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.