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New president takes over at MN Orchestra

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The Minnesota Orchestra rehearses for the BBC Proms
The Minnesota Orchestra rehearses before their performance at the 2018 BBC Proms
Travis Anderson

The Minnesota Orchestra completed a leadership transition over the Labor Day weekend. As of Tuesday, Michelle Miller Burns has taken over as president and CEO from Kevin Smith, who led the organization for four years. 

An important part of the changeover took place last month, during the orchestra's South Africa tour.

The final concert of the tour ended with members of Johannesburg's Gauteng Choristers and the Minnesota Chorale leaving the stage in full voice. The singing continued in a side corridor, where musicians and staff mixed with audience members floating on a post-performance high. 

The moment finished the final concert of Smith's remarkable tenure. As the recently retired president of the Minnesota Opera in 2014, Smith took on a six-month gig as the orchestra's interim president. He stepped in after a bruising 16-month musician lockout, which many orchestra supporters worried might be the death of the organization.

Michelle Miller Burns
Michelle Miller Burns is the Minnesota Orchestra's president and CEO.
Minnesota Orchestra

Smith is credited with turning the orchestra around. He later assumed the presidential position full time, taking the orchestra to Cuba and finally South Africa. Under the post-lockout structure of the orchestra, musicians became more involved in artistic decisions. The organization is now much happier. 

As Smith prepared to retire again, he had one final task: to effect the transition to Burns' leadership.  An hour after that final song, Burns and Smith sat down to discuss the passing of the torch

"It's not a matter of transitioning in, in terms of the nuts and bolts thing," Smith said. "But really the key to the whole job, and the key to many things, is the people piece."

Not that Smith worried about Burns' people skills. She comes from the Dallas Symphony, where she had a strong reputation as an organization builder and a collaborator. However, they agreed the South Africa tour might offer a unique opportunity to immerse Burns in the orchestra. So for two weeks Burns traveled with the musicians and staff, attended rehearsals, performances and other events, ate meals and schmoozed.

"To be able to have the interchange and that conversation in a very informal environment is really beneficial," she said. "Plus, it's just a lot of fun. It's great just to get to know people."

And not just for Burns. Smith says this was important for everyone involved.

"You can't be a leader if people don't accept your leadership, and they already have," he told Burns. "I think you are hitting the ground running. You know you can spend months going through the process that we probably now accomplished in the last two weeks."

Running a major arts organization such as the Minnesota Orchestra in an ever-changing world is a multimillion-dollar challenge. In addition to building new audiences while serving the long-term patrons and fans, Burns also faces the task of negotiating a new musicians' contract in 2020. 

Burns says an immediate challenge is to build on what she describes as the transformative experience of the South African tour. She points back to the concert in Soweto, where the audience danced in the aisles.

"I felt that was more than a performance," she said. "I felt it was really like this holistic cultural and musical experience that didn't have a boundary between the stage and the audience, and I felt that was really extraordinary."

Burns now asks herself, how do you top that? She believes at the Minnesota Orchestra, there's a lot of potential.