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Symphony in A major flap

What is it about orchestras that turns them into venomous snakepits?

NICHOLAS KÖHLER November 5 2007
THE BACK PAGES

Symphony in A major flap

What is it about orchestras that turns them into venomous snakepits?

NICHOLAS KÖHLER November 5 2007

Symphony in A major flap

THE BACK PAGES

stage

What is it about orchestras that turns them into venomous snakepits?

NICHOLAS KÖHLER

When the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra performed its first concert of the season in September, principal cellist Linda Bardutz managed, during the third movement of Johannes Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, to deliver a stirring solo. So impressed was Anton Kuerti, the celebrated Canadian pianist visiting with the ensemble that night, that he made a gesture normally left to the conductor. He pulled Bardutz from her chair and led her to stand alongside Douglas Sanford—the conductor in question—to share in the applause.

Sanford, conductor of the orchestra since 2002, perhaps had good reason to neglect the cellist that night. He has launched a $200,000 defamation suit against Bardutz and five of her fellow players. His statement of claim, filed a little more than a month prior to Kuerti’s appearance and mere days before rehearsals for the season opener were to begin, accuses the musicians of leaking a union steward’s report, outlining the conductor’s alleged abuse of orchestra members, to the Saskatchewan Arts Board. That report, the defamation suit also alleges, ultimately ended up at the Canada Council for the Arts.

Passages from the report quoted in the suit charge Sanford with “physical, psychological, and emotional abuse”; allege that at one concert he “smelled of alcohol”; and, in the document’s most bizarre j’accuse, say that his “tempos are aberrant”—one of many suggestions of incompetence. As a result of the

report’s circulation, Sanford’s “personal and professional reputation has been seriously damaged, and he has suffered distress and embarrassment,” reads the statement of claim. Sanford told Maclean’s he filed the suit, which also names as defendants the musicians’ union, two union officials, the Saskatchewan Arts Board and a board consultant, because the musicians “produced a document that had dozens of provably wrong things in it.”

The gambit is widely believed to be the first instance of a conductor suing his own musicians—prompting mentions in news reports worldwide. Writing on The Huffington Post website, Ivan Katz said, “One can only hope that an attorney in Saskatoon, when consulted about litigation... gently told Maestro Sanford... ‘Look, we can try to resolve this dust-up quietly and diplomatically. But if we bring suit it becomes public record... and the entire world will know all of the juicy details.’ Whether such advice was given or not, it plainly was not heeded.” As a result, said Katz, because of the allegations included in Sanford’s statement of claim, “he has now been branded as a tyrant, a fraud who takes credit for performances he had nothing to do with, and a drunkard. Worse, he has given currency to the allegation that his ‘tempos are aberrant.’ ” None of the allegations, either those in the statement of claim or those contained in the steward’s report quoted in that document, have been proven in court.

The subtext of that first performance of the season, when Kuerti took Bardutz by the hand and led her to stand by the man she’s accused of defaming, was clear to at least some in the concert hall. As Sanford returned to the podium after intermission, a small group in the audience greeted him with jeers. “Down with Doug,” one was heard to shout. Sanford did not acknowledge the heckling.

Mounted against musicians whose salaries

hover in the $18,000to $24,000-a-year range, Sanford’s suit likely ensures that his name will forever be linked to a single innovation—legal rather than musical in nature. “That’s why the story went around the world,” one musician says (no orchestra member agreed to go on record for fear of reprisal and on the advice of a lawyer). “Do you think people care about the Saskatoon symphony? No. It’s because it’s a prurient little story from Crazy Town Saskatchewan.” There may be more to it than that. Though the impasse boasts intrigues worthy of the finest political thrillers—from sensitive documents slipped beneath doors to attempts to impeach a “tyrannical” leader (to borrow a word from the steward’s report)— the vision of backstage orchestral life here may reflect a deeper, more widespread malaise in the classical music world.

According to the steward’s report quoted in Sanford’s statement of claim, the conductor has “made unwanted physical contact with players, pulled a player into a dressing room to shout about colleagues, engaged in unwanted confinement, stalked, and eavesdropped on players’ conversations.” He is said to have “threatened to fire a player for a documented illness,” and to have told musicians which colleagues “he wants to get rid of next.” Elsewhere he is reputed to have “sabotaged” performances by “changing tempo in a musically indefensible manner” and by directing that “the orchestra play loudly to cover the solos of a player he wished to denigrate.”

Yet Saskatoon’s is just the latest in a string of such disputes. Pinchas Zukerman, conductor of Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra, took a hurried five-month sabbatical in 2005—his departure coincided with his wife Amanda Forsyth’s sick leave from the NACO, where she is principal cellist—later admitting it was forced by conflict. Rumours spoke of bullying and favouritism toward

Forsyth. Charles Dutoit, the Swiss and steely autocrat who propelled the Montreal Symphony Orchestra to world recognition in the 1980s, walked away from his position in 2002 after receiving a letter from the Quebec Musicians’ Guild charging him with tyrannical behaviour.

Perhaps the most dramatic discord arrived last year, when musicians with the Seattle Symphony who supported conductor C Schwarz, reportedly the subject of poor r by other members, began detailing 1 ment by colleagues. One complained ( of “someone anonymously denting m3

scratching my car, stealing from my orchestra mailbox, desecrating my photo with pinholes to the eyes and forehead, and threatening my family.”

Today’s friction between conductor and musician arises because the symphony orchestra is an antiquated thing—right down to the evening dress still worn on stage. “They’re rooted in a lot of 19th-century paradigms of musical hierarchy,” says Toronto-based music critic Tamara Bernstein, who says she has not followed the Sanford case. “At the bottom of the heap you have the poor orchestra member. What does the term ‘maestro’ mean? Master. You can’t have a master without a slave.”

Classical musicians begin training early in life, submit to demanding teachers, and devote themselves to hours in small, soundproof boxes, honing themselves. Such effort can develop impressive technicians as highstrung as their instruments. Orchestra jobs, meanwhile, are rare. The lucky few who land salaried gigs often find the work dull and low in pay. “It’s a way of making music that really does breed burnout,” says one musician. “Most large orchestras have an undeniable component of what we call ‘whiners.’ ”

Heightening the tension is the experience of performing itself. “There’s something in the moment about playing a musical instrument,” says Jeff Reynolds, a trumpet performer and conductor who teaches at the University of Toronto. “You’re up on the stage, and in that microsecond, you’re producing a sound that’s either the right one or the wrong one. And your livelihood or your

reputation or your pride depend on that.” Devotion to such high standards can lead musicians to look askance at conductors. “To be a really wonderful conductor, you need quite superhuman skills,” says Michael PurvesSmith, a musician, conductor and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University. “If you don’t achieve that particular level, you’re on the same level—or perhaps not even the same level—as the best musicians in your orchestra.

That inevitably leads to some tensions.” Then too, says Purves-Smith, conductors must steel themselves against the mob of musicians before them. “In order to hold your way, you probably need an ego that’s out of proportion—and those kinds of people are the very sort of people who will take advantage of people’s vulnerability.” Musicians in Saskatoon charge Sanford with just that. Many blame the institution of conducting. “I don’t know of another profession that allows such extreme sweeping powers,” says one. “That’s what’s great about a symphony, right? This massive sound, all these players, these fine musicians—and you’re directing them all. It’s the ultimate power trip.” Though Sanford’s defamation suit is ostensibly an attempt to salvage his reputation, some of his musicians call it union-busting. They note the six orchestra members being sued constitute the players’ committee, an elected union body. Those musicians did not write the report and, say a number of insiders, played no part in its circulation.

Woefully negative responses to surveys on Sanford’s leadership triggered a vote in June on whether the players should demand his resignation. Of the 46 deemed eligible to

participate according to union criteria, which exclude amateur part-timers, three abstained; the rest voted for his immediate departure. (Sanford says he is aware that the meeting took place, but he notes that it “was not the entire orchestra in attendance—there were lots of people who didn’t go.”) That vote led the players’ committee to seek a steward’s report, which in draft form it presented to its membership. It was this document that

made its way to Sanford. “It was slipped under the door of the symphony office,” one musician says. Another blames orchestra “spies.”

Sanford denies the report’s allegations. “This goes back way before my time,” he says. “They’ve got a chronic problem and it just seems to continue and it’s driven by a very small group that is perpetually unhappy.” He will remain until his contract expires—he won’t say when that is—and hopes the dispute will be resolved through mediation, now under way at the request of management.

Still, the musicians, many of whom fear the 75-year-old orchestra won’t survive the conflict, are in a bind. If mediation breaks down, says Nicholas Stooshinoff, the lawyer representing the players, the defendants will likely enter a counterclaim detailing their objections to Sanford. “If that were to occur,” he says, “we’re just going to get into an endless circle of trying to hurt each other”—a process, Stooshinoff notes, that will be periodically disrupted by rehearsals and performances. “It’s just not a workable situation.” Still, perhaps there will be applause—and some visiting virtuoso, impressed with a solo, will drag a defendant alongside Sanford, the plaintiff, to share in Saskatoon’s applause. M