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Monday, July 3, 2006 - Page updated at 06:54 AM

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Seattle Symphony Orchestra musicians' survey creates discord with board of trustees

Seattle Times music critic

These are tense times for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.

With the end of the fiscal year Friday, the orchestra was expected to post a season shortfall, adding to the existing deficit of $1.05 million. On top of that, Executive Director Paul Meecham just announced his departure.

And the extension of Gerard Schwarz's contract as music director through 2011 by the board in May has been the catalyst for what seems like a serious uprising among the orchestra players, many of whom feel the process overlooked their opinions.

The musicians' artistic advisory committee conducted an unprecedented survey June 1, polling orchestra members (and getting a response rate of nearly 90 percent) on issues related to artistic leadership. The fate of the survey, which has not yet been released to the full board or the full orchestra, is currently embroiled in challenges.

Dissent in orchestras is nothing new. Indeed, a symphony orchestra is a famously contentious place, full of strong-minded, artistically gifted individuals in high-stress jobs where they must quickly master an incredibly variable and challenging repertoire.

But the present level of dissent at the Seattle Symphony raises several crucial questions:

Who really runs the orchestra? Is its music director still effective, and who gets to decide that? And if musicians and their director are at odds, how does this affect the performance of a symphony — financially and from the stage?

The board of trustees runs the orchestra, is responsible for its finances and negotiates contracts with the musicians. It hires and fires both the executive director and the music director.

By terms of their contract, the Seattle Symphony musicians don't have any say about the maestro's contract extension. The players do have rights in the selection of a new music director, but only the board has the right to initiate a search for a new one.

Seattle Symphony history shows that a contentious changeover in music directors can be perilous. In the mid-'70s, when long-term and popular conductor Milton Katims was ousted by a narrow majority of a bitterly divided board, the orchestra entered a period of financial difficulties and reduced audiences as the pro- and anti-Katims factions on the stage and in the community continued to battle.

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The issue of public opinion is on the minds of the Seattle Symphony organization, particularly in light of a musicians' survey said to be critical of Schwarz's leadership.

French hornist Scott Wilson, chairman of the orchestra committee and players' spokesman, says the musicians "recognize this is a sensitive time for the orchestra. There are big fundraising tasks out there. The survey was designed to communicate with the board, not to be disseminated to the public."

At the back of everyone's mind is the example of the Baltimore Symphony, where last July more than 90 percent of the musicians publicly expressed their displeasure at the process leading to the hiring of conductor Marin Alsop as the current music director, in what was described as "a historic public squabble."

Conductor surveys at the Seattle Symphony are nothing new. The players' contract allows taking regular conductor evaluations from the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM), the industry standard for musicians to rate conductors. The musician surveys go to the board's artistic advisory committee.

However, the June 1 survey devised and conducted by the orchestra players' artistic advisory committee (with consultation from the PR firm Rocky Hill & Knowlton) was something quite different. Questions probed whether the board listened to the players in deciding to renew Schwarz's contract, whether the musicians were content with their artistic leadership and whether a new music director should be sought.

One set of questions was introduced with the passage, "We believe the musicians should have a stronger voice in the artistic future of our orchestra."

Seeking an independent analysis of the survey, the executive board contracted the Seattle survey firm of Evans & McDonough. Its report concluded that the June 1 survey was flawed in design, data collection and overall methodology, so that its "results are highly suspect."

The board's executive committee believes the survey may also be a breach of the musicians' contract.

The contract does specify the players' annual input on artistic leadership: "This process shall involve the musicians of the orchestra annually completing the ICSOM conductor evaluation forms for music director." What's not clear is whether this stipulation means no other evaluations are admissible.

The board's executive committee instructed the musicians not to distribute the results or make them public. Actions in direct contradiction to the executive committee's instructions could be deemed "insubordination" under the players' contract — grounds for firing a musician.

The musicians who have seen the survey won't discuss its results publicly.

The average tenure of music directors with American orchestras is eight to 10 years, according to the Mellon Foundation, but if Schwarz completes the recent extension to his contract in 2011, he will have been music director for 26 years.

On the other hand, several major conductors have had long tenures, including the Philadelphia Orchestra's Eugene Ormandy (who stayed for 44 years), the Utah Symphony's Maurice Abravanel (32 years), the National Symphony's Mstislav Rostropovich (27 years) and Boston's Seiji Ozawa (almost 30 years).

The relationship between music director and musicians is often contentious, given the passion inherent in artistic interpretation. Many great conductors of the past, if facing a referendum vote by the orchestra players, probably would have been booted out.

Clark Story, a Seattle Symphony violinist who describes himself as an outspoken "lightning rod" in the orchestra, points out that all our major sports teams (Mariners, Seahawks, Sonics) have had new coaches during Schwarz's Seattle tenure, and that "it's time for a new coach at the Symphony."

But other than financially, has the Symphony had any "losing seasons"? By all accounts, the orchestra has gotten steadily better, with a new concert hall and several excellent new players helping boost the artistic output.

Poorly coached teams don't excel, regardless of the players' talent, in either the KeyArena or Benaroya Hall.

And few who heard the final subscription program of the season late last month — the Mahler Seventh — would dispute that the musicians and their conductor can make first-rate music together.

Regardless of the outcome of the survey and its findings, Schwarz is under contract for the next five years.

In an organization predicated on listening, communication and harmony, these three things are going to be more essential now than ever before.

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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