Orchestra lovers left wondering about the future after Vanska, Kernis call it quits

Osmo Vanska
Osmo Vanska said the Minnesota Orchestra is playing very well, which makes him miss working with the musicians even more. The orchestra practices its final rehearsal Friday, Feb. 1 2013 before tonight's performance.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Partisans clash. Beloved leaders fall. The chorus wonders how such sadness came to pass.

If it weren't so painfully real, the contract battle between the Minnesota Orchestra and its musicians would make great opera.

There was no applause Tuesday as two of the orchestra's top creative minds - Music Director Osmo Vanska and Aaron Jay Kernis, founder and director of the orchestra's Composer Institute - quit in frustration following another failed attempt by management and musicians to negotiate a new contract. They left exactly one year after orchestra management locked out musicians.

Both sides in the labor fight at least agreed on one thing Tuesday - Vanska's resignation was tragic.

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Beyond that, they left little hope for a quick compromise. Orchestra lovers were left wondering about the future of the renowned 110 year-old ensemble.

"It is devastating," said Laurie Greeno, co-chair of Orchestrate Excellence, a coalition of Minnesota Orchestra donors and season subscribers. "We want an artistically excellent orchestra that's financially sustainable and we're willing to help rebuild that," she told MPR's Daily Circuit Tuesday.

Political leaders, musicians and management need to work together, she added. "We're frustrated and it's time to get moving."

Vanska's letter didn't even mention the labor troubles that led to his departure, nor the cancellation of the Carnegie Hall shows that triggered his resignation. He thanked everyone, both management and musicians, for helping achieve what they had done together and then wished the Minnesota Orchestra the very best for the future.

Under Vanska's leadership, the orchestra received two Grammy nominations, toured nationally and internationally, and made two high-profile appearances at Carnegie Hall and the Proms in London.

The director also won high praise from the likes of New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, who was struck by a 2010 Minnesota Orchestra performance with Vanska on the podium. "For the duration of the evening of March 1st, the Minnesota Orchestra sounded, to my ears, like the greatest orchestra in the world," Ross wrote.

"The question now hanging in the air," Ross wrote Tuesday, "is whether the musicians could possibly divorce themselves from the MOA and set themselves up as an independent ensemble."

For Vanska, rigorous rehearsal was just one leg of a three-legged stool of orchestral success. "We have to be able to do recordings which are so good that they will get international attention," he said in an MPR interview two years ago. "And then the third thing is we have to be able to go out from home to do national and international touring to prove that what people are listening from the recordings is true."

In a letter leaked to the press in May, Vanska said if the lockout meant the orchestra was insufficiently rehearsed for a scheduled September recording session for the Swedish recording company BIS or for two Carnegie Hall concerts scheduled in November, he would be forced to resign.

The recording session was moved to the spring, but Vanska recently told the Orchestra Board he needed to rehearse with musicians by the week of Sept. 30 to prepare them for the Carnegie Hall performances. Musicians and management wanted Vanska to stay.

Musicians saw him as a beloved leader who had taken them to the top.

"To watch it all going down the drain is devastating," clarinetist and musicians negotiating committee member Tim Zavadil said Tuesday morning following an educational concert at Hopkins High School.

Zavadil was emotional as he spoke of how Vanska built a golden age at the orchestra.

"We remain grateful for Osmo's leadership, for his vision, for his passion, and we are just incredibly proud of the work we have done with Osmo."

The musicians said just playing together had given them solace at their loss. However cellist Tony Ross said there still needs to be a focus on the future too.

"Well short term, I think we still have, we would still like to find a way to get a settlement to keep this orchestra great and to serve this community," Ross said.

Longer term Ross said the musicians are still working on their fall season, which opens this weekend with concerts with pianist Emanuel Ax. He also said they are hoping to stay together as a group, but after a year without pay and health benefits musicians may decide to leave.

Over at Orchestra Hall management was also considering Vanska's departure. Board Chair Jon Campbell said Vanska's departure left him sad.

"I'm sorry that we had a resignation of our music director earlier today," he said. "Because it was really our hope that he would stay on through the remainder of his contract and help us through the challenging period of time we are now in and continuing to be in."

Campbell said the board had tried hard to avert Vanska's departure. However he said the board had to balance its responsibilities to the organization and its financial health.

He also said he thought the departure might also usher in a new era in the negotiations, as the organization enters what he says will be a period of rebuilding. However he didn't think it will happen quickly.

Composer Aaron Jay Kernis might not have been as well known as Vanska but was still a force in the orchestra.

For the last 12 years composer, he's led the Minnesota Orchestra's Composers Forum. He also stepped down today expressing his bafflement and dismay at what has been allowed to happen to the Minnesota Orchestra.

"I mean when have we last heard of a music director of major American orchestra resigning under these kinds of circumstances?" he asked. "I can't think of one actually."

Kernis pleaded for the two sides to sit down and talk before more damage is done.

"I have worked with these people for many years," he said. "They're fantastic. And they were deeply involved deeply caring about the mission of the orchestra, And I would just encourage them please to just find this again, together and not separately, and not in camps."

Timeline: Vanska's tenure with the Minnesota Orchestra