Is the Minnesota Orchestra at war with itself?

GRAYDON ROYCE | Updated 2/10/2014

The events surrounding the emotional homecoming concerts last weekend reveal the scars that remain from the long lockout.

Musicians performed Friday at Orchestra Hall.

The weekend of events at the Minnesota Orchestra proves that healing takes time. Yes, Orchestra Hall was sold out Friday and nearly so on Saturday. And let it be stated unequivocally: everyone was glad to see the musicians back on stage making music in their house.

However,  it was easy to see the divisions that linger from the 16-month lockout. Save Our Symphony Minnesota had distributed bright green “Homer Hankies” and patrons waved them furiously inside the hall. Green was the color of the musicians’ buttons, posters, t-shirts, posters and lawn signs during the lockout. This seemed an unmistakable gesture of support for the musicians and at the same time a reminder to the board and administration that they are being watched.

When Gordon Sprenger, the newly elected board chairman, took the stage at intermission with musician Douglas Wright, he was immediately met on Friday night with a few shouts of “Bring Back Osmo!” referring to the former music director Osmo Vanska. On Saturday night, the crowd was more raucous and emphatic with its challenge to Sprenger. In both cases, Sprenger acknowledged the sentiment but made no commitment other than to say, “We’re on it.”

There was at least one shout Saturday of “Fire Henson,” which reveals a deeper drama that is taking place within the organization. The unstated tension that exists between Vanska and CEO Michael Henson came out into the open when Vanska told MPR music host Brian Newhouse in a conversation Saturday that he feels Henson should resign. The statement became public and by the end of the night, Sprenger – who likely had hoped he’d get a chance to preach harmony and collaboration on this first weekend – found himself issuing a statement saying he was disappointed that Vanska had gone public with his opinions. Those comments will have an impact on delicate negotiations that were already going on within the board.

A contingent of fans who supported the musicians during the lockout feel Henson was the villain in the long lockout and want him fired. In large measure, they are drawing on popular support for Vanska (which is undeniably deep and substantial) as a lever to get Henson out the door – based on the notion that the price for Vanska’s return would be Henson’s departure. Vanska’s statement Saturday removed any doubts of where his head is at, even though he did not state it in "Him or Me" terms.

The board, however, clearly does not enjoy having the thinly veiled conflict (actually Osmo removed the veil) between its two most-public figures being turned into an ultimatum. This isn’t said to discount the validity or the sincerity of the opposition, only to state a fact of nonprofit leadership and human nature. The board is made up of volunteers who give large amounts of money to the orchestra, who endured 18 months under the critical public microscope and are now being told, “Fire this guy and hire this guy.”

Supporters of the musicians could legitimately respond, “Tough bounce, you deserve it for what you put your musicians through.”

And with those dynamics, the Minnesota Orchestra appears to be an institution at war with itself. How do you move forward under those circumstances?     

[Photos: David Joles]