The Holy Grail

To play well in a symphony orchestra is to make a thousand daily acts of deference. On your audition day, technical perfection and a sense of passionate musical conviction will put you at the head of the pack. Once you’ve joined the orchestra, those same qualities must serve the needs of the group, rather than your own musical ideas.

At the top of the hierarchy (second to the composer, though) is the conductor. It is rare to have one who conducts poorly – most of them make their ambiguity and foggy ideas perfectly manifest to the orchestra. Rarer still is the great conductor, whose clarity, vision and passion for the piece radiate out and animate each musician. Even among the great ones, the fit has to be right. Christian Thieleman is a great conductor and The Cleveland Orchestra is a great orchestra, but it took mere moments for his first rehearsal in Cleveland to blossom into mutual animosity.

The solo wind players create the character of the orchestra. (The string section is the soul.) First-chair winds have the most freedom to play with their own expression, interacting with the conductor as if they are playing chamber music. This is possible because their second players provide them with a sound foundation for intonation, match their tone colors and use their mind-reading powers to anticipate their phrasing. The seconds have the least freedom because they are both deferential and exposed. Every note they play is an act of deference, yet they must be perfectly expressive – with someone else’s ideas. The success of the wind section stands or falls on their service.

Each note a section string player plays is a series of moral decisions – self or not-self. ‘Pizzicato: watch the concertmaster and become that finger.’ ‘I’ll show my colleagues I can still nail this passage –No, I’ll blend into the section so we sound unified.’ ‘Oops – too much vibrato; I’m sticking out.’ ‘Sigh – why can’t he make the bowings match?’ String players are permitted to choose their own fingerings (mostly) and when to apply rosin. Period.

So here’s the recipe: 100 of the best musicians, 1 great conductor (perfectly matched), 100,000 daily acts of deference, a culture of service to the music and an esprit de corps that makes one want to not let down one’s colleagues – somehow, miraculously, put all of these together and we create the world anew in each piece.

For those of us who speak Management: a visionary executive, a team of servant-leaders, the right people on the bus and in the right places, a culture of excellence and alignment  going the extra mile in the service of a universal buy-in to mission and vision equals a fantastic product. Only it’s not a product. It’s art.

It is rare that all these pieces are in place. The most difficult is to create and sustain a culture of deference to the greater good of the (product) art and the institution. It’s the Holy Grail of management theory.

And yet, the Minnesota Orchestra has it in spades. The outrage generated by the lock-out stems from the fact that the board and management are destroying the primary asset – the culture – in order to address a subsidiary issue – finances. Every other orchestra in the world has adjusted its expense structure in response to the events of the last decade; it’s not as if the Minnesota’s financial situation is unique.

Again –translated into Management:

  • The value proposition for ticket buyers and donors is the extraordinary quality of the orchestra.
  • The performances have value precisely because they are unique and uniquely excellent – they are neither products, nor commodities.
  •  The excellence is the result of the complex alignment of leadership, talent and most importantly – internal culture.
  • A true culture of excellence is difficult to create – and easy to destroy.
  • The orchestra’s artistic reputation and its institutional reputation in the community are intangible assets that have a direct effect on its ability to generate revenue.

In short, the MOA is destroying the internal culture that drives the institution’s economic and cultural value.

Financial struggles for orchestras are common. The alignment of quality, conductor and culture that the Minnesota Orchestra has is rare. The determination to solve a common problem by destroying exactly what makes the orchestra worth supporting is “unique”.

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The Minnesota Orchestra cross-blog event is a collection of more than a dozen bloggers, musicians, patrons, and administrators writing about the orchestra’s devastating work stoppage. You can find all of the contributions in the following list and the authors encourage everyone to participate by sharing, commenting, or publishing something at your own culture blog.


Baseball and Beethoven: The Minnesota Orchestra, the Marlins and the Perils of Market Correction

The Minnesota Orchestra has been one of the world’s finest classical music ensembles for a very long time. Originally known as the Minneapolis Symphony, the orchestra performed its premiere concert on November 5, 1903, just weeks after the first World’s Series when the Boston Americans beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 5 games to 3. But after more than 110 years of great music and service to the community, the Minnesota Orchestra is in trouble.

The Minnesota Orchestra Association (MOA) is nearly $8,500,000 short in operating expenses , and has been drawing money from its endowment over the past few years at an alarming rate, despite raising over $50,000,000 for a newly renovated Orchestra Hall. The State of Minnesota has requested the return of a $962,000 grant, and the GRAMMY nominated recording cycle of the symphonies of Jean Sibelius has been cancelled. Music Director Osmo Vänskä indicated that he will resign if an agreement is not reached by September 15, 2013.

In the meantime, the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra and the MOA management are in the middle of a protracted, very public and very nasty labor battle. The musicians have been locked out by the MOA since September 30, 2012—receiving neither pay nor benefits—and have been asked to accept a permanent cut of over 1/3 in salary and benefits.

The MOA has made no secret of the fact that they would like to reset the Orchestra’s business model. From their publicly released Strategic Plan, the MOA seeks to, among other things:

  • [Restructure] all expenses within the MOA business model…including [the] contract with musicians
  • Use the renovation of Orchestra Hall to attract new audiences and broaden revenue streams
  • Achieve “glow effect” of $200,000 additional earned revenue from excitement surrounding the Hall renovation

There is pretty good evidence that the current lockout is a planned strategy to force players into a lower pay bracket, replacing those who resign with less-experienced, younger players who would be willing to accept a lower wage. These players would pass through the Minnesota Orchestra, and stay for a couple of years on their way to higher paying orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic or Chicago Symphony.

If this is the case, the MOA is setting a dangerous precedent that other organizations are sure to follow. But has this style of management been tried before, and how has it worked out?

The answer lies 1,798 miles due southeast—home of the Miami Marlins baseball team.

Market Correction

The Miami Marlins last won the World Series in 2003, trouncing the New York Yankees 4-2 in 6 games. After a disappointing 2004 and 2005, the Marlins began a controversial practice that the Marlin’s President dubbed “Market Correction.”

Market Correction meant dumping experienced, but high-priced players for less experienced but talented prospects—those just out of college, or who have had successful careers in the minor leagues—with the assumption that the Marlins could assemble a winning team on the cheap. When these players’ contracts were up, they would be traded to other teams in exchange for a new crop of less expensive prospects.

Market Correction has been an ongoing practice with the Marlins. The list of top players who were traded by the Marlins organization just as their careers developed is staggering—Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Derrick Lee, Juan Pierre, Carlos Delgado, Paul Lo Duca, Moises Alou—the list goes on and on. Despite having a future All-Star roster, the Marlins have not reached post-season play since their 2003 World Series victory, and currently have the lowest payroll in baseball.

Instead of leaning the team’s budget toward player salaries, the Marlins put $125 million toward a new $525 million top-notch ballpark, designed to greatly improve the customer experience over their previous venue, Sun Life Stadium. In 2011, the team began playing in its brand new Marlins Stadium.

Except for the fact that the Marlins were dead last with a 72-90 record, 2011 seemed to be going as planned with greatly increased attendance. In 2012, the Marlins finished with an even worse 69-93 record. This year they are dead last again with a 49-82 average (as of August 29, 2013).

This season’s attendance at the new stadium is down—way down. According to the Miami Herald, 2013 attendance at Marlins Stadium, which seats 36,000, averages only 100 more fans per game than their old ballpark. Attendance is less than half of Marlins Stadium’s capacity. The lesson here is that no one wants to see badly played baseball, no matter how nice the stadium is.

So how does this relate to the Minnesota Orchestra?

The MOA seems to be following the Marlins’ Market Correction policy by thinning out the orchestra through attrition—those who can afford the 1/3 pay cut will stay, the rest will leave—filling the orchestra with younger players who are willing to accept a lower pay scale. Like the Marlins, the MOA also seems to be putting a large emphasis on the newly renovated Orchestra Hall.

While the comparison with the Miami Marlins gets a bit sticky at this point—World Series wins are difficult to equate to symphony concerts—it is still clear that if the MOA adopts a Market Correction policy, the quality of the Minnesota Orchestra will suffer.

Now comes the big question: If there is a drop in quality, will anybody really notice the difference? To answer this question, it helps to compare the Minnesota Orchestra with the major ensemble in another, larger city.

Since we have been talking about the Marlins, let’s take a look at Miami.

Prospect Players

Miami is larger than Minneapolis and proudly boasts the New World Symphony, one of the best training orchestras in the world, and arguably the best symphony orchestra in the Miami area. The New World Symphony, led by the legendary conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, pays a modest salary to its young professional musicians—prospects, really—to play great music while they prepare for careers with top-notch ensembles such as the Minnesota Orchestra.

The New World Symphony will never reach the level of the Minnesota Orchestra.

Don’t get me wrong—the musicians of the New World Symphony are some of the best on the planet—but they lack experience. It is the very same reason that the Miami Marlins have been unable to advance to post-season play since implementing Market Correction. No matter how well you play—whether it is baseball or Beethoven—it is impossible to reach a top level of performance without spending years playing side-by-side with seasoned professionals. The quality of play simply cannot compare.

Back to the question at hand: Would audiences notice the drop in quality in the Minnesota Orchestra if Market Correction is implemented? I say yes, absolutely. The lack of experience of the players means that the Minnesota Orchestra would lose its sparkle.

It would be the same as comparing Aunt Bertha’s painting of sunflowers with Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. While Aunt Bertha’s painting may be nice, Van Gogh’s is breathtaking. The sunflowers are the same, but Van Gogh’s experience in knowing just where to place individual brushstrokes is perfect, creating an aggregate effect of power that cannot be denied.

Similarly, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 performed by a lesser orchestra is a great piece, but in the hands of Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra, Beethoven’s masterpiece can be shattering. In my experience as a symphony musician, I have learned that audiences can tell the difference between good and great performances. Just like Marlins fans, audiences stay away in droves when the music loses its special edge.

Players as Product

As a nonprofit consultant, grantwriter and symphony musician, I have heard various versions of Market Correction threatened during contract talks. Usually this takes the form of, “Why should we pay our musicians when we can just get students from the Fill-In-The-Blank-University’s Music Conservatory to do the same job for free?” This appears so commonly that I knew it was only a matter of time before someone actually tried it.

On the surface, the argument for Market Correction seems very logical, but by digging deeper, the idea becomes corrupt. Player quality and experience is what creates the excitement in the concert hall and wins baseball games. The best, most experienced players command the highest salaries—that is simple economics.

If the Minnesota Orchestra and the Miami Marlins are seen as businesses, the players have to be seen not as employees, but as the actual product. As every successful business owner knows, if you cut the product quality you will lose customers.

There is no doubt that the situation in Minneapolis is something that neither the MOA nor the musicians want, but it exists nonetheless and must be addressed head-on by those onstage and those in the front office. It is my hope that the MOA management understands that the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra have the same goals as they do, and that 90 musician allies will go much further toward solving the Minnesota Orchestra’s crisis than 90 adversaries.

So long as there is silence at Orchestra Hall, nobody wins.

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The Minnesota Orchestra cross-blog event is a collection of more than a dozen bloggers, musicians, patrons, and administrators writing about the orchestra’s devastating work stoppage. You can find all of the contributions in the following list and the authors encourage everyone to participate by sharing, commenting, or publishing something at your own culture blog.


It’s Time to Make Music Again

On October 1st, 2012, the Minnesota Orchestra Lockout began. And, on October 1st, 2012, the music stopped. The concerts seized. The passion went missing, through the Management’s disownment of the Minnesota Orchestra Musicians. Our Minnesota Orchestra Musicians, the very ones nominated for a Grammy, the ones receiving a monumental opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall this year. So far, the Minnesota Orchestra has lost twenty-six musicians. And, as each day passes, more musicians continue to leave in order to find other work. Our Minnesota Orchestra is slowly disintegrating in front of our own eyes.

As the lockout pushed onward, the Minnesota Orchestra Musicians weren’t the only ones being affected. The community was locked out too—specifically the young musicians and students. Each of us has had our musical development impacted by the Musicians, whether it’s through private lessons, concerts, theory classes, musician-led sectionals, or side-by-side rehearsals. With the lockout, however, our musical growth has been obstructed. Every month, we lose our irreplaceable teachers and mentors as they undertake gigs with other orchestras across the nation. Their concerts, so important to our learning, have become nonexistent. The Musicians, our inspirations, are without work.

Students without their teachers and directors not only affects their musical capabilities, but it also affects their enthusiasm for classical music and the fine arts. Without Minnesota Orchestra concerts for students to attend, young musicians’ exposure to classical music will slowly dwindle away. Classical music will eventually become a lost art form in Minnesota. Music students will lose the ability to communicate and express themselves through music. Many music students will lose the hobby that their life revolves around. And, lastly, music students will lose the opportunity to pursue their dreams of becoming a professional musician in the Minnesota Orchestra.

To preserve the Minnesota Orchestra’s 110-year legacy, the Young Musicians of Minnesota (YMM) formed in May of 2013 by a group of students wanting to show their appreciation and gratitude for the Locked Out Musicians, as well as make their voices heard in the current dispute. We have made it our mission to do everything we can to bring our Musicians back to the stage and make sure they are being compensated for their work. Our missions have included writing letters to elected officials, Board, Management, and Musicians, creating a student-run youth orchestra, hosting a flash mob concert outside of U.S. Bancorp Headquarters, having chamber ensembles perform at various events, and using the social media to create a presence.

The Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra are more than just a name on a concert program. They are our role models and they are whom we aspire to be like. The Musicians are our heroes: they are our celebrities. They are talked about only in the highest manner. Often, we music students make discussions about them at our rehearsals. We may dream about one day having a lesson with them. Or we may just mention how we simply got to congratulate them after an awe-strucking performance they put on. Destroying the Minnesota Orchestra may lead to the destruction of everything a young musician possibly lives for.

I, on the behalf of the Young Musicians of Minnesota, urge the Minnesota Orchestral Association Management to resolve the lockout. Save the orchestra that means so much to us students. Save the orchestra that us young musicians cannot possibly live without. Bring back the orchestra that we look forward to hearing at every concert they perform. Bring back the orchestra that creates such a centripetal factor in Minnesota. Bring back the orchestra that Alex Ross considers to be “legendary”.

As I am writing this, the Minnesota Orchestra’s recording of Bruckner’s 9th Symphony is playing in the background. I sat and listened to the horn section dominating the beginning of the piece. The perfect balance, tone, and intonation are the unmistakable sounds of our Minnesota Orchestra. The pizzicatos done by the strings are perfection. The grandeur and energy from the trumpet section is magnificent. The emotion expressed with each and every note played is indescribable. Incredible. Bruckner’s 9th is a reminder of why we need a Minnesota Orchestra. Bruckner’s 9th is a reminder of why I want to become a professional musician. And lastly, Bruckner’s 9th is a reminder of why this lockout needs to end. It’s time that our Minnesota Orchestra Musicians are brought back to doing what they do best: performing world-class music, under the direction of Osmo Vänskä, center stage at Orchestra Hall.

It’s time to make music again.

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The Minnesota Orchestra cross-blog event is a collection of more than a dozen bloggers, musicians, patrons, and administrators writing about the orchestra’s devastating work stoppage. You can find all of the contributions in the following list and the authors encourage everyone to participate by sharing, commenting, or publishing something at your own culture blog.


Reflections on Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”

People often build unnecessary barriers that turn those who should peacefully coexist and even cooperate into rigid, opposing, fighting factions.  In his poem, Mending Wall, the poet Robert Frost took pointed jabs at those who build divisive walls.  He also suggested that something like a force of nature exists that opposes and eventually overthrows walls, in contradiction to the trite and not-always-true notion, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The Minnesota Orchestral Association (MOA) management and Board leadership team of Michael Henson, Jon Campbell, and Richard Davis are the chief architects of an edifice with an imposing, overwhelming number of walls.  One literal wall locks the musicians out.  Many other figurative walls, long in the making, have grown and proliferated during the eleven months of the lockout.  These walls contribute to the chief sustaining reason for the lengthy lockout — a complete breakdown of trust.  Distrust is sustained and heightened by walls between parties who should have never evolved into competing interests.   Among them:

  • walls between board and musicians
  • walls between management and musicians, heightened into an ideological labor war
  • walls between big and small donors; old money and new
  • walls between long-standing public commitment and support and the MOA’s view of “the sort of orchestra the public can afford”
  • walls between audiences and the music and performers they love
  • walls between the MOA and local businesses that have lost millions from the lockout
  • walls between any dissenting views concerning the artistic and business directions the orchestra should be taking, and Henson, Campbell, and Davis’s decrees and policies

Music is not a divisive force; it is one of the most powerful, uplifting, and unifying forces on the planet.  In an orchestra, the power of music can and should be harnessed by all parties pulling together.  The something that doesn’t love these isolating walls is an abiding love for music and musicians.  Anyone who doubts this has not attended sold-out lockout concerts, read influential local and national blogs, seen social media trends, or paid attention to print and online media, letters, and commentary.   This passionate community love and commitment for the orchestra is coming together to send the frozen-ground-swell under the wall.  Even seemingly immovable upper boulders may be spilled into the sun.

It’s time to direct energy, words, and actions to mend and build bridges, talk to one another as individuals of worth and convictions, admit to and learn from mistakes, find the grace to forgive real or perceived wrongs, reboot, and walk together through the gaps in the walls that have divided us.  The last chances to return to work in concert are here, and are quickly slipping away. Board members, musicians, audience, and management must freely pass back and forth through spacious gaps in these walls or the Minnesota Orchestra we know and love will die.

An accelerando and crescendo in the ground-swell of grass-roots opposition of the lockout walls has come to a tipping point.  Community forces have worked against the walls from the beginning:  individual outcries and protests, letters to the editor, Orchestrate Excellence, Save Our SPCO, The Song of the Lark, Sticks and Drones, Adaptistration, The Rest is Noise, Slipped Disc, recently joined by Young Musicians of Minnesota,, SOSOsmo, and 600 attendees at the Orchestrate Excellence Community Forum.  Opposition to the walls could manifest itself in many ways – boycotts of non-classical and non-musical events at Orchestra Hall, boycotts of board leader businesses, requests to currently booked performers to postpone appearances at Orchestra Hall until settlement is reached, pickets could proliferate.

Alternatives to the MOA structure and methods are being sought and suggested; some may be adopted, in whole or in part.  Most notably, the community advocacy group Save our SPCO came up with a set of Guiding Principles in response to the SPCO lockout, and former Minnesota Orchestra Assistant Conductor William Eddins suggested a revolutionary and pragmatic new governance plan in his Sticks and Drones blog.  Both of these approaches suggest healthier new approaches to running an orchestra, where all parties have a place and voice at the table, do what they do best, and defer to others in areas where they lack qualifications and expertise.

. . . The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.

A chink broke through the wall a while back when a long-awaited scheduled 15 minute talk between the Minnesota Orchestra and Board broke an eight month silence, and stretched into 90 minutes of discussion.  At least there was talking.  There is still hope for resolution in the talks mediated by Senator George Mitchell.  There have been sold out lockout concerts led by past conductors, withdrawn pledges, lawn signs, buttons, letters to the editor from past conductors, and Vänskä’s plea to end the lockout before its consequences force his resignation.  Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak and major Minnesota Orchestra philanthropist Judy Dayton brought the musicians and Vänskä together in an unforgettable concert celebrating their superlative, Grammy-nominated Sibelius Symphony recordings, encored by the freedom anthem, Finlandia.

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.

Both sides have by now contributed to the fortifications, name-calling, and stone throwing.  It’s way past time to end wall building and choose the first rocks to move to dismantle the walls.

Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:

This is not a game.  This is the worst time in the history of the Minnesota Orchestra to build walls.  Recent great accomplishments and acclaim should have been celebrated, rewarded, advertised, and built upon.  Management, board, musicians, and supporters should have been pulling together toward common goals of artistic greatness, functional facilities, increased attendance, and enhanced financial support and stability.  This is not just another kind of out-door game.  Performers who should have remained here for years as legacy players have moved on to other orchestras.  The full complement of the orchestra has dwindled from 98 to around 75 players.  About 20 positions will have to be filled to even resume playing.  People have lost friends, teachers, homes, health, and careers over this.  There where it is we do not need the wall!

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

Wall-builders seem not to have questioned or care about possible negative consequences of these isolating walls.  Great artists and fervent fans have been disregarded, insults hurled, hurts taken, and musicians, board members, audience members, and the management team have all taken offense.  The “offence” has been enormous.  Forgiveness, changes of heart, and bridge-building have to be equally dramatic on all sides in order to move forward.

“Saving face” is something that all sides seem to insist on, and something that everyone should stop worrying about now.  It gets in the way of finding solutions and it puts our orchestra and the amazing things it does for our community at severe risk.  Time is running short.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down. . . . and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

We don’t need bigger, higher, reinforced walls.  The walls that have been built have not made good neighbors.  We mustn’t stagger around in darkness, “like an old-stone savage armed,” as each side probably perceives the other.  We need to go behind the paternalistic, patronizing, tired, hackneyed, hand-me-down sayings about “sustainability” to justify building walls and policies that destroy the very things they claim to protect.  Nobody invests in a “Sustainable.”  We invest in the Arts to sustain us.  All parties need to go behind the reasons for not talking, and risk proffering unearned olive branch give-and-take, outlining key points of what’s possible and desirable, as well as continuing to stand firm against the unacceptable.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.

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The Minnesota Orchestra cross-blog event is a collection of more than a dozen bloggers, musicians, patrons, and administrators writing about the orchestra’s devastating work stoppage. You can find all of the contributions in the following list and the authors encourage everyone to participate by sharing, commenting, or publishing something at your own culture blog.


Confusion reigns

After reading many, many posts about the situation and speaking with someone who has been in the orchestra for various works (substituting and as an extra when the size of a piece required it) I believe it comes down to questions for me. Not answers and not declarations as I am not part of the situation myself.

I have been part of other organizations where the board suddenly decided to alter the course of the artistic pursuit in various ways. Some were artistic in nature others were financial yet imperiled the organization. All were disastrous and permanently changed the organizations.

I love the Orchestra. It’s a FINE body of wonderfully committed musicians and they have helped to shape my life in Minneapolis since I came here in 1982. Many friends have performed with the orchestra as dancers for various projects. It was always a wonderful feather in the cap, as well as boost to a choreographic career, to be invited by the Orchestra to contribute to the opera presentations or other works where dance was encouraged.

These are my questions and I hope they are not insulting to anyone or ignorant. I have not been able to read as much as others, I am not a musician myself – though I trained for many years quite seriously, and I have GREAT love and respect for what music can do. It is an ESSENTIAL part of our life, not a lucky dividend for some.

  • Is it clear that the board is supposed to be there to support the artistic venture? Why would they think differently?
  • If they do not recognize this, has anyone really asked up front WHAT they think they are supposed to ultimately be doing, regardless of the petty details?
  • Is it really discussed that the board does not need to meet with the musicians, but be part of the advisory panel made up of board and musicians to work out the agreement? This was suggested by my musician friend. Have they refused this part of the process? What would encourage change at this point?
  • Could the Orchestra start over at this point with a smaller group of musicians (probably unavoidable at this point ) to build to something new?
  • Should there be a new Music Director in order to start from a different place and rebuild at this point?

Thank you all. I am very interested in reading what we can tomorrow and discussing. I simply can not countenance another season without our Orchestra in its home.