“What happened to the orchestra?”
The question hit me hard. As the crosswalk light lit up and we started walking up Nicollet Avenue, I looked at my niece and I thought about the best way to explain it to her. It’s not like I was expecting to answer this sort of question today. Just a fun little day adventure in downtown Minneapolis with my out-of-town niece, showing her the sights and sounds.
Frowning, I glanced back over my shoulder at Orchestra Hall (or whatever it was called now - Target Hall, Wells Fargo Auditorium?). Going for a little tour around downtown and looking at all the buildings, I obviously had a lot to say about that particular building. We had sat in Peavey Plaza for a short time while I talked about growing up listening to the Minnesota Orchestra and attending concerts. I even tried to describe the big blue pipes that used to loop out of the building, one of the earliest memories I have of the building when I was in elementary school. I talked about how lucky I was when I was at the UofM getting my music degree, not only studying with Burt Hara (“He played clarinet in the orchestra, honey.”) but also learning from other great musicians from that ensemble - Tim Zavadil, Manny Laureano, Michael Gast, Steve Campbell, Anthony Ross - too many to name. Telling her that I wished I could take her to a concert as I remembered them, she had asked why we couldn’t go. How do you explain to an six year old what the term ‘implosion’ means, and in context of an orchestra and its governing association?
I hadn’t thought about that simple question in a long time. What happened to the orchestra? After repeating the words in my head a few times, two things occurred to me: One, that the question isn’t a simple question at all. Two, that I didn’t really know the answer, and I doubted anyone else truly knew either. I really just wanted to say, ‘Who cares?’ Long ago, when the musicians and the orchestral association had argued on the order of years, maybe someone would have. But when it was all over and the dust settled, all that mattered was that the music stopped, irreplaceable musicians left, and the Minnesota Orchestra lost everything that brought the ensemble to dazzling artistic heights.
As we kept walking, I recalled all the excitment leading up to the season that never happened. It looked to be one of the most exciting seasons I’d ever seen, including two Sibelius symphonies (I loved Sibelius) and a two week Clarinet Festival with one of my idols, Swedish clarinetist Martin Fröst, playing my favorite clarinet piece, Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, in a Saturday night concert on my birthday! Plus, they were doing some remodeling of Orchestra Hall with a new lobby, wrap-around seating (I think) and a thousand other goodies. It was even Burt’s 25th year with the orchestra. It honestly seemed too good to be true.
I then remembered the last week of September, when headlines said that if a new contract between the Minnesota Orchestral Association and the musicians wasn’t signed by the end of the month, the MOA would lock out the musicians (An NHL lockout AND an MO lockout in the same year? No way). I distinctly recalled a comment from Manny Laureano: “Barring a miracle, the Minnesota Orchestra musicians will be locked out of their jobs at midnight tomorrow night.” What followed was unthinkable. Over and over again the MOA would announce the cancellation of three weeks worth of concerts. I watched as they disappeared off the calendar until the Martin Fröst performance was cancelled. Finally the entire rest of the season was cancelled. Months of arguing over finances and distrust. Worse, months of complete silence, no side talking to one another at all, no progress being made whatsoever.
Musicians were starting to leave. The orchestra that I had grown up with and watched make a serious name for itself was starting to fall apart. I vividly remembered the night when the very first news broke out that Burt had won an audition with the LA Philharmonic.
“What happened to the orchestra, Uncle Chris?” my niece repeated, thinking I hadn’t heard her.
I looked upwards, raised my eyebrows and shook my head, taking a deep breath. All of my thoughts on the debate from years ago came rushing back to me. I was a very objective person - even being as close to the musicians as I was, at the beginning of the lockout I had realized that I didn't have all the facts. If the MOA was correct and there really wasn't enough money, how could the musicians have been so blind to it? If the orchestra was constantly in the red, something had to be agreed upon to sustain the organization while doing the best it can to compensate the incredibly talented artists it employed. Yes, orchestral musicians of that caliber were worth the money they made. There are a lot of people in the world that get paid an unfathomable amount of money for less skill and hard work than those musicians. But if the orchestral music world really was getting smaller day by day, how could you argue for them making top dollar when there simply wasn't enough money in the industry? Surely the Minnesota Orchestral Association cared about the orchestra (read: the musicians), right?
But as the months dragged on the Association's image came into focus. It wasn't the musicians' actions or accusations that started to shift my thinking, but the lack of action by the Association. Attending the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra benefit concerts didn't suddenly make me a diehard supporter of their side; it was the constant refusal of the MOA to budge on anything less than an MOA-slanted deal before they even allowed the musicians to start playing again. The MOA was run by CEOs of big banks - of course they were going to treat the managing of an orchestra like a business, and it is - to an extent.
The fundamental issue was that classical music organizations have always been based on patronage. The name of the game through the Baroque and into the Classical periods was either work for the church, find a patron, or both (Michael Riversong, The Importance of Patronage). Centuries later, the same was true in the debate on the Minnesota Orchestra. The people in the board were trying to run the organization like a standard business, where profits are driven by ticket sales. But ticket sales aren't what keep orchestras in business. It always comes back to patronage. It always comes back to donors and endowments. I would have thought that any classical music loving person would know that.
The MO was one of the top endowed orchestras in the country at the time. It's what allowed the MOA to spend $50 million on a renovated Orchestra Hall. The irony made me shake my head for the thousandth time, years later. I never determined if the MOA board members were actual musicians or music lovers, but it was plainly obvious that they thought renovations and a cheaper payroll would somehow make the orchestra work with a ticket selling model.
Glancing back at my niece, I knew that what caused the self-destruction of the Minnesota Orchestra didn't actually matter. I knew that it didn't actually matter 'which side was right' and 'which side was wrong.' The only thing that truly mattered was that something great suddenly stopped. I thought about all the typical things you heard from the orchestra supporters years ago - that a 'cultural gem' was being lost, that all of the amazing heights that Vänskä had helped the orchestra achieve are suddenly gone - but one of the unique things I always told people was that the biggest shames came from looking at the lockout and apparent decimation of the MO's talents through the eyes of a student.
All of my experiences at the School of Music that I had told my niece about while sitting in Peavey Plaza weren't happening anymore. Not to insult any future musicians of whatever group would occupy Orchestra Hall in the future or the newest teachers at the University, but no longer would SOM students work side-by-side in rehearsals with some of the best musicians in the country. No longer would students in the University Symphony get directed by a world renowned conductor, Osmo Vänskä. I doubted artists like Martin Fröst would bother stopping in Minneapolis on their world tours if not for Osmo (It was obvious that Fröst specifically came because of Osmo). No longer would clarinetists from literally all over the world come to Minneapolis to study with Burt Hara.
I had talked with my old colleagues from school throughout the lockout and we all agreed there was one thing that was probably the most painful to think about, on behalf of future students: All of the memories of going to concerts at Orchestra Hall - literally every weekend - seeing one of the country's greatest orchestras and our teachers perform the works we were there to study and play for them, night after night.
Was I being overdramatic? It's not like the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra as I knew them were the only great musicians around. But I knew that the events of years ago had created such a poison between management and musicians that I was sure many great players - students and professionals alike - looked away from the Twin Cities as a destination to come and perform. I took a breath.
"Well, the people that took care of paying the musicians - the board members - claimed that there wasn't enough money to pay the musicians what they were making. The board didn't allow the musicians to play until they agreed on the amount of money that they'd pay them. They argued and argued and argued, and eventually many of the super good musicians that I was telling you about earlier all left and the orchestra just kind of imploded. Do you know what 'imploded' means?"
"I know what 'imploded' means," she replied, sounding nearly insulted. "But didn't everyone just get imploded if everybody left and they don't play anymore?"
I chuckled and nodded. "Yup. When people argue for too long and lose sight of what's important, everybody gets imploded."
She's a really smart girl.