The boss is the best organizer

It’s good to be reminded now and then of what an orchestra looks like in the wild, and why virtually every professional orchestra in the known universe is unionized:

Musicians, however, look to a conductor for musical guidance, and they say [Illinois Symphony Music Director Karen Lynne] Deal simply doesn’t do enough homework to provide much of that. They talk about times when she has conducted in the wrong meter, dress rehearsals where her score wouldn’t stay open because the book hadn’t been cracked before, and the Holiday Pops performance where she kept cueing the violins to play on a piece for brass and bagpipes only.

Mark Moore, ISO’s principal tuba player and the designated spokesman for the musicans’ unionization effort, says players first asked the board to conduct an official evaluation of Deal during her third season here, and repeated that request during her sixth season, during her ninth season, and as recently as January. “The requests were made by three different people, at least four times,” Moore says. “These are people who have more than 30 years in the music business.”

Most currently contracted musicians are reluctant to speak on the record about Deal, for fear of losing their jobs. However, Matt Monroe, a French horn player who currently plays with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra (among others), resigned last season because of Deal.

”It seemed like much of the time she was figuring it out as she went along,” he says. “She’s a pretty good improviser, which can be a useful skill, but being a hard worker is also a useful skill as a conductor.”

It’s not enough for each musician to know his or her music; the conductor is the only one with the score that shows how all the parts fit together. “Train wreck” is a term musicians use for the shaky sensation of the ensemble running off-track, and Monroe and other musicians say they get that queasy feeling too often with Deal. “There are those crisis moments where it seems like everybody’s not in the same place, and in those moments you look to the podium,” Monroe says. “Frequently what you’d see is the top of her head. She was looking down, with her head in the score, trying to figure out where we are.”

Christina Spa was one of Deal’s earliest fans. A fellow flutist, Spa attended Deal’s 2000 audition concert. “I remember thinking she’s easy to follow, she has a good pattern,” Spa says. Two years later, Spa began volunteering in the ISO office, and in 2005 she was hired full-time as the special events and education coordinator. As she spent more time around Deal, her impression changed.

”I realized that she has a stage presence that gets the audience, and if you don’t know her, you’re probably taken in,” Spa says. But as a staff member, Spa attended ISO rehearsals, and observed a different side of Deal. The conductor rarely appeared prepared, but would chastise the players when the music fell apart… ”Karen never seemed to respect anybody,” Spa says. “Her attitude was always, ‘I’m the conductor, I’m above you.’ ”

But, for the musicians, the last straw was apparently the firing (and attempted deportation and false arrest) of the orchestra’s personnel manager:

After last May’s mass exodus, personnel manager Kamen Petkov was the only long-term full-time employee left in the ISO office. He has played violin with the ISO since 1994, though it’s not his main talent. “I consider myself a musician, but I know that there are much better musicians than me out there,” he says. At the managing gig, which he took in 2000, after earning a business degree and accumulating four summers’ experience working as an operations intern at Grant Park Music Festival, he’s true prodigy. “…

Petkov says his troubles with Deal began in October 2006, when he arrived at a rehearsal to discover that the maestra had rearranged the seating chart, abruptly assigning Laura LaCombe — a contracted violinist who for 11 years had played near the top of the second violin section — to sit at the last stand, behind subs who had never even auditioned for the ISO. LaCombe, who also taught orchestra and violin at Lincoln Land Community College, walked out of rehearsal and never returned. “It was just my turn to get hit on, I guess,” she says.

A few months later, Deal tried to seat a violinist who had never played with the ISO ahead of the assistant concertmaster, and stood on stage arguing with Petkov about it loudly enough that other musicians could hear….

They had a major clash over the 2008-09 season contracts when Deal asked Petkov to use a new method she thought would reduce the percentage of subs. She made that request days before Petkov was scheduled to travel to Bulgaria for six weeks to produce a music festival. He couldn’t complete the task before he left, so Deal did it herself, imperfectly, while he was gone. When he returned in August, he says, he began scrambling to fix the contract mess, which only increased tensions with Deal. In October, when a violinist called in with a family crisis hours before a chamber orchestra rehearsal, Deal fired Petkov on the spot for seating a contracted ISO violinist who hadn’t auditioned specifically for the chamber group…

That wasn’t all: ISO management also reported Petkov to U.S. immigration authorities, ostensibly on the belief that he had an H-1B visa tied to his employment as orchestra manager. They also reported him to a federal law enforcement agency for possible identity theft, because he had orchestra payroll information stored on his Palm Pilot and a flash drive. Petkov sees these actions as beyond firing. “The life I tried to build for the last 14 years almost went down the drain,” he says.

Through his attorney, Petkov provided Snyder with a copy of a petition she herself had signed on behalf of the ISO a year earlier, indicating to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that he had a Class 01 visa (not H-1B) based on his extraordinary artistic ability. No charges were filed; in fact, Petkov was subsequently hired as personnel manager with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, where executive director Judy Furniss sounds happy to have him.

At that point:

…a small group of longtime ISO players retained a Bloomington CPA to conduct a no-confidence vote. That CPA, Mary Ann Webb, says she mailed two types of ballots — plain white ballots to the 62 contracted musicians, and orange ballots to 37 regular subs. Her office received 49 white ballots and 23 orange, all but two marked to express no confidence in Deal.

ISO board president John Wohlwend says the anonymous vote means nothing to him. “That committee of musicians is absolutely out of order,” he says. “I’m not ever going to consider that an official vote.”

I wonder if he’ll consider the orchestra’s vote of two days ago to unionize “absolutely out of order” as well. He’ll certainly be hard-pressed to consider it other than “an official vote.”

There are at least two lessons to draw from this episode. One is that life in an orchestra without union protections is what Thomas Hobbs described as “nasty, brutish, and short.” The second is that orchestras without effective boards will be run by someone who is accountable to no one, and they won’t be run very well.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

Leave a Reply