Showdown In Seattle

Just how long is too long for a conductor to serve as music director? In Seattle, that question appears to be coming to a head following a three year contract extension for Seattle Symphony Orchestra music director Gerard Schwarz. This isn’t the first time lightning has flashed in the SSO surrounding Gerard Schwarz and over the past few years, the frequency of flashes appears to be increasing…


A slew of articles in Seattle based newspapers have been tracking the story as it unfolds. The nexus of the latest lightning strikes are centered on the decision of the SSO board to renew Gerard Schwarz’s contract through the 2010-11 concert season. It has been a tough couple of years for Gerard Schwarz’s career, here’s just a few of the highlights:

  • There was a very public fight over the dismissal of veteran concertmaster, Ilkka Talvi that offered a great deal of behind-the-scene views into the raucous political environment of the SSO. The issue was finally settled via an agreement between The International Guild of Symphony, Opera and Ballet Musicians (the musicians’ union which represented Talvi) and the SSO.
  • Not long after that event, SSO violinist Peter Kaman filed a “hostile environment and harassment” lawsuit against the SSO which names Gerard Schwarz as the perpetrator of “discrimination on the basis of disability”. The case is currently unresolved.
  • Following a vote of “no confidence” from the musicians, Gerard Schwarz did not have his contract renewed as music director of the Liverpool Philharmonic. Gerard Schwarz completed his final concert as music director there last month.

  • Perhaps inspired by the practice of a no confidence vote by their British colleagues, the SSO musicians decided to conduct a survey, implemented by the musicians of the artistic advisory committee. The results of that survey are expected to be released within the next week.

    After news of the survey became common knowledge within the ensemble, Gerard Schwarz reportedly went on the offensive, details of which were published in the 06/20/06 edition of the Seattle Weekly in an article by Roger Downey. Reportedly, Gerard Schwarz told the SSO board that significant changes within the orchestra’s personnel were needed in order to move the ensemble to the next level.

    Shortly after that Seattle Weekly article, the same paper published a letter from SSO trumpet, Geoffrey Bergler, which suggests that it may be in the best interest of the SSO if they began to seek new artistic leadership [update: see correction below from Roger Downey in the “comments” section].

    An article in the 06/27/06 edition of the Seattle P-I by R.M. Campbell reports that Gerard Schwarz’s alleged reaction to the letter was swift and harsh,

    “Less than two weeks later, the day after Schwarz’s return to Seattle from conducting his final performances with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in England, Bergler said he was given notice by principal trumpet David Gordon, on direction from Schwarz, that his playing was no longer adequate.”

    Things are looking grim in Seattle and recent collective action by peer musicians in other ensembles is likely contributing to how the situation in Seattle is unfolding. Although no such measures within the SSO collective bargaining agreement provide the musicians an official vote of no confidence, the players are conducting a detailed survey of their members in order to determine exactly where they stand on the issue artistic leadership.

    The decision to make those results public, something which would normally be kept in-house, closely parallels the situation in Baltimore last year following the unexpectedly truncated process used to select their new music director. In that case, the BSO musicians determined that their only course of action to influence events was to go public.

    In Seattle, the musicians appear to be implementing lessons from both of those situations. It’s difficult to believe that the SSO players would decide to release the results from the survey without knowing full well that it could have negative ramifications on the organization in the form of lower donations and/or public support; as such, the old “lesser of two evils” scenario comes to mind.

    The 06/27/06 Seattle P-I article reports that the SSO board chair, Ronald Woodard, has confirmed that the board will use “remedies under the contract” against the musicians if they release the results of their survey. When asked about those remedies Scott Wilson, chairman of the Seattle Symphony and Opera Players Committee, said “I am aware of threats of intimidation.”

    It’s also difficult to believe that things have ground down to such a level of contention in Seattle. Just a few years ago, as a measure of good faith and support for the organization, the SSO musicians donated hundreds of thousands of dollars from their own contingency fund to help shore up the SSO endowment (this is the same fund the musicians use as a strike/lock-out fund).

    It’s not common in this business to see such large financial gifts coming directly from the coffers of a players association. As such, one has to wonder just how badly the internal situation has degraded since a few short years ago.

    Nevertheless, a simple solution is still within reach. All that is needed is to heed a few simple mantras of the entertainment world: “always leave them wanting more” and “It’s best to leave at the top of your game”.

    Postscript: Adding to the drama of events, SSO executive director, Paul Meecham, announced he will be leaving at the end of his current contract. Although Paul states that his departure has nothing to do with the fuss over Gerard Schwarz, it’s unusual that there’s no news along the lines of where Paul is heading once his tenure with the SSO is completed.

    The following is an unedited copy of the news release announcing Paul’s planned departure:

    Seattle, WA – Paul Meecham, Seattle Symphony Executive Director, announced today that he will leave the organization when his current contract expires in December. A search for his successor will be initiated as soon as possible.

    Speaking of his decision, Meecham said, “It has been a privilege to work with this great orchestra and I have enjoyed immensely my tenure at the Symphony. With the support of a dedicated staff and board, a lot has been achieved and I leave the orchestra well positioned to meet its future organizational goals and build on its artistic success.”

    Among his achievements since joining the Seattle Symphony in January 2004, Meecham negotiated a major labor contract with the musicians of the orchestra through 2009; secured a $5 million gift to the Symphony’s endowment and a 3-year grant of $900,000 from the Mellon Trust; led a new 5-year strategic plan to completion; increased the Symphony’s commitment to family programming and community outreach; worked closely with Music Director Gerard Schwarz on the two highly acclaimed Made in America festivals; launched the first-ever Seattle Symphony national radio broadcast series; and spearheaded a series of commercial recordings of American music on the Naxos label.

    Seattle Symphony Board of Directors Chair Ronald Woodard commented, “Paul has led the Symphony with vision, energy and commitment. We have a major challenge to replace him.”

    Seattle Symphony, now presenting its 103rd season, has been under the artistic leadership of Music Director Gerard Schwarz since 1985. In 1998 the Orchestra began performing in the acoustically superb Benaroya Hall in downtown Seattle. The Symphony, ranked within the top 20 orchestras in the U.S., is recognized for its adventurous programming and tradition of performing music by contemporary composers. The Seattle Symphony has made more than 100 recordings and garnered 11 Grammy nominations. From September through July, the Seattle Symphony is heard live by more than 315,000 people. For more information on Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall and Soundbridge Seattle Symphony Music Discovery Center, visit the Symphony’s website at www.seattlesymphony.org.

    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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    10 thoughts on “Showdown In Seattle”

    1. I think that this will be the watershed moment to see if there is any power and conviction in the Guild. They are now riding this out alone, without any support from the national union that they split from years ago (and not without reason, however). I hope that they do make the survey results public, and that the “board” of the SSO wakes up and smells the impending diminution of their fine ensemble.

    2. A minor correction to your coverage of the situation in Seattle: Geoffrey Bergler’s letter to Seattle Weekly was published May 31st, 2006, so preceded by several weeks Maestro Schwarz’s “tank” address to the board.

    3. Timing of the resignation of Meecham, whose appointment Schwarz opposed, is fairly remarkable: the announcement came the day after the orchestra’s season ended and with its fiscal year closing this Friday, when another substantial (really bad?) budget shortfall will be announced, adding to the existing deficit. Plus: the orchestra is about to make public results of its opinion poll which are guaranteed to be insulting to Schwarz and likely to tar the administration and board with the same brush. Looks like the start of a season of pain for the SSO.

    4. The real loser in this situation is the principal trumpet if the allegations are true. One player giving another player notice?!!! Excuse me? This sort of thing is called imperilment and is strictly prohibited by AFM bylaws. It appears to me that by deciding to work outside the AFM/ICSOM system the SSO players are more vulnerable to the machinations of a despotic music director and his designated minions whether they are on the board or in the orchestra.
      Isn’t it clear that after 20 plus years in Seattle Schwartz simply has too much power and is wielding it in ways that are damaging to the health and furure of the SSO?
      Anyone else notice how exciting and revitalized the Mostly Mozart Festival appears since Scwhartz left? Hmmmmm….

    5. Interesting observation Harold. I don’t know if the SSO CBA has a provision dealing with imperilment, as such I wouldn’t assume they don’t. Regardless, it’s an excellent question. At the same time, I could immediately think of a few instances where I know a MD within an AFM represented ensemble has thrown similar issues on the shoulders of a principal player.

      Perhaps an important issue to address within the entire business is how well are players versed on these issues? Similarly, are managers and conductors aware of the issues too?

      I’m a strong believer that if both sides clearly understand their operational parameters then you’ll far less internal problems. And when problems do appear, you’ll have a much easier time determining if behavior is the result of simple ignorance or malice aforethought.

    6. Ignorance or malice aforethought, the result is the same: a principal player being asked to do management’s bidding in a sensitive and devisive personnel issue. I’ve seen how the “Lone Ranger” mentality of some players can be like a cancer in an orchestra; losing sight of the fact that it is someone’s livlihood here, a career and reputation.
      If Schwarz isn’t happy with someone’s playing,type of mouthpiece or brand of valve oil then it is his job, as music director, to make this known to the player.
      To the extent that the Seattle players go along with this pathetic charade I say: May the Schwarz be with you!

    7. Harold Kupper wrote:

      “The real loser in this situation is the principal trumpet if the allegations are true. One player giving another player notice?!!! Excuse me? This sort of thing is called imperilment and is strictly prohibited by AFM bylaws. It appears to me that by deciding to work outside the AFM/ICSOM system the SSO players are more vulnerable to the machinations of a despotic music director and his designated minions whether they are on the board or in the orchestra.”

      The AFM bylaws don’t speak to such behavior, although some local bylaws do. The real problem for the principal trumpet (assuming the reporting is correct, of course) is that he has arguably made himself into a supervisor and thus not eligible for protection under the collective bargaining agreement.

      The question of whether or not the SSO would be better off in this situation if they were still in the AFM is obviously hypothetical. Practically speaking, though, the AFM doesn’t act in these situations unless the orchestra wants it to. And if the orchestra wants to fight, labor law gives them more than enough ammunition to do so without the AFM.

      Personally I think the SSO would be better off back in the AFM (and I told them so when I was ICSOM chair). But in this situation I don’t think it’ll make a difference.

    8. “What goes around, comes around”
      So it continues…those who sidle up to Schwarz, ingratiating themselves for sundry personal agendas at the expense of their colleagues careers. Mr. Bergler was at one time in a similar situation as Mr. Gordon. I don’t have much sympathy for anyone in
      the Seattle Symphony who stands by, cowering for their own jobs, deluding themselves that their colleagues are getting what they deserve so they can enjoy immunity from such heinous retaliatory treatment. No, as much as I hold Schwarz culpable for his own
      deplorable behavior, I hold the orchestra equally responsible for allowing this behavior to happen again and again. That the dance continues is the logical consequence of pusillanimous inaction.

    9. Interesting thoughts posted here. One that I would disagree with is the idea that somehow the principal trumpet player is a loser in this. I don’t really understand the implications of ‘imperilment’ but he is a wonderful player, a supportive colleague and, from my perspective, handled the situation as best it could be handled.

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