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.