Murder Most Foul

Minnesota’s world-class orchestra is no more, and its death was no accident.

Minnesota Orchestra
Photo by Ann Marsden
Osmo Vänskä

Well, it’s done.

The Minnesota Orchestra’s all-star conductor, Osmo Vänskä, has resigned, and the extraordinary ensemble he built—among the best in the world—is dead. Sure, another lesser orchestra may one day take its place, and even its name, but do not be fooled. The orchestra Osmo created is gone forever.

The death of Osmo’s orchestra was not an accident, however; it was murder, plain and simple. The motive: money. The killer: everyone who watched it happen and did nothing to stop it. The murder weapon: a number. Specifically, $6 million—the estimated yearly deficit the Minnesota Orchestra would run if it fulfilled its current contract with the musicians.

The yearlong lockout that slowly choked the orchestra, and all the communal hand-wringing that occurred while it was gasping to survive and finally taking its last breath, all happened because no one in the Twin Cities—not the corporate community, not the hundreds of millionaires in our midst, not the state government, and not the collective citizenry—could scrape together a paltry $6 million to balance the orchestra’s books and let it do what it did best: make extraordinary music.

Many people in the Twin Cities may not care about the Minnesota Orchestra or think its struggle to survive is significant. But everyone should care, because not supporting the Minnesota Orchestra in its time of need is the single most embarrassing civic and cultural failure the Twin Cities has ever allowed to happen. There has never been a more shameful display of public bickering and posturing than the one between the Minnesota Orchestral Association (MOA) and the musicians’ union. There has never been a more impotent and ineffectual lack of leadership in the community—from Gov. Mark Dayton and Mayor R.T. Rybak on down. And there has never been a more pathetic and telling silence from the hundreds of corporations and businesses in the Twin Cities that benefit from having a world-class cultural institution in their backyard—one that they can brag about to people they are trying to hire.

The shame of it is that we can somehow build a billion-dollar stadium for one of the most hapless teams in football. We can build a $500 million ballpark for one of the worst teams in baseball. We can even build a $50 million lobby for the orchestra. But we can’t find $6 million somewhere, from someone, somehow?

It’s pitiful. The fact is, the Minnesota Orchestra as we have come to know it was killed in a dispute over relative pocket change by a powerful group of corporate titans, bankers, and financiers—people supposedly wise in the ways of money—who determined somewhere along the line that the value of the Minnesota Orchestra as a cultural asset is essentially zero, because, on the balance sheet, it has been deemed an intolerable financial sinkhole.

Money was and is the only issue here. But rather than spend the lockout year cultivating the sort of imagination, creativity, and public support that might have saved the orchestra, the MOA chose instead to dig its heels in, fold its arms, and wait.

It’s still waiting. And it will continue to wait, because, in its view, the grand plan is working. The MOA wanted Osmo Vänskä to resign and for the orchestra to abandon its costly world-class ambitions. It wants the orchestra’s senior players (i.e., the highest paid) to retire or leave. And, because the MOA has deemed it the most profitable and sensible approach to classical music’s popularity conundrum, it wants to downgrade the Minnesota Orchestra into an acceptably competent regional orchestra that plays the concert-hall equivalent of a greatest-hits format. In the board’s perfect world, this mediocre McOrchestra would give the people what they want—more Mozart!—and let other cities battle each other for a spot at Carnegie Hall and ecstatic reviews for CDs no one wants to buy.

A world-class orchestra is a fragile organism that takes many years, if not decades, to grow and mature. It also requires an elusive, ineffable chemistry between the players and their conductor, as well as a sense of pride and mission that is difficult to inspire, much less sustain. Osmo Vänskä did all this and more for the Minnesota Orchestra during his 10-year tenure, transforming it into one of the finest, most respected ensembles on the planet.

Unfortunately, the orchestra’s current situation has revealed to the world that the Twin Cities, once thought of as an “arts mecca,” a place where excellent arts institutions are cultivated in a way other cities envy, is as broken and dysfunctional as any other metropolis in America. By choosing mediocrity over excellence, competitiveness over cooperation, and intransigence over action, we have simply proven to the world that the Twin Cities is no better at managing its problems than anyone else.

This is not how great arts institutions are built, but it is how they die.