Since Osmo’s departure we have been engaged in talks with both Board members and Musicians, as well as with other community groups concerned about the Minnesota Orchestra. In these talks it’s become clear that the artistic vision for the orchestra is a key concern. The Musicians have clearly said they want a world-class orchestra. So have all the community groups: SOSMN, Lee Henderson in his op ed pieces, as well as Orchestrate Excellence. Attendees at the Community Forum also said this is what they want, and so did the Board members we have talked to. Are we all defining “world-class orchestra” in the same way?
We are trying to find out. We recently had a conference call with Dr. Alan Fletcher, President and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School, and the keynote speaker at our Community Forum last August. Here is the way he defines a world-class orchestra:
“A world-class orchestra has real character. It doesn’t sound like any other. If knowledgeable people listened to recordings and then were asked to name the orchestra that was playing, they would most often get it right. That kind of distinctive sound comes from musicians who trust and understand the conductor and each other. There is no great orchestra without a feeling of community on stage. It takes time for orchestras to develop a distinctive character and sound. An orchestra is more than a collection of superbly trained musicians; it develops cohesion over time.”
Do you agree with this description of a world-class orchestra? Is there anything you would add? Any comments you would like to make?
We’ll post a selection of comments on our website and will also send these to the MOA and the Musicians’ negotiating committees.
A selection of comments on the above email listed by date received.
December 19, 2013
I don’t want a world-class orchestra; I want this world-class orchestra…meaning, the musicians who make up the Minnesota Orchestra. Everything in our power should be done to keep every man and woman who is still onstage, onstage, here in Minnesota. Every musician who finds more fulfilling work elsewhere is a black mark against Minnesota and the leaders of the Minnesota Orchestral Association.
I agree with Dr. Fletcher’s astute assessment of what makes a world class orchestra.
I’d just like to add a few obvious observations if I may. To me a world class orchestra is:
-An ensemble that attracts a great music director.
-One that collaborates with the best soloists in the world.
-A group that is invited to perform on the stages of the best halls in the greater western world-and beyond, to positive critical acclaim. Eg:( BBC Proms, Vienna Musikverein and Carnegie Hall)
-One that produces recordings that are well-received in the international music community.
-It is, yes, a group of great, unique solo artists, who come together in a remarkable collaboration that with time and much effort, sometimes results in this distinctive character and sound of a great world class symphony orchestra.
-An example of how humans can inspire others by bringing peace, beauty and cooperation to people’s lives. With educational outreach a great orchestra can show our children that there are alternatives to violence and cultural dumbing -down.
This is what we have had, and what will be a tragic loss to the community if it is not saved.
Dr. Fletcher’s comments provide a good definition of a world-class orchestra.
The board may sincerely believe that it can achieve this type of orchestra with the changes in artistic management and the sharp reductions in artist salaries that it is proposing; they have repeatedly stated that they believe that they are changing the model for orchestral music in the United States, and once they are successful implementing their vision that other orchestras will follow suit. In essence, they are assuming that artistic control will be consolidated in the hands of managers and that musician pay will be sharply reduced across the country, and once that happens there will no longer be a flight of top talent from Minnesota because there will be no place better to go. Unfortunately, this vision is unlikely to be successful. Besides the obvious argument that other orchestras are unlikely to follow suit, the MOA’s model does not create the necessary environment for the musicians to be inspired towards greatness, and it does not motivate patrons such as myself to donate.
I think it is important to recognize that it will be very difficult for this orchestra to achieve greatness again unless the governance model is changed. I do not agree with the MOA’s vision or its financial stewardship, and the current governance model gives me not ability to influence either. Because I have no ability to influence the behavior of the MOA (no voice), I will not donate to the organization unless the governance model is changed – even if the MOA reaches a settlement with the musicians. This is not a small concern; my wife and I have donated nearly $3,000 to the musicians this year, our relatives have donated another $10,000, and we are planning to make similar donations in 2014. I am sure that there are many other donors who will refuse to support the MOA financially unless it becomes a democratic organization in which patrons and donors elect board members and have the power to recall board members. To be financially viable, the orchestra needs a broad donor base, and this donor base is threatened not only by the MOA’s current behavior but also by its governance model.
Jamestown, ND – Note that my wife and I drive to Minneapolis from North Dakota for performances. As the only high-quality orchestra in the region, the Minnesota Orchestra has traditionally served a much larger area than just the Twin Cities.
I think Dr. Alan Fletcher’s description of what defines a world-class orchestra is spot-on, and highlights something that Michael Henson and at least some board members apparently do not understand or appreciate. To this I would add that I believe having a world-class orchestra also presupposes that you have a conductor with vision, and a collection of world-class ensemble-players. One can’t simply take a random group of players, no matter how individually skilled, put a random person waving his arms in front of them, and expect ‘world-class’ to happen.
World-class ensemble-players are a special sub-set of highly skilled musicians who not only play their respective instruments at the highest level, but who can also respond uniquely to the visual input from a conductor, to the aural signals from their colleagues around them, and function seamlessly as a single organism. World-class ensemble-players also need to be masters at ‘reading between the lines’. Even an excellent conductor can only show so much from the podium: it is up to the players to interpret the signals from the conductor as a kind of shorthand, and ‘fill in the blanks’ to make music happen. This skill also gives the players the ability to ‘save’ a performance when working with a less-than-steller conductor, if necessary.
If you have only a decent conductor and good players with limited ensemble experience, you can still have a good orchestra, but the result won’t be world-class. To have a world-class orchestra, one needs both an exceptional conductor, and world-class ensemble-players – who must then have plenty of experience working together – if one expects to create the kind of magical synthesis that Dr. Fletcher describes. There is so much to this process that the casual observer can’t begin to appreciate without a certain degree of musical experience, and a deep love of music, and that is the pity of our situation with Michael Henson: from the beginning of the contract dispute he has made it abundantly clear that he has absolutely no understanding of the complex dynamic that makes a world-class orchestra possible.
These are my thoughts, anyway. THANK YOU for your continued efforts to bring back together the fractured parts of what certainly was – until 15 months ago – a world-class orchestra.
Thank you for asking for feedback!
I agree with Alan Fletcher’s description of a world class orchestra. I would add that the orchestra’s members will also have a strong desire to be world class, to work hard to achieve that status, and be fully committed to it. They need leadership by a conductor who knows how to achieve world class status and is dedicated to the orchestra.
The MOA Board has made much about the role of money in achieving world class status and maintaining it. All the money in the world cannot buy the cohesion musicians achieve in a world class ensemble. Or the dedication. If we were to adopt the MOA Board’s model, i.e. talented musicians are a dime a dozen and can be hired easily at any time, then we adopt a future without that cohesion and the Minnesota Orchestra becomes a revolving door for musicians on their way to world class ensembles.
I have written about the Minnesota Orchestra at both my blogs (below) but from different approaches. Eyes on Life focuses more on the business, and Anatomy of Perceval on the music plus the effect this contract dispute has had on my series of novels in which the Minnesota Orchestra is an important part of the protagonist’s back story. Because the MN Orchestra is world renowned, my readers in other countries will know it, too.
Cohesive Collaboration between an excellent conductor and talented musicians in an orchestra that blends as a perfect unit creating music that lifts your spirits and touches your soul is a World-Class Orchestra.
To begin with, I dislike the term “world-class.” Like the word “passion,” it has been overused or abused to the point of becoming a more or less meaningless cliche. Having a very fine orchestra in this community depends on creating the conditions that will attract the finest players, whether that means monetary return, prestige, enjoyable working environment, good morale and esprit de corps, reputation, whatever. . . and having a conductor who knows how to get this large group of capable players to work together and play their best to create memorable and distinctive performances of well-chosen music. Osmo Vanska knew how to do that, and had the players who could realize his goals. We’ve lost all that. Who knows when or if we will ever get it back, with a Board and management that refuses to change course no matter what. Imagine where we would all be now if the Carnegie Hall concerts had taken place and the 2015 BBC Proms residency was still in the offing. The value of those appearances would have been inestimable to the whole city and state.
I agree with Dr. Fletcher as far as he goes. I think there is another aspect of this that a lot of people feel but do not articulate. Does a world class orchestra play a season in which the majority of different concerts are labeled and considered pops? I carefully counted up the Pops concerts in the 2012-2013 season and there were 22. I counted the classical concerts and there were 16. Vanska directed 9 of them. Sarah Hicks, who directed concerts labeled Pops directed 14. Several of the Christmas concerts which were Pops and included the Orchestra did not have a director listed. (I counted each different concert as one, not the number of times it might be repeated in the week.) The concerts that the Minnesota Orchestra Musicians are playing on their own are well attended. (Many sold out.) The people going to these concerts are not going to hear Pops concerts. Although, some classical music is very popular. (Think, the Nutcracker Ballet music) This music is often the way new people are brought into listening to classical music. What do the members of the board think about this? Does the leadership of the board or all those business people on the board have any clue about what an orchestra should be like?
December 18, 2013
A world-class orchestra like the Minnesota Orchestra doesn’t simply please its listeners, it provides a standard of excellence to be aimed at by all the cultural enterprises in its range.
I’m sorry but from my way of thinking a world-class orchestra goes hand-in-hand with a world class board.
The present leadership of the board is not at that level. It has a very different view of things and managing to lose (with no remorse!) a world-class orchestra director (Vanska) something begs for a major change in board leadership. What shame they have brought upon themselves.
Thanks for the note. Not to be snarky but looks to me like the board is more interested in selling seats for date night to customers, hence the very expensive remodel of the lobby. The lobby is a date night thing but is not part of the art that is created on stage. All I hear the board talking about in public is budget issues, need to cut salaries, their deficit. When I hear the musicians talk it is about the art they create, about their connection to world culture, about the power of music in their lives and in the lives of people around the world. I know they want a world class orchestra. Seems to me the board wants to preside over a beautiful building and a talented “staff” of musicians. They are worlds apart. Looks to me like we need a new board, or an independent orchestra that cuts ties to the board.
I’d agree with the statement. It’s also obvious to concert goers that the members of the orchestra care about each other as well as the music they are making. There’s an extension to as we know many of the orchestra members and talk with them outside their concert music making venues. That feeling, in schools it is called “community”, and does not come easily, nor can it be mandated.
I agree completely with Dr. Fletcher. His point of view appears in my opinion to be completely incomprehensible to the current board/management of the MOA, whose egotism won’t let them acknowledge the less than stellar advice they received leading to their horrendous lockout blunder.
Limiting the definition of what constitutes a “world-class” orchestra to how it plays misses what I believe to be an even more important factor – what it plays.
Performance excellence and a unique, recognizable character mean little if the works being performed are of little or limited interest to the broadest possible audience.
The inference from Dr. Fletcher’s remarks is that if we have a distinctive orchestra with a great sense of community and superbly trained musicians, it doesn’t really matter what they’re asked to play.
I can confirm with complete conviction that I would be more inclined to buy a ticket to attend a performance which features work(s) with which I am not familiar and which have an interesting history/backstory than I would be to attend the world’s greatest performance of a work(s) that I know well.
The classical music libraries around the world are filled with masterworks that have never been performed or which have been lost to time. The most recent example of this is the “discovery” and championing of the symphonies of Austrian composer Marcel Tyberg by Maestro JoAnn Falletta (Buffalo Philharmonic). These are monumental works in the style and form of Mahler and Bruckner that are now recorded and which have introduced the classical music audience to a previously unknown master composer of the early 20th century. Another example is American composer Vittorio Giannini – a name that has been lost to time but who produced an enormous opus of works that are virtually unknown here in the U.S. less than 50 years after his death in 1966. Giannini composed a massive setting of the Requiem in 1937 for SATB soli, mixed chorus and orchestra. No performances of this work can be found. No recording exists of this work. I would jump at an opportunity to hear this work in live performance and would be among the first to purchase a recording should one be made available.
These are just two examples – there are countless others – of the impact that programming can have on audience support. Yes, the Minnesota Orchestra should continue to program the “familiar classics” but it must also include the “unfamiliar” classics as well. The Orchestra should create its unique, distinctive, world-class position not just by how it plays, but also by what it discovers and brings to their audiences.
Apple Valley, MN
I think Alan Fletcher’s remarks leave a door big enough for the MOA to drive a coach and horses through.
World class orchestras get invited to the Proms and elsewhere. World class orchestras have artistic control. They don’t let the management control hiring and firing of musicians including the music director. In a world class orchestra. The music director is in charge of programming.
World class orchestras have soloists and guest conductors thrilled to have a chance to conduct and play with them. They don’t come just for the fee. Look at what is happening to the musician sponsored concerts.
World class Orchestras have almost all of their concerts devoted to the core and new repertoire. No world class orchestra that I know of has over half their scheduled concerts loaded up with pop music.
World class orchestras don’t have pop music directors with more power than the music director. In fact most don’t play pop music at all, unless you count the odd Christmas concert and even then it will be a class act.
World class orchestras are developing a high quality internet presence and also broadcast to theaters world wide. I was watching an interview with Gustave Dudamel last night, where he made that point. He also says he does attend other orchestras concerts in theaters. The ability to sell seats outside the concert hall will become what really defines world class, and Gustave Dudamel made that point as well.
Quite honestly, I don’t think the current board have a clue about any of this. As well as having very bad manners, they are also a clueless and hapless bunch. I very much doubt any progress will be made with them.
We now have to move to the political arena I believe.
Has anyone said they don’t want that?
First, I would like to thank you for all your efforts to move the MOA and the musicians to a settlement and attempting to remain neutral in this endeavor. I would not disagree with Dr. Fletcher’s characterization, but for me, a great orchestra – a “World Class Orchestra” if you will – is one that plays the music in spectacular fashion… with feeling, without error, with nuance that results in a sound that stirs the emotions of the listener. Like I felt last weekend listening to the musicians playing at the Convention Center and last month at Ted Mann.
I wish you luck in your efforts but have to say from my viewpoint, current management must go. I suspended my sustaining membership a year ago and will not give any more money to MOA until Davis, Campbell and Hensen are gone. In the meantime, I am contributing to the musicians. I am disgusted at the tactics of the MOA management, the deception and arrogance that too often comes from wealthy entitled folks. Tthe lack of vision to increase revenue rather than the simplistic solution of cutting salaries is the crux of the problem. Your comparative study of the MOA and the Cleveland Orchestra was very telling. I have some friends who attended a concert by the Cleveland Orchestra last month. The Orchestra’s program was chock full of full-page ads for all sorts of companies and professional services firms. This is one simple way the MOA could increase revenue.
Again, thanks for all your efforts. Have a very happy holiday season.
I so applaud your persistence. From the first time I heard the phrase “World Class Orchestra,” I frankly bristled. Because, or couse, there are two fine orchestras in the Twin Cities, or at least there used to be. My sense was that the phrase “World Class Orchestra” along with the insistence on calling themselves the “Minnesota Orchestra” elbowed aside the St Paul Chamber Orchestra, which I love with all my heart and worked with time, energy and dollars to help sustain and push toward a settlement. I do not know within the inner circle what it took for the musicians and management of the SPCO to settle, but I am of the opinion that settling in and of itself was a great achievement. Yes there were loses and compromises, But the orchestra is playing again, the last concert we attended was a true pleasure and included Jeremy Denk, with one smaller and one larger group of orchestra members. Whatever one thinks of Jeremy Denk (I’m not a huge fan), the musical choices were superb, the playing of the orchestra likewise (in fact I think better than the soloist’s). I wept with gratitude that the SPCO members had found it within them, individually and collectively, to return as a living, breathing body and once again make wonderful music. That in my opinion was and continues to be “world class behavior.”
My point is this: Until the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra resolve the log jam and return to the business of making music, they have no claim to styling themsleves a “World Class Orchestra.” As each day passes without a settlement, and without obvious evidence that the musicians and management are meeting regularly, their past excellence dissipates. Frankly, I don’t see how they can sustain their lives this way. Many of the musicians have left for jobs elsewhere, with orchestras who are performing. Some play on occasion with the SPCO. The longer this lockout, strike, stand-off continues, the less viability the orchestra has, however it styles itself.
One thing that Alan Fletcher said last summer struck me as absolutely right-on: there is no hope of a solution unless there is on-going negotiation. Period. My advice would be to persist (if you have the stomach for it). Urge musicians and management to commit to negotiations, once, twice a week for as long as takes. Tell them that you as supporters will no longer deal with them unless they commit to regular negotiations. Get the musicians off this snooty kick of “world classism” and awake to a sense of what they are losing with each day that passes.
You have my sympathy and support. I think it would be wonderful to have, once again, two excellent orchestras in the Twin Cities.
I think Dr. Fletcher’s description is accurate. I would add the words “unique” and “distinctive”.
You have asked a very good question.
Is the definition you provided the one the reviewer who first said MNO was a “world-class” orchestra used?
I thought that a distinctive sound was what Osmo was working for and carefully choosing musicians to fit that sound. Can an orchestra be nominated for a Grammy without a distinctive sound?
I like the definition you have provided and I think the MNO had it before the lockout and is doing it’s darndest to maintain it.
The next question is what kind of dollar value does each side assign to “world-class orchestra?”
Another question is who is qualified to choose the musicians if there isn’t a music director?
I agree with the definition of a World Class Orchestra. We have already small community and chamber orchestras in this city. I went to a small orchestra concert in St Paul and noticed how they do not play with “one breath”, exactly the same notes at the same time, as the MN Orchestra played. To be that fine tuned which take so much practice, cannot be matched anywhere in this state. Losing this orchestra has brought my family immense sadness and we pray constantly we will have new leadership that will bring it back.
The K. family
I agree with what Dr. Fletcher says. I can’t think of anything at the moment to add, but I would make this comment: as has been seen in many of the public comments made by Board members, much of what Dr. Fletcher says is beyond their grasp. Any time intangibles are mentioned, the Board members have rejected them. I can’t imagine what their conception of a “world class orchestra” is; but characteristics like “character”, “trust”, and “community” seem to elude them.
I agree completely with Dr. Fletcher’s definition and it’s the definition that must come first, defining the orchestra in terms of the artistry it produces. However, I’ll offer an additional definition, much more pragmatic. A great orchestra must be a destination orchestra for the artists (musicians, director, composers). There are all kinds of things that make an orchestra a destination orchestra — it has to be in a community which will draw musicians and entice them to call it their home, it has to have a common purpose of great artistry, understood nurtured by all constituents. But most pragmatically, a destination orchestra must have competitive pay. An orchestra cannot aspire to greatness unless it is willing to attract and retain great musicians. Certainly pay isn’t everything. If the community is vibrant and the orchestra has a common purpose nurtured by all, musicians will choose to stay here. But an orchestra will not be a destination orchestra unless it is willing to offer its artists competitive pay. And an orchestra cannot be great unless it is a destination orchestra.
There’s my definition. One aside (a corollary, really). I think the current funding model is broken. For example, no one ever asked me whether I would be willing to give more money, or be satisfied with a lesser orchestra. And I mean me, personally. Now granted, the amount of money I can give is a mere drop in the bucket compared to what’s needed. But I would have given. I think the orchestra needs a broader funding base (which also has consequences for changing the governence model).
Once again, my thanks to you for your advocacy and efforts.
A wonderful question – and a relevant one. I knew something was happening with the Minnesota Orchestra on a brisk Friday night a couple of years ago driving down Grand Avenue in St. Paul with MPR on the radio. Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony was playing, and I was playing my usual game of “name that orchestra”. I can usually at least get the general nationality down right. The sound and the playing that evening were tremendous, but I absolutely could not peg this orchestra. Was it Chicago? London? Perhaps a little heard Russian ensemble? The ensemble sound was rich and nuanced. Then it occurred to me that I had seen that Minnesota had the Prokofiev on an upcoming program. Yes, it was the Minnesota Orchestra. As a tuba player, I am well acquainted with the work, but it was more than the excerpts with which I was familiar that got my attention. It was the overall blend of the orchestra, the precision and the shaped, controlled sound that caught my ear. This has happened consistently since then with Bruckner, Sibelius and other works. Minnesota has developed its own sound of excellence, one that merits comparisons with the best American and European orchestras.
I completely agree with the statement! We don’t want to become the Trenton or Fargo of culture. How can we get it back?
A world class orchestra is full of musicians who are dedicated to their orchestra and their community. They entrench themselves because they know there is no place better.
Dr. Fletcher has described the sound we appreciate so well.
Like a good wine, the “flavors” have to mellow and live together and over time the special bouquet is enjoyed. It can’t be hurried. We appreciate the steadfastness of all who are holding fast to the higher ground.
And it generally leaves you breathless.
A world class orchestra also has a charismatic world class conductor that can excite the musicians and the community.
A world class orchestra, as you have defined it, cannot exist absent respect for the musicians as consummate artists. Musicians must be valued as unique, rather than as replaceable cogs in a machine. Therefore, the governance of a world-class orchestra (London, Berlin, Vienna) includes the musicians themselves – preferably as the owners of the organization. in the model of a worker-owned co-operative.