Kernis Resigns from Minnesota Orchestra

Kernis Resigns from Minnesota Orchestra

[Ed. Note: The Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute has been an important fixture in the contemporary music scene and, over the years, NewMusicBox has published extensive reports from many of its participants, including Sean Shepard (2005), Missy Mazzoli (2006), Jacob Cooper (2007), Ted Hearne and Justin Merritt (both 2008), Spencer Topel (2009), Taylor Brizendine (2010), and Hannah Lash (2012). The following letter by Aaron Jay Kernis, the co-founder and director of the institute, was submitted earlier today to President Michael Henson, the board of directors, as well as the musicians and staff of the Minnesota Orchestra.—FJO]

Aaron Jay Kernis

Aaron Jay Kernis
Photo by Richard Bowditch, courtesy Dworkin & Company.

It is with great sadness and a heavy heart that I submit my resignation as Director of the Composer Institute at the Minnesota Orchestra.

I admit total bafflement and dismay at what has been done to allow the dismemberment of this superb orchestra at the height of its powers. The tactics of a lock-out have no place in the life of any artistic organization. The artistic and economic flourishing of a community of musicians cannot be ensured by essentially destroying it, nor by avoiding significant compromise on both sides.

I have personally never seen two sides that show such unwillingness to sit down together and attempt to tackle the major challenges that confront the orchestra. The collaborative spirit that is the essence of music-making has been completely absent this past year, and little can be forged without a modicum of trust and good will. In all of this, the audience of music-lovers, who most appreciate the orchestra’s extraordinary gifts have been forgotten and their voices disregarded. They have been left bereft.

Throughout this year I continued to hope for a resolution so the performers could return to Orchestra Hall and the Composer Institute program resume. The program has always put artistic education and collaboration above business models and branding, encouraging highly talented young creators in a generous and fulfilling way, with camaraderie and a strong sense of collaboration between artists and administrators being crucial to the effort. I can say confidently that the Institute had grown into one of the jewels of the Minnesota Orchestra’s programs.

But with not a shred of those sentiments left at the Minnesota Orchestra, I see no point in continuing my work there. Minneapolis has been a second musical home to me. The musical relationships and world-class performances I’ve encountered there have altered the course of my own creativity and path in the most transformative ways.

Over the 15 years of my tenure as New Music Advisor and Director of the Institute it has been one of my great pleasures to collaborate with its orchestra members, many of the finest musicians in the world. The program has been fortunate to receive gracious and passionate support of musicians, audiences, board and administration over the years. I also deeply honor the vision of former Artistic Director Asadour Santourian in the initial shaping of the Institute, unwavering dedication of previous co-director Beth Cowart, and recently Lilly Schwartz has been a joy to work with and has continued that deep engagement. The many wonderfully generous partners offered their experience and expertise to hundreds of participants. They offered an inspiring and true vision of a future for music that stands in the starkest contrast to the rancorous behavior shown during the last year.

I will greatly miss working with Osmo Vänskä, whose leadership and extraordinary, galvanizing and deeply inspiring performances raised the level of a superb ensemble to one of world class. I can speak for the nearly one hundred composers who have taken part in the Institute: their lives have been changed through working with the orchestra and this superlative music director. President Michael Henson’s critical support of the Institute has been greatly appreciated, but I cannot in any way condone the actions taken this year by the board and administration toward the musicians, nor can I see the point in the musicians’ intransigence and sense of violation. At a certain point one must seek a way to move forward, and now Osmo’s departure is a heavy penalty for the choices made by both sides this year.

This is a great loss for American culture and the Twin Cities. The endgame that has been played out creates a diaspora of musicians and a deafening silence for countless music-lovers. But I will not lose hope that eventually some resolution can be achieved that will allow the Minnesota Orchestra to continue to play a vital role in American arts and culture.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

20 thoughts on “Kernis Resigns from Minnesota Orchestra

  1. Pingback: Osmo Vanska Resigns (Update 2:38pm CT) | Adaptistration

  2. Eric Whitacre

    Beautifully written and spot on, Aaron. Can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for you to leave.

    So, so sorry to see this all of this happen to the great Minnesota Orchestra.

  3. Orianna

    So, so sad. The Composer Institute was really a marvel, marked by the superb talents of the ensemble as well as Aaron’s absolute, total generosity and accessibility to the participants. Thank you, Aaron. When I was at the Institute, Beth Cowart was the awesome, committed, and super-organized co-director — and I know the leadership of the program has continued to be top-notch in recent years. Your work has been much appreciated.

  4. Allan J. Cronin

    This sad event is, unfortunately, emblematic of the state of the arts in the business and capitalism obsessed atmosphere in which we now live. The arts are seen as an unnecessary luxury and not as embodying the higher aspirations of our culture. We are losing ground every day and living in a dark age of the arts.

  5. Phil Fried

    Aaron. It seems tragically that the bright spots of the artistic world the transcendental ones, are so short.
    I am ever ever grateful to you and the orchestra.

  6. Adam De Sorgo

    With all due respect, I really don’t see how the musicians have been “intransigent” about anything. This was done to them and no arguments of false equivalency will change that.

    1. David Kempers

      Mr. Kernis, I find your attitude towards the musicians a bit surprising. They have been offered an unacceptable deal with no room for compromise. The board has violated the mediation agreement, and in general they have played dirty pool. They have insinuated that the musicians are expendable. Not much room for “negotiations” when the mgmt thinks a high school kid can do your gig.

      Out of sheer curiosity, what did you expect the musicians to do? The board has adopted a ” our way or the highway “approach that has done tremendous damage. I find it absurd to blame the musicians for basically not bending over far enough. They deserve much better, and they deserve the respect of the entire music community, not just players.

  7. Bill Holab

    I was honored to be a part of this program and gave workshops for the participants for many years. The orchestra was talented, impressive, and it was clear that they were rising to a new level of outstanding musicianship. The Institute was a unique, groundbreaking program that provided an opportunity for composers that they could not get anywhere else. Which makes all of this so sad and disheartening. I am so sorry to see things end up this way.

  8. Billie Taylor

    I live in Houston, but for years I have enjoyed the music coming from Minnesota. I have traveled there to enjoy some of that music. So sad.

  9. Ratzo B. Harris

    Yes, this is a sad commentary on how our culture interacts with the arts. Although I am not aware of all of the details about the disagreement between the Minnesota Orchestra’s management and labor, it’s obviously a matter of labor not being willing to take deeper cuts than they can afford. Of course, the musicians will be perceived as unwilling to effectively compromise and management will move on. I am reminded of the title of a composition by saxophonist Archie Shepp, “Rufus (Swung His Face at Last to the Wind, Then His Neck Snapped),” especially when the plight of the New York City Opera is taken into account. But, because orchestral music is marginalized in our society to background for video games, movies, and television and made unavailable and unattractive to most students, there is little interest in supporting local and/or grass-roots institutions striving to give America something that can be held in esteem outside of its borders.

  10. Kate Kinsley

    Dear Mr. Kernis,

    It is with a tremendously sad heart that I read of your resignation, as well as that of Director Vanska (and so many superb musicians over the weeks). While it breaks my heart, I cannot fault Director Vanska, the many departed/relocated musicians, or yourself for your decision to resign and move on to a positive and productive artistic environment. The chaos that has gripped the Minnesota Orchestra this past year has efficiently taken it from a Grammy nomination to the gutter, and I’m not sure that the organization will ever truly recover from this destructive fall from grace. That said, I do support the musicians in this situation and find the Administration’s attitude and behavior towards them utterly appalling.

    While I was not a part of the Composer Institute (a truly amazing program that has impacted so many talented young composers!), I grew up in the Twin Cities and was significantly shaped as a musician and as a person by many Minnesota Orchestra members and performances. I studied horn with Herb Winslow throughout High School, played with the Minnesota Youth Symphonies under Manny Laureano, was mentored by orchestra members via various events, extended a variety of amazing experiences, given the opportunity to attend countless concerts (of great learning benefit as well as pleasure), and ultimately guided to attendance at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and life as a professional musician. I can say with great certainty, that I would not be the musician or person that I am today without those powerfully influential relationships and experiences. So, while I no longer reside in Minnesota, the Minnesota Orchestra, it’s members, and it’s programs hold a special place in my heart. It has been agonizing to watch the orchestra soar under Director Vanska, only to crumble in lock-out this past year. As the dominoes continue to fall, my heart most especially breaks for the young, talented musicians in the greater Twin Cities Area that will not have the amazing opportunities of generations past. The consequences of the seemingly tragic death of the Minnesota Orchestra will, sadly, be far-reaching and crippling to the Minnesota performing arts community. Many music critics have coined yesterday, “Black Monday”, in the musical world…I can’t say that I disagree with them.

    I wish you all the best in your future endeavors and sincerely thank you for your dedicated service to the Minnesota Orchestra, The Composer Institute, and the many young lives and community that you’ve touched through your work.

    Sincerely, Kate Kinsley

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  12. Narong Prangcharoen

    As an alum of this composer institute program, I’m really sad to see what has happened to the Minnesota Orchestra. Well, I can say that it was one of my life changing experience to be a part of the program. I have learned so much and have developed my music thoughts and career because of the program. It’s sad to see that it has ended.

  13. Reid

    Bad news all around.

    But many thanks to you Aaron, from Minnesota, for all your great work with the Institute. I hope another organization can host the program.

  14. Carl

    “Musicians’ intransigence”? “Choices made by both sides”? What is Aaron Kernis talking about? The musicians overwhelmingly accepted mediator George Mitchell’s four-month play-and-talk proposal, and the management rejected it, saying they weren’t interested in a partial season (?!). So the musicians came back on Monday with a full-year version, which the management again rejected, at which point management left the table and immediately canceled the Carnegie gigs, triggering the music director’s resignation (see There’s no symmetry here. Just an evil and/or stupid board of directors.

  15. Michael Schell

    It’s a terrible shame, both this and the demise of NY City Opera. A rough week indeed. I hope we don’t all follow the trajectory of Schütz’s career, having to make do with less and less musical support and infrastructure as the religious wars consumed his homeland.

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  17. KD

    Arts AND Sciences, Arts AND Sciences…. the two arms of any sustainable culture. How many times must the reminder be stated?

  18. Pingback: Aaron Jay Kernis: Susperstar Etude #1 | World Piano Competition

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