The Audubon Tragedy

What a mess. This business with the Audubon Quartet is worse than the recent debacles at St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Baltimore combined. Just in case you’re not up to speed on the details of this disaster, there are two excellent articles by Dan Watkin in the New York Times (here and here), go read those and then come back. The whole scenario unfolds like a Shakespeare tragedy; in the end, everyone dies before they learn the lessons they should have already known. Nevertheless, I think the worst part is most of the unpleasantness could have been easily avoided…violinAt the heart of the issue is a string quartet who fell apart at the seams and when push came to shove and the courts got involved all of the parties discovered that they had not been keeping the business end of their quartet in as fine shape as the artistic end. Although I’m skipping a great deal of detail (don’t forget to go back and read those NYT articles for the details) what you need to know is that one member of the quartet sued the remaining members.

When things moved into the courtroom a judge didn’t care about artistic temperament, the indescribable bond between a musician and their instrument, or if anyone’s previous actions were “justified”. The court turned its rightfully blind eye toward those issues, examined the quartet as a business, and applied the applicable law; according to the Roanoke Times, the judge appointed to the case called the decision a “no-brainer”.

As it turned out, the quartet had not done a very good job of pursuing due diligence when it came to creating their business contract. In the end, some of the members may be paying for those mistakes more than others, but they are all losers.

Since the news broke, I’ve received a considerable number of email messages from readers, mostly musicians, who are outraged over the fact that some of the quartet members are going to have to surrender their instruments per a court order. Regardless of how emotionally wrenching and terribly wrong something like this is, it’s still something which could have been avoided if the quartet invested in a good lawyer to design their contract years ago when they were emerging into success and reviewed the contract on a regular basis.

If there is a lesson to be learned from this tragedy it is this: good fences make good neighbors and good contracts make good musicians. For reasons which seem foreign to me, there seems to be a growing trend in the orchestra business to shy away from lawyers and create (or even worse, implement) collective bargaining agreements with a laissez faire, laissez passer attitude without regard for the law (not to mention their best interests).

Of course, any contract is only as good as the people involved with it; nevertheless, a tightly worded contract crafted with all parties clearly understanding their options and consequences of their future behavior will marginalize the damage that can be done by any one individual with bad intentions.

Will this business learn from the Audubon debacle? I doubt it. Unless the nature of how musicians are trained during their academic years change, this tragic opera is guaranteed a repeat performance.

Postscript : In a bittersweet way, this story would actually serve as a wonderful libretto for a new opera. As a matter of fact, I can’t think of a better way to drive home the sincere magnitude for why musicians need to have a well written, detailed work contract. Even so, I know musicians would be more apt to take the message to heart as compared to simply attending a seminar…

When this whole mess broke, I originally thought that I would avoid writing about it lock, stock, and barrel. Thankfully, Lisa Hirsch (the always clever webmistress behind The Iron Tongue Of Midnight) took the time to blog about this very same issue yesterday and her lead gave me the needed push to publish something.

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.

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8 thoughts on “The Audubon Tragedy”

  1. Very interesting stories.

    What strikes me, though, is how much the musicians expect us to sympathize with the loss of their “precious” instruments. I’ve never understood what is to be gained from spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on instruments and bows. Does having a bow cut from the same tree stump as Heifetz’s make you play like Heifetz? Is there an objective valuation standard here? Is there a law of diminishing returns at play? Will they not prosper as a quartet with, say, a $10,000 viola? Did they purchase foolishly?

    I find it hard to sympathize. (For the sake of disclosure, as a clarinetist I enjoy playing one of the cheapest instruments. Top price for a clarinet won’t exceed $5,000, and vintage instruments are not commonly used professionally.)

  2. This very sad story is not only one of legal foolishness, it is the fact of losing sight of what is the most important point of being a group: to make music together.

    Mature artists, surely, can disagree about how they make music, and if there is not reconciliation of a point of view about interpretation over an extended time, then legal agreements will not save the situation.

    If people in an ensemble cannot agree how they are to conduct their musical, underscore “musical” business, then the “business” of making music together should be ended. Surely, other ensembles have had arguments which became cause for breakup of the ensemble, but to sue someone and take his/her instruments and homes as compensation is vindictive and not in the spirit of what it takes to make music that I would want to listen to.

  3. I usually never comment on comments, but I had to take exception to Larry’s remarks about whether string instruments were worth the cost. Absolutely! The thing to remember is, when they bought their instruments decades ago, they were not priced as they are today. Back in the 1960’s, one could obtain a Gasparo da Salo viola for something on the order of $30K – now you’d be hard-pressed to find one below $500K. If you’re playing in a top quartet or orchestra, you’re expected to own an instrument that contributes to the overall sound, and that means a quality instrument. Sometimes contemporary instruments are available which rival the old and modern Italians, but even now those are priced at over $15K, some makers are getting over $30K for a new violin, and that’s just where quality cellos from an established makers begin, and go on up in price.

  4. I think a lot of things are overlooked in the comments I have seen here, for instance:
    – the manner in which the quartet tried to dismiss its violinist and the likely impact on his reputation if he had left it unchallenged.
    – the stubborn refusal of the defendants to accept the judgment, which prolonged litigation by four years.
    – the fact that string players do not have to own their instruments. Shenandoah University has already declared that it will provide instruments for Shaw and Lederer while they are employed there.
    – that the “business” of making music involved a lot more than ticket and CD sales. It included a faculty position at a university.

    I agree with Drew McManus on what he says about a tendency to disregard legal issues. As an outsider to music, I see some of the rhetoric that is emerging as evidence of an arrogant attitude of “we know best” that is unbecoming a profession dependent on taxpayer generosity for its existence.

  5. The personnel mix of the Audubon was bad, and it was bad because there was a married couple. Although this works in some quartets, when it doesn’t work it really doesn’t work. With a married couple in the mix of a quartet, sooner or later your going to have at least one member feeling like they are on the outside, looking in. What I find laughable, too, is the fact that the papers and many musicians are trying to place white hats on the married couple and a black hat on Ehrlich. To me, it seems like they should all be wearing dunce caps. You can see how self-destructive this group was through the Court’s comment, (the original trial court), when he indicated that neither side made any attempt to settle the case. Bitterness has sunk them. Ehrlich will not get too many gigs without people getting all lawyered up prior to any engagement. And, the remaining members are bankrupt. Ehrlich will get hate mail and love mail but will be forever remembered as the fellow who couldn’t play nice with his playmates. The remaining members might get a few gigs out of curiosity should they retain their instruments. Sounds as if they should have tried to mediate a solution instead of being “right”.

    Joe Nichols

  6. This is in response to Joe Nichols’ comment about mediation. Ehrlich had demanded that the quartet go through mediation. Quite forcefully in fact. Shaw adamantly refused. The Richmond Times Dispatch mentions this in an article on December 17:

    “In February 2000, the violinist, who joined the Audubon in 1984, called on Shaw, Lederer and Takayama to go into counseling.

    The three refused. “Our differences were between ourselves, and we didn’t think the intervention of some outside party would be useful,” Shaw said in an interview this week. He said Ehrlich’s threat of lawsuits if they refused counseling led the three to dismiss him.”

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