Street, door-sized chunks of sidewalk split like a drawbridge over the gaping hole where its dangling roots once ran. The top of its canopy, previously the domain of birds, insects, and exceptionally brave squirrels, was half-flattened against the asphalt just shy of the yellow center line. I walked up to it, and touched my finger to leaves that had never before felt human hands. They were still firm and green, and remained so for many days.

When a tree falls, it lives on long after its death is sealed.

Watching the Minnesota Orchestra, I cannot shake the feeling that this tree fell many months ago, and we are now watching it die slowly on the asphalt. The roots are in the air. The trunk is horizontal. Neither hard-headed problem solving nor gracious diplomacy nor righteous indignation can undo what is done. I am an optimist, sometimes to the point of absurdity, but today my heart tells me that there is nothing for us to do but grieve.

I say this not just because of the departure of Osmo Vänskä, devastating though that is. A healthy organization would recover. I say this because I cannot envision an even remotely plausible scenario in which this orchestra’s greatness survives. The relationships are too toxic, the egos too threatened, the supporting social structures too damaged. Yes, the crown of the tree has fallen — but that is because the roots are severed.

What has the lockout accomplished? Every one of the problems of a year ago still exists today, every one magnified by time and compounded by anger. Now, however, those who would save the orchestra — the musicians, the board, and patron advocacy groups — face a new problem: creeping fatalism. They have to convince heavy hearts like mine that there’s still a point in even trying.

• • •

There are three points of contention in this lockout: the board’s

  1. alarm over the financial situation,
  2. plan for addressing it, and
  3. negotiating strategy.

1 = prudent. 2 = dubious. 3 = disastrous.

The Financial Situation

I dug up ten years of annual financial summaries (here they are if you want ’em), lined them up with information the musicians have published about their historical salary levels, and tried to reproduce the board’s findings. It was difficult: it’s not enough information, and I am no accounting wizard. However, it quickly became clear that the financial problems are real. Extrapolating into the future under any of a wide range of assumptions, the endowment goes into a death spiral and the orchestra goes bankrupt.

I can quibble with the board’s precise figures, which appear to conflate cyclical and structural issues by assuming that the recession is the new normal. If I plug in more optimistic assumptions about post-recession recovery of endowment returns and donation levels, the “$5 million problem” looks more like a $2–3 million per year problem. That, however, is still a serious problem. I can quibble, but I can’t disagree.

The board was clearly right to raise the alarm. In fact, looking at these reports, they should have done so long ago — and I’m left with a lot of questions about how things got to this point. At least the bells are sounding now, and for that, the board deserves credit.

The Board’s Proposed Solution

I must state the obvious first: the strategic plan is an embarrassingly content-poor piece of Powerpoint phluff. Tufte weeps.

Forgive its clumsiness, though, and you will find the outlines of a concrete plan for addressing the financial woes. Oversimplifying a bit, it runs like this: save a bunch of money by hiring cheaper musicians, and hope they still play reasonably well. Make Orchestra Hall a highly desirable luxury rental space for high rollers (corporate events, pop concerts, etc.), and use that to subsidize the orchestra, which can then focus on maintaining artistic quality, albeit within a diminished scope. Finally, give the board more control over artistic operations to ensure they do not outrun financial constraints.

That plan deserves serious debate. I don’t like it, but I would like to debate it.

It’s risky. It explicitly assumes that artistic quality will remain high, and that giving will continue at something like current levels. We must acknowledge at least the possibility that historically unprecedented musician salary cuts and transfer of artistic control might impact artistic quality, and that this might impact donations. If this happened, reduced quality and reduced giving would form a negative feedback loop, making the board’s strategic plan a financial death spiral.

All the stakeholders — musicians, patrons, and board members — should have been involved in a serious discussion about these sorts of risks and potential outcomes. We all should have been asked to weigh them against other plans. For example:

  • Keep the current model, and have an all-hands-on-deck fundraising campaign in which every donor knows the orchestra will die if they don’t dig deep.
  • Accept the musicians’ 2010 offer, then put all the chips on new, big risks in adventurous programming to expand and energize the audience and thus raise the necessary extra funds.
  • Put the orchestra on a “hospice care” plan for drawing down the endowment, as much as fund restrictions allow, and let it die with world-class dignity.

There are no pleasant options. These plans are all risky, ugly, or both. That’s why we should have spent the last 2–4 years having a very difficult debate about them. That never happened. Instead, we are now locked in an all-consuming civil war over…

The Board’s Negotiating Strategy

Forgetting that its stakeholders are not its subordinates, the board decided they must force everyone to accept their strategic plan by any means necessary — no matter the cost.

Volumes of diatribe have been written on what followed. I’ll be brief. The board couldn’t have f☠⺞✂☆☣ed up their negotiating strategy any worse, short of starting drunken brawls with patrons or taking hostages at gunpoint.

It’s a shame, because they were right to sound the financial alarms, they went to the trouble to come up with a plan, and now they’ve made it impossible to have a reasonable discussion about it. You simply can’t hold somebody’s livelihood hostage and expect a rational debate to ensue.

To their financial deficit, they’ve added an extraordinary trust deficit. In 2008, I’d have happily given money to save the orchestra. Now, I wouldn’t give a dollar on the end of a ten foot pole. I have no confidence in the people who would be spending my money. Why should I? They just orchestrated a fiasco. Most of them are still busy blaming others for their own failure.

Only in private have a few of them taken responsibility and expressed regret for what happened. Some brave souls, who are unable to step forward publicly, say in private that they raised objections to this disastrous strategy from the beginning. My heart aches for them, and the abuse they must have endured from all directions.

Yes, it is the board who deserve the lion’s share of blame for this fiasco. True, the musicians could have done better on several fronts. They haven’t spoken satisfactorily to any of the financial concerns. They could have been more proactive in proposing alternative solutions. (They repeatedly pointed out that they lack information and besides this is the board’s job, not theirs, which is all correct but counts for diddly.) Their call for an independent financial and strategic review was quite reasonable, but they could have been far more specific in public about precisely what information it would examine that they don’t already have.

This is nit-picking. It is the unequivocally the board who declared all-out warfare, and the board who take the blame for the consequences of that decision.

Now here we sit, earth scorched.

• • •

What would it take for the orchestra to recover its greatness from where things stand today? I try to imagine a scenario in which it works out. It looks something like this:

In a dramatic, debate-seizing gesture, Henson, Campbell and Davis resign, saying, “We may be right and we may be wrong, but given the anger surrounding us, our very presence has become an obstacle to resolution. We are therefore stepping aside for the good of the orchestra.”

Gleeful but also taken aback, the musicians ratchet down the rancor several notches. Both parties open lines of communication. New MOA leadership swiftly captures the high ground by ending the lockout and agreeing to the much-feared jointly commissioned independent review, with its scope essentially unrestricted and its results to be made public in full. Scrambling not to look intransigent, the musicians give their full support before the results are known. The review uncovers some serious management mistakes and raises questions about the strategic plan, but essentially vindicates the board’s fundamental concerns about finances. The musicians crow over the criticism of management, but with detailed and unassailable financials now in the public eye, they are finally forced to be concrete and realistic about their salaries.

The board open themselves to public input on their strategic plan — which is widely torn to shreds in a general letting of pent-up anger — and then ask if anyone has any better ideas. Four months of heated public debate ensue.

Nobody has any magic solutions, but a consensus picture emerges. The community is given one year to recapitalize the endowment now that it actually knows the extent of the financial danger. Musician and executive salaries are tied to that fundraising, with endowment draws constrained to a five-year moving average of 5%, meaning that salaries would be cut up to the originally proposed 30% if the fundraising fails. So that the musicians know their interests are protected, the orchestra adopts the Aspen model of having musicians constitute a certain percent of the board and be present on every committee.

The fundraising is somewhat successful, raising half the necessary endowment captial, so the musicians end up taking a 15% salary cut. Musicians and patrons accept this, because they feel ownership in the process that lead to it, and no longer nurse suspicions that the board could do better. Enthusiasm returns. Dysfunction eases. A few of the musicians on leave surprise everyone by returning. The ensemble starts to look attractive again, and vacancies get filled with great new players, despite its now relatively uncompetitive salary scale. The newly invigorated orchestra attracts a little-known artistic director of tremendous talent, and in ten years, it has returned to its former glory.

And we all get magic laser ponies.

• • •

When I look at this scenario realistically, the very first deadlock-breaking step where Henson, Campbell and Davis all possess the strength and humility necessary to resign for the greater good — ever, let alone immediately and simultaneously! — just seems preposterous. The story hardly grows more believable after that. The musicians ratchet down the rancor? And trust the board? The board lets an independent review dig through their underwear drawer? That review convinces skeptics? The board lets musicians, for whom many board members now show open contempt in conversation, among their tightly closed ranks? Something like fifty million previously undiscovered dollars come out of the woodwork? Salary cuts don’t afffect artistic quality? The orchestra is actually attractive to any musicians, let alone a hot shot music director, after soaking so long in these poisoned waters?

No, my heart is unmoved: this tree has already fallen.

Orchestrate Excellence, you’ve been by far the most constructive and reasonable voice in this mess. Can you tell a plausible story of how this works out?

Board members, some of you argued to me this week quite vehemently that you haven’t failed yet. Can you tell a plausible story of how this works out?

SOS Minnesota, you’re still brandishing the torches and pitchforks of the good fight as if the fight is not already lost. Can you tell a plausible story of how this works out?

Musicians, even after all you’ve been through, two thirds of you have not yet jumped ship. Bless you for your strength and optimism, but pray tell, why not? Can you tell a plausible story of how this works out?

Somebody needs to tell that story, or else fatalism will self-fulfill.

• • •

After the city cleared the fallen tree from the road, hundreds of suckers sprung from its mangled roots, forming a curious bush. In a few generations, one of them might grow into a new tree — oddly shaped, perhaps, but once again tree-like. Unless, that is, a city crew just puts that sad tangle of branches out of its misery in a wood chipper and plants something new and healthy.

The Minnesota Orchestra will not go bankrupt in our lifetimes. It can certainly live on as a minor-league pops orchestra — a training ground and supplemental income source for musicians, and a pleasant diversion for the public. Suckers will grow from its mangled roots. Do not be fooled when you see their green leaves; this tree is dead.

If anyone can convince me otherwise, please, I beg you, do so now.

Update: The lockout is over! The ultimate contract looks on the surface very similar to the musicians’ 2010 offer (which the board rejected). The lockout appears to have been a total, catastrophic waste.

The important thing, however, is that the orchestra is not dead. I hope this ultimately proves all my pessimism wrong! I am relieved, but feel more cautious than celebratory. What are the real details of the new contract? How will the community respond? Will the board’s leadership demonstrate a hitherto unseen competence, wisdom, and respect for their stakeholders? There’s a huge amount of lost trust. Rebuilding it will take a very long time. To further stretch the analogy, the tree has been turned upright and plopped right back in the ground — but the roots that were damaged are still damaged. Will they regrow? A Henson resignation and accompanying flood of donations would be a good start.