After 16-month lockout, Minnesota Orchestra returns to the stage

February 07, 2014
minnesota orchestra rehearsal
Minnesota Orchestra members rehearse at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, Minn., Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014.
MPR photo/Jeffrey Thompson

When the Minnesota Orchestra takes the stage tonight, its performance will be the musicians' first concert since a hard-fought contract agreement ended a bitter 16-month contract dispute.

The concert also will be the orchestra's first in Orchestra Hall since its $52 million refurbishment and expansion.

Although musicians, administrators and classical music fans are excited that the orchestra is playing again, the effects of the dispute are likely to be felt for a long time.

As musicians returned this week to the stage for rehearsal, it was hard for them not to look back at how long it's been since they last played in the celebrated hall.

"It's been 18 months since we have played a concert in Orchestra Hall," clarinetist Tim Zavadil said.

"A very, very long time," trombone player Doug Wright said.

As members of the musicians' negotiating committee, Zavadil and Wright played very public roles during the lockout.

They say they expected some tension when they returned to work again with the people who locked them out.

Even adjusting to the renovated concert hall has been an emotional experience, Wright said.

"It's strange to come back to your home, and it looks so different, and it sounds different," he said. "Everything about it is shifted a bit and it's a little jarring."

Orchestra Hall has new colors and seating, but the audience will find that its famed acoustics remain. Changes on stage have made it easier for musicians on either side of the platform to hear one another.

Outside the hall, the lobby has doubled in size, with easier access, and far more restrooms.

There will be open houses before concerts this weekend and next to let the public tour the hall. Marianne McKenna, chief design partner from KPMB Architects in Toronto hopes visitors will appreciate the choreography of the hall and enjoy the ease of moving through the reconfigured building.

"I would suggest as you move through the lobby, tapping into the different levels of the hall itself because that's where the meaningful experience is and the transformation really is," she said.

After the hall was completed last August, McKenna said she found it frustrating to see it sit idle because after consulting with the musicians at length during the design process, she wanted the orchestra to play in its remade home.

Audience members also grew frustrated during the lockout, and called for a settlement. Jon Eisenberg, vice chair of Save Our Symphony Minnesota, one of the audience groups formed during the dispute, is excited the season is finally beginning.

"We think there's going to be just a huge standing ovation," he said. "And we wish the musicians luck trying to play the music after we all sit down -- if and when we ever do sit down after we have stopped cheering for them."

While Eisenberg welcomes the resumption of concerts, he said the organization's work will continue. Representatives will meet next week with new board chair Gordon Sprenger to talk about outstanding issues. They include keeping the audience involved in discussions about the future, maintaining the orchestra's excellence, and first and foremost the return of former Music Director Osmo Vanska, Eisenberg said.

Wright said the question of who their leader will be is top of mind for the musicians too.

"It's not clear whether Osmo wants to come back, or doesn't want to come back," he said. "It's not clear if he doesn't, what that means in terms of trying to find the next one. It's not even clear yet what the board wants, what their intention is."

However, Wright describes Sprenger as "having some optimism to him," and believes the new chairman is trying to "right the ship."

When asked how long that might take, Wright laughed. "My crystal ball remains cloudy," he said.

Tonight's concert is under the baton of Minnesota Orchestra Conductor Laureate Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, who conducted the first concert in Orchestra Hall in 1974. The program will open with the same piece: Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor."

Listen to the live broadcast of the Minnesota Orchestra's return concert, tonight at 8 on Classical MPR. Brian Newhouse hosts.