Gerry’s Peak – ready to blow?

Orchestra industry insiders have known for a while that the
relationship between the musicians of the Seattle Symphony and its
Music Director, Gerard Schwarz, was dysfunctional even by the low
standards of orchestras, and that the problems were abetted by
Schwarz’s unusually strong hold on the SSO’s board of directors.

A long article in today’s New York Times may be what finally blows the lid off one of the Pacific Northwest’s most volatile volcanoes. As the article says:

…to judge from alarmist reports coming from here over a dozen years or so, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra has carried disharmony to new heights, lurching from crisis to crisis. There have been allegations of vandalism aimed at players, including a dented French horn and a razor blade planted in a mailbox; a players’ survey that condemned the conductor only to be deep-sixed by management; and lawsuits filed by players accusing the conductor of mental if not physical abuse.

It is a cautionary tale of how the relationship between performers and a long-term leader can go awry and how, in an artistic hothouse, a tangle of emotion and politics can veer out of control and take on a life of its own.

The article is also quite thorough about the management turmoil and turnover this dysfunction has caused:

There was also turmoil in the management ranks. In 2003 Deborah Card, the executive director, left for the same job at the more prestigious Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Local newspapers reported that there had been friction with Mr. Schwarz.

The board moved to hire Paul Meecham, a former general manager of the New York Philharmonic who is well liked in the industry. But Mr. Schwarz opposed him. "I didn’t think at the time that he had the kind of leadership, especially fund-raising, that we needed when he came," Mr. Schwarz said.

Orchestra and former board members recalled that he waged a bitter campaign against Mr. Meecham. Mr. Schwarz denied that and said he had worked well with Mr. Meecham and supported him.

But on June 26, 2006, less than two months before the board would extend Mr. Schwarz’s contract for three years and before his own contract was to expire, Mr. Meecham abruptly quit. He cited "personal reasons" and said he had had no problems getting along with Mr. Schwarz. Contacted recently, Mr. Meecham, now president of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, said he could not comment, on the advice of his lawyer, because he may be a witness in Mr. Kaman’s lawsuit.

The Cerminaro and Meecham affairs are cited as examples of Mr. Schwarz’s willingness to use his influence to sway the board and control its membership. Donald Thulean, a former board member and now music adviser to the Quad City Symphony Orchestra Association, based in Davenport, Iowa, said he was convinced that his disagreements with Mr. Schwarz had led to his departure in 2005. "I’m quite sure he has an influence on people who are invited on the board and who at the end of their terms are not invited to return," Mr. Thulean said. "He values loyalty very highly."

Mr. Schwarz acknowledges that he has close friends among board members but denies exerting influence on board actions.

This is virtually guaranteed to end in tears. The most likely outcome is that Schwarz will be forced out – if not by the board, then by the donors or the power structure in Seattle, who will not be happy to see the city’s dirty laundry aired in the nation’s most prestigious newspaper. The orchestra’s musicians aren’t going anywhere, and, thanks to their collective bargaining agreement, can’t be forced to leave. Schwarz can be. Their near-total lack of support of Schwarz is now a matter of public record rather than mere rumor:

…the orchestra committee carried out a survey of the players. It was never made public, and the board hired a survey firm to analyze its methods, which were found wanting, according to The Seattle Times. Mikhail Shmidt, a violinist and a committee member, said he and his colleagues were threatened by the administration with losing their jobs if they released the survey. "This was one of the most ugly displays of board priorities," he added.

A recently obtained copy of the survey showed that the players voted 61 to 8 in favor of new artistic leadership and 61 to 12 to form a search committee for a new music director. Players anonymously poured out a litany of complaints – some stated with eloquence, others with angry language – about Mr. Schwarz and the board’s attitude toward their opinions.

The board can continue to support Schwarz, of  course, but only by trashing the musicians’ concerns and, by implication, the musicians. And how does a board raise money for an orchestra for whom their own conduct demonstrates contempt? "I’m here to ask you to donate $100,000 to the Seattle Symphony. Seattle needs this wonderful orchestra, even though it’s full of disloyal cry-babies"?  Seems like a hard sell to me.

An interesting twist to this affair is one not mentioned by the NYT, which is the orchestra’s union status. In 1988, the musicians of the SSO decertified the AFM local in Seattle and formed their own union. In pure economic terms, it doesn’t seem to have made a great deal of difference – they’ve had ups and downs, just like most orchestras in the US. But it has led to a unique degree of isolation from the field. Would not being so isolated have changed things?

I think it’s possible. A lot of what orchestra musicians give to musicians in other orchestras is moral support in difficult situations and models for how to handle problems. The SSO musicians have been largely deprived of that support by not being part of the orchestral network within the AFM. I wonder if this will cause them to reconsider their outsider status.

Are there lessons that the rest of the industry can learn from this mess? The obvious one is that 20+ years is way too long a tenure for a music director of a full-time orchestra. But that’s actually just a symptom. The real problem in Seattle is that the board has forgotten that the institution comes first. They seem to believe that the orchestra exists for the music director.

The clearest proof of this was the incident in 1996, when, after negotiations for a new CBA had been concluded, and the orchestra had ratified the new agreement, the board voted to ratify only if the musicians would allow Schwarz to hire a friend for principal horn for the duration of Schwarz’s tenure. I’ve been in this business for over 30 years and have never heard of a board micro-managing orchestra personnel like this. There’s no way they would  have done so without pressure put on them by Schwarz.

In short, the board engaged in conduct that was bound to become public, make the institution look bad, and quite possibly end up in front of the NLRB – all at the instigation of a music director trying to get his way over one musician.

It’s not surprising that a Music Director will push for what he wants, or that he’ll want to stay for longer than he/she should do. Music directors are human (although they can come to seem less than that to musicians who work for them for too long.) But music directors work for boards, not the other way around. A board that can’t say “no” to the people it hires is not a very good board.

No wonder no one wants to run the Seattle Symphony.

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