Photo by Ann Marsden
So, Osmo is back. I have to admit that, in the office pool, I did not bet on maestro Vänskä returning to lead the Minnesota Orchestra. The dysfunction was so engrained, and the disruption so complete, that I figured the smart money was on Vänskä leveraging his international stardom to go wave his magic wand somewhere else.
But now that he's decided to return, I think I speak for the majority of Twin Citians when I say, thank Osmo that this whole mess is over, because now I can go back to ignoring the Minnesota Orchestra. Because let’s be honest, that’s what most Twin Citians are going to do.
In the most hilarious lemons-to-lemonade comment of the year, new board chair Gordon Sprenger—who is not known for his sense of humor—suggested that the most protracted and contentious labor dispute in American orchestral history might have actually been a PR coup. “The community knows more about the orchestra than it ever has,” he said. Because, you know, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Unfortunately, what the public now “knows” about the orchestra that it didn’t 18 months ago is that it is a band of comparatively well-compensated artists run by a board full of stratospherically rich bankers, CEOs, and old-money philanthropists, all of whom are capable of squabbling like schoolchildren if neither of them gets their way. Orchestra management is confident that Vänskä’s return will boost donations and ticket sales, but one has to wonder how many people, suddenly enlightened about the inner workings of their hometown orchestra, were repulsed by what they saw.
And the fact remains that, other than the orchestra’s capacity for gossip and backbiting, the one thing the majority of Twin Citians remain entirely ignorant of, and disinterested in, is classical music itself. The sad truth about the orchestra is that ticket sales only cover about 40 percent of its expenses; the rest is subsidized by a couple-hundred wealthy donors, a few thousand not-quite-as-wealthy donors, some programming grants, and a generous endowment. Yes, the musicians have taken a 15 percent pay cut to help balance the books, but the overall financial challenges faced by the orchestra remain, and the only way they are going to improve is if the donor base broadens and the general public becomes genuinely interested in what the Minnesota Orchestra does (play extraordinary classical music)—not just the headlines it makes when it’s not.
Sure, Twin Citians can be proud of the orchestra’s Grammy award and its reputation around the world, but most people don’t know—and don’t care—about the music that receives these accolades. Young people in particular are uninspired by classical music, and it’s not hard to see why. Classical music—like art and literature—is much more enjoyable if you know something about it. But the places where a young person might learn a thing or two about symphonies and concertos—schools—no longer teach such things. After all, there’s not going to be an SAT question about it, so what’s the point?
Now, I’m not going to get all liberal-moral and insist that, in order to generate support for civic institutions like the orchestra, our schools really ought to teach kids what a scherzo is. Lots of well-meaning people make that argument all the time, and no one listens, ever, because they simply don’t care. And they don’t care because they’ve been taught not to care, by a culture that values many other things over exquisitely played, time-tested masterpieces of unparalleled beauty and grace.
Just know that the next time the orchestra starts disappearing down a financial sinkhole, it’ll be because not enough people cared enough to prevent it from happening. By then, Osmo may be long gone and his legacy secure, but the future fortunes of the orchestra rest on a much shakier foundation than Vänskä’s vaunted pedestal.
If the Minnesota Orchestra is going to survive over the long haul, many more people are going to have to be convinced that going to see the Minnesota Orchestra play Sibelius can be just as rewarding in its own way as watching the Minnesota Vikings lose to the Green Bay Packers. It’s cheaper, too—and a lot easier on the ears.