Looking At Seattle From A Different Point Of View

By now, most folks inside the classical music world have heard about what’s going on at the Seattle Symphony Orchestra (SSO).  But in case you haven’t beep keeping up, here’s the synopsis: the SSO made the decision to not renew 20 year veteran concertmaster Ilkka Talvi’s contract for the 2004-2005 concert season.

Since the SSO announced the decision there have been a few articles appearing in the local Seattle newspapers discussing the issues behind Ilkka leaving the SSO.  Additionally, Ilkka has filled a grievance against the SSO via the local SSO musician’s labor union; the International Guild of Symphony, Opera and Ballet Musicians.

In addition to the public discussion, there’s been a flurry of conversation inside the industry.  Nearly all of it has been centering on what the papers have been writing about, which is “who” made the decision not to renew Ilkka’s contract.  The focus of such discussions are primarily SSO music director Gerard Schwarz and to a lesser extent, SSO executive director Paul Meecham.

But that’s not what crosses my mind when I look at the situation.  The legal issues will shake themselves out either behind the scenes between the two parties or by the decision of a judge.

The SSO players and management have enjoyed an unusually amicable relationship for the past few decades compared to most of their peer ensembles (I was actually in the middle of researching that very topic when the Talvi situation became public that original article will be published in the near future).  

And based on my initial research from that original article, it was a bit of a surprise to learn that the SSO is experiencing such a high level contractual dispute going.

Which is more important; “who” or “how”?
But instead of focusing on who is behind the dispute, I’m more concerned with how the situation got to this point. Regardless of who was responsible for the decision not to renew Ilkka’s contract, there is still the technical matter of how to get around not renewing it.

To help shed some light on that point, I’ve been in contact with Ilkka Talvi, Paul Meecham, and Bruce Heller (ICSOBM legal counsel).

According to Ilkka, his contract contained the following clause:

“Tenure will be provided to Musician for the period that Gerard Schwarz is Music Director.  In the event of the appointment of a new Music Director and Musician is asked to give up his position as Concertmaster, it is agreed that he will be offered a permanent position in the first violin section.”

Provided that this is accurate, it’s not very difficult to see why anyone would be upset if they were in Ilkka’s situation.   How could the SSO management not renew Ilkka’s contract since Gerard Schwarz is obviously still music director?

I contacted SSO executive director Paul Meecham and asked him that very question.  In response, Paul said,

“We did not make this decision lightly and it is for the artistic good of the orchestra.”

Additionally, Paul confirmed that Ilkka Talvi has filed a grievance against the SSO but beyond that he would not comment or even release the names of the attorneys who are representing the SSO in this matter.

The only aspect I can see is that the SSO management has appeared to allow Ilkka’s contract to run past its expiration date and that may be what they thought they needed to disregard the “Gerard Schwarz as Music Director” clause.

According to Ilkka, the SSO management is claiming that his contract was not valid.  Ilkka said,

“[My contract] has never been handled on time, mainly because it was thought as a given and negotiations with the group as whole were understandably more important.

It has never been signed in a timely fashion, usually retroactively, due to repeated tardiness by the SSO. Because I had been treated this past season in a manner that I had no reason to question the intentions of the management (automatic pay raise, sick leave and other benefits), I was completely taken off guard when Meecham informed me of this ultimatum. We are talking May 7th this year, a  few days after I had informed the management about an upcoming surgery to remove a large tumor under my left shoulder blade.”

I asked Paul if the SSO management took advantage of the historically late renewal procedure regarding the concertmaster’s contract and allowed it expire, therefore, nullifying any provisions it may have contained.

Unsurprisingly, Paul declined to comment on that speculation.

When I contacted attorney Bruce Heller and presented my outlook, he wasn’t certain that was the case or not.

Looking into the future
Once the dust settles one aspect all of the musicians at the SSO should consider, especially if  Ilkka’s grievance prevails, is if the SSO management was willing to toe the line with contract language in order to remove a concertmaster, then what would they be willing to do to the rank and file musicians covered by the master agreement?

It takes years and years of hard work and honest behavior to build a trusting relationship between management and musicians.  But it only takes one bad decision to tear that relationship to shreds.

I hope everyone in Seattle is thinking about that when they make their decisions in the near future.  I’m reminded of something one of my mentors told me once many years ago:

“What you pay for something right now is not always representative of what it will cost you later.”

That’s certainly something to think about.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

Related Posts