In the Hands
Paul Cantrell’s music
blog & podcast
Piano music old and new from a devoted amateur,
all free to listen to, download, and share.

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, 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.


Tom Foley

In the words of Mark Twain, “reports of my death are seriously exaggerated.”

In my words, I do not believe this tree is dead.

Tom Foley
Andrew Balio

This is a well-constructed analysis, so, well done.
I’m not going to try to convince you otherwise but to focus on a few points.
Deficits such as theirs, while real and not concocted as in other disputes, did not happen overnight.
That they were allowed to linger and fester, grow and accumulate, we have Henson, Campbell and Davis to look to. As they are acting as anything but trustees, applying a mentality and strategy used only for the for-profit sector (Downsizing, union-busting), they ought to replaced for failing so spectacularly, as would any failed management and board “in the real world” they like to emulate. To remove them would be “just business”, with a strong effort to retain the most important and best assets of the MOA, the musicians, the venue and endowment. The public at large loves a comeback story, and that could give it to them. Nobody is cheering for corporate suits to crush the working heroes, the heart and soul of a living tradition.
What is important to separate, is the issue of their building being renovated. It should have never been done on the backs of the musicians as that is antithetical to the mission and any common sense, but, retro-fitting “Orchestra Hall (in to) a highly desirable luxury rental space for high rollers” was the smart thing to do. Running to the high ground of where todays wealth is the only rational strategy in todays “race to the bottom” culture. That was a good long-term strategy for their future, though, from looking at the pictures, I’m not convinced the design is a great one. Indeed, someone of stature such as the Governor, needs to call for the resignation of Henson, Campbell and Davis as a means for moving forward. They don’t own the MOA, they were supposed to manage it prudently. In a metropolis with 19 Fortune 500 companies and countless other corporate headquarters and a community culture of massive arts support and giving, there is no excuse for failing so profoundly.

Julie Schramke

As my husband and I talk about this, we wonder about collusion, especially between orchestra management and the Minneapolis Convention Center. The Convention Center lost an entire year of revenue; why are they not taking the Orchestra to court for breach of contract? Something still smells very fishy in management.

Julie Schramke

Julie: A good question, but when I notice myself thinking along such lines, I have a three-step process for backing myself down:

(1) Never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity.

(2) If the actions of others look stupid to me, I try to keep in mind that they might understand something I don’t.

(3) Finally, remember that any group of people is made of many individuals, none of whom think entirely identically.

Thus tempered, I’m left with lots of pointed questions, but am not willing to presume general malice on the part of the board. All that is certain is that their actions have had disastrous consequences.

Mindy Way-Johnson

Thank you for such a well-presented analysis.
Thanks also for “Never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity!” Words to live by!

Mindy Way-Johnson
Justin E.A. Busch


Your analysis, however depressing, is, as I would expect, for the most part thoughtful, articulate, and strong. There are a few points with which one may take issue, though.

For example, you doubt maliciousness on the part of the Board. Yet you also acknowledge that “many board members now show open contempt in conversation” against the musicians; if open contempt is not malicious, it’s difficult to see what is. Contempt does not exist in isolation; where one person despises another over whom they have power they will, sooner or later, act on that attitude. Very few Board members of any major orchestra or art museum are competent judges of music or art, let alone active practitioners thereof, and consequently they do not understand, and therefore dislike, the very people it is, or at least should be, their mission to serve. This dislike, perhaps even fear (for serious artists, however much they need money, know that money on its own is worthless, and therefore their very existence) is a challenge to the monied classes) feeds contempt, and contempt feeds the malicious desire to destroy that which gives the artists (here, the musicians) what power they have (here the union). While one may doubt that any given aspect of the disaster was malicious in origin, the overall approach is clearly and distinctly so. The burden of proof to the contrary lies with those who would support the Board; as you are not among these, I need say no more.

Even more important than recognizing the Board’s culpability, though, is providing an answer to your challenge to SOS Minnesota Orchestra and the musicians themselves to tell a story which works out. There is at least one which makes a great deal of sense, and for which there is already some, albeit inchoate, support: that the musicians themselves create an orchestral cooperative along the lines of the Vienna or Berlin Philharmonics. This need not be a pipe dream. Already we have seen a Republican former governor challenging the Democratic incumbent to acknowledge that the MSO (which dos not have owners) is every bit as important as a football team (which has very wealthy ones). Already the musicians have demonstrated their ability to organize and present a concert without recourse to the ossified structures of current management. If enough ordinary season ticket holders (many of whom are upper middle class likely voters) would contact the governor and their state representatives demanding that the state pony up reasonable support for the orchestra, the pressure would be considerable. would it be enough? Who knows? But one thing is certain; without any such pressure the effort will certainly fail. So the situation cannot be worsened by a serious effort to detach the orchestra from the control of people akin to those whom Theodore Roosevelt described as the “malefactors of great wealth.”

So I resist the pessimism with which you conclude. The Board has done horrendous damage to the current incarnation of the Minnesota Orchestra; this cannot be denied, save perhaps by those Board members themselves. That there are other possible incarnations, ones which might well recover far more quickly than could the present management-burdened institution, is equally undeniable. To return to your opening metaphor– is it better to write off the entire tree or to look for healthy shoots which can be transplanted away from the toxic soil which allowed the original tree to weaken and collapse?

Justin E.A. Busch

Hello, Justin! Thanks for the thoughtful response.

To your first point, I draw a distinction between malicious individuals on the board (who undoubtedly exist) and general maliciousness (which I am more reluctant to grant). I’ve had a few brief conversations with board members, and found that they ranged from the puerile to the downright saintly. Some members of the board, at least, really do understand the true nature of the musical stewardship with which they are entrusted. Others, while destructive in their actions, do nonetheless act out of a genuine desire to do good. Both those good individuals and those good intentions should not go unacknowledged, even as we decry the overall fiasco. I’m making a weak point here — hardly a wholesale defense of the board! — but I do think this point matters if good is to come of all this.

To your second point, three cheers to you for rising to my challenge, and presenting a positive vision of the future! Very few people have been able to say anything more to me than, “Well, I’m not giving up yet.” I too very much like the idea of the musicians forming an orchestra on a musician-owned cooperative model. I fear it may be a pipe dream simply because of the enormous startup costs involved. Such a project starts at least $100 million (probably much more) worse off than the current financial crisis. However, comments like yours and the recent editorial in the STrib do give a glimmer of plausibility to the idea. Here’s hoping! If things move that way, the coop orchestra would have my immediate support — both financial and spiritual.

These two points are related. Any new endeavor — whether coop or resurrected MNO or who knows what — could certainly use the help of those aforementioned good people on the board. They have financial and operational expertise, money, and insight into what went wrong. We stand a much better chance of counting them as allies in the future if we refrain from careless and over-broad vilification now. Thus my carefully calibrated complaint about the board: the strategy they’ve chosen as a group has clearly failed, and they deserve the blame for that. However, each individual’s role I will judge individually.

Justin E.A. Busch

Is there anyone who doesn’t “act out of a genuine desire to do good”? The problem, of course, is the definition of “good”. As this is a longstanding debate I won’t pursue it much further, save to comment that results seem more important to me than intentions; where an action leads to recognizable harm, where better alternatives are known to be possible, and where the initial action is continued nonetheless there would appear to be a degree of maliciousness. A doctor who knew that you had a serious illness, but waited years before telling you because rebuilding their offices was deemed more important would clearly be guilty of malpractice; the difference between this and the actions of the MSO Board escapes me.

Further to the idea of an orchestral cooperative: I don’t see that the project is necessarily much worse off than is presently the case. Here, for example, is one possibility: that the Minnesota Legislature exercise its undoubted legal authority of eminent domain to transfer the current endowment from the present organization to the new cooperative (let’s call it the Minnesota Philharmonic). Since the purpose of the endowment is to support the performance of serious music by highly qualified players, and since it is not at present doing that, there could be little objection to so acting. Indeed, such a move might win the support of of at least conservative legislators (otherwise opposed to public support for the arts), as it would involve no additional public funds.

Is this plausible? Part of the answer might be found in the current Minneapolis mayoral race. Fortunately for the orchestra R.T. Rybak’s well-known disinterest in cultural matters left him detached from the fracas (unlike St. Paul, where the current mayor rammed a diminution of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and a 15% pay cut for the surviving players down the musicians’ throats), so there is room for potential candidates to stake out new ground. Each should be asked whether they would support such a move; if the City of Minneapolis were to come out in favor of such a plan, it would gain at least some credibility with the State legislature.

Am I optimistic? No; many people would have to change long-established patterns of thought and practice. But neither am I without hope; Minnesota has a tradition of unusual and progressive approaches to dire needs, and where the arts are concerned there is both support and creativity in abundance. The main thing, as always, is to keep up the pressure on those who are demanding surrender, and keep encouraging those on whom the demand is being made. Such conversations as these are, I hope, a useful part of those efforts.

Justin E.A. Busch

Again, Justin, thanks for rising to the challenge of looking to the future with more than grim determination or vague optimism. I frankly don’t find the idea of using eminent domain all that plausible — but merely discussing it makes it more so. The same goes for the year-to-year funding scheme laid out in the STrib letter about forming a cooperative orchestra. The very exercise of thinking through these paths to positive outcomes makes •all• of them more likely! And in that, I do find some comfort against my hopelessness. Thank you for that.

I agree completely with the doctor analogy; in fact, you’re practically quoting my post from December!

I also agree that we must ultimately judge people more by their actions and the results thereof than by their intentions. You seem to think I’d argue otherwise? No, that is in fact one of the central themes of this essay. You’re missing or ignoring the somewhat subtler point of my comment above: when assigning judgements about who is malicious, we do harm when we lapse into thinking the board is a single entity with a single mind. They are not. The roles of different individuals on the board have undoubtedly been very different indeed. Again, “The strategy they’ve chosen as a group has clearly failed, and they deserve the blame for that [as a group]. However, each individual’s role I will judge individually.”