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After the storm: the RPO's future 

As everyone interested in the RPO knows by now, the orchestra community has been torn by conflict centering on Arild Remmereit, a conflict that has exploded since the board terminated his contract in November (a decision I continue to agree with).

Remmereit supporters blame the board – particularly board president Betsy Rice – and the RPO's CEO, Charlie Owens. They say that the board has not supported Remmereit and his initiatives – and that Owens and board leaders have been trying to get rid of Remmereit since he got here. Board leaders and their supporters say that Remmereit is the problem, that he has been harshly and openly critical of RPO staff and some musicians. And, they say, attempts to help him change that behavior have not succeeded.

The orchestra's musicians are also divided, with some supporting the board and some supporting Remmereit. And unfortunately, mistrust has been building among them as well.

While word of the discord had been circulating for several months, it broke into public view with a September 30 article by Stuart Low in the Democrat and Chronicle. In it, Low discussed what he had learned from insiders about the growing conflict. And he quoted from a confidential report by Craviso & Associates, a New York City-based labor-relations firm that does a lot of work for symphony orchestras and their boards.

As Low noted, RPO board leaders hired Craviso to help them deal with the conflict. Craviso interviewed Remmereit and Owens, as well as some board members, musicians, and RPO administrative staff members.

The Craviso report said there was severe discord throughout the RPO, and it outlined the history of that discord and recommended solutions.

The board's leaders say they followed Craviso's advice, but that the discord, and Remmereit's confrontational behavior and unwillingness to cooperate, continued. And they say that when the majority of board members decided that the situation showed no signs of improving, they voted to terminate Remmereit's contract.

Remmereit's supporters – including some who have been closely involved in the situation – disagree strongly with that assessment. During a January 10 meeting hosted by Remmereit supporters, former board members Gwen Sterns and Kishan Pandya – both of whom resigned over the conflict – charged that the board leadership's handling of the conflict has been one-sided, aimed at Remmereit and ignoring concerns about Owens; that RPO funds were wasted on consultants; and that board members who questioned the leadership's action were attacked and ostracized.

And in an interview with me this past weekend, Pandya elaborated. Like other Remmereit supporters, Pandya is convinced that the board leadership wanted to get rid of Remmereit early on. The board's executive committee has acted unilaterally in some key respects, he said. For instance, the Craviso report states that the rift on the board must be healed and that the board's executive committee "must achieve unanimity on the course of action going forward."

"It is the responsibility of this Executive Committee," says the report, "to insure that their consensus translates into a firm commitment from the Board of Directors."

Instead, Pandya said in the interview, the executive committee moved ahead on its own, starting to implement Craviso's recommendations before even showing the report to the rest of the board.

And when he and others objected, Pandya said, they were shouted down and told that they were "out of order."

In subsequent meetings related to the conflict, board leaders' discussions were weighted against Remmereit, Pandya said. "A long litany of charges were laid out against Arild," Pandya said, "and none against Charlie. There was not a single incident at any board meeting or the informational sessions where the two were treated as equals."

Board leaders have said that while there was conflict between Owens and Remmereit, Owens worked to remedy it. The conflicts with Remmereit, however, continued, the board leaders say, to that point that some administrative staff resigned.

Among many patrons of the RPO's classical music concerts, the board's decision has ignited anger. Remmereit and his programming have been extremely popular, and the orchestra has been performing beautifully.

His supporters have pushed hard for him, signing petitions, holding a public meeting, writing letters to newspapers, and arguing that the wrong person has been under fire: that Remmereit should be kept and supported, and that CEO Owens should be fired and board chair Betsy Rice should be replaced.

There's little indication that any of that will happen. Remmereit and the RPO are in negotiations over how and when to end their relationship. The RPO has a plan for securing guest-conductor replacements if he doesn't complete this concert season, says RPO spokesperson Mark Berry, and it's in the process of planning next year's season, selecting the music and securing guest conductors. Those guest conductors will include people who could be considered for appointment as the RPO's next music director, Mark Berry says.

This week's annual meeting, then, could serve as a turning point. But it could also turn out to be such an emotionally charged event that it deepens the very real hostility in the larger RPO community. That will not help the orchestra, and it's the orchestra that all RPO supporters should be thinking about right now.

The difference in opinion about the RPO is deep and emotional. And it is sincere. The primary interest of both sides is the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra; I don't have any doubt about that. But it may be worth fleshing out some pieces in this story.

Immediately after Stuart Low's September 30 story on the conflict, I started hearing concern from some RPO insiders that the article was one-sided.

I tried repeatedly to get a copy of the Craviso report, and was unsuccessful, until last week. The full report is at the end of this column. Readers can form their own conclusion, but to me, it bears out much of what board leaders have said, in terms of the genesis of the problem. According to the report, conflicts developed at the outset between Remmereit and other parts of the RPO family – not just between Remmereit and Owens but also between Remmereit and members of Owens' staff and between Remmereit and board members.

And while the report contains criticisms of Owens and of the RPO board, the majority relate to Remmereit.

Those problems developed almost at the very beginning. Remmereit, who was appointed in September 2010, didn't assume his role as music director until the 2011-2012 season. But in his capacity as director-designate, he began working with the RPO during the previous season, planning his first year. Some of that was done long-distance, while he was still in Vienna, but in December 2010, he came to Rochester and visited the RPO offices. And on that visit, according to the report, "there were a series of exchanges between the Maestro and certain members of the administrative staff."

Following that, says the report, "The board concluded that the behaviors exhibited by the Music Director were in conflict with RPO values and unacceptable and placed Maestro Remmereit on notice that such behaviors were inconsistent with RPO values."

In February 2011, the board chair, who was then Suzanne Welch, "requested Maestro Remmereit to agree to a set of principles and guidelines for the future," says the report. Remmereit the report says, didn't "acknowledge any inappropriate behavior," didn't agree to Welch's request, and didn't agree to help build a "more collaborative environment within the administrative staff."

The board was concerned enough then that it discussed the issue and "the potential adverse impact it was having on the ability of the organization to function effectively going forward."

In the end, says the report, "the board reaffirmed the appointment of Maestro Remmereit," but Remmereit has believed since then that the review showed that the board chair and Owens were trying to get rid of him.

Some of Remmereit's supporters insist that his opponents have exaggerated his aggressive style and that he should be applauded for pushing for excellence at the RPO. And some argue that his style is simply one of artistic temperament, something that often goes with the territory and has been the case with some previous talented music directors. Pandya also suggests that Remmereit's accent and English skills may have caused staff to misinterpret his behavior.

Whether he was too aggressive or not, the Craviso report says that his comments about the competency of some administrative staff members led to four of them resigning, all citing "the vocal critical opinions of the Music Director" as a "significant reason" for leaving.

Remmereit's supporters counter that the turnover on the administrative staff began long before Remmereit's arrival: that it dates from Owens' arrival in 2007. Many members of the administrative staff had left before Remmereit was hired, Pandya said in his interview with me, "but when a few people left because of Arild it was made into a huge problem."

The Craviso report's comments about Remmereit aren't entirely negative. It notes that while many musicians were concerned at first about Remmereit's "approach and style," after working with him for the first season, they had found him "exciting and challenging."

"While his style is direct and in some instances critical," the report says, "overall the Musicians' experience has been a positive one; many feel he listens to their feedback and makes adjustments based on the feedback; and that the new repertoire he is bringing to them is a welcome artistic challenge."

And, the report said, "there is no question that he has made a positive impact on musicians, music making, and the Rochester community. He has shaken up the repertoire, been aggressive in promoting the RPO, and is fully engaged with the RPO's efforts to create new sources of funding. His enthusiasm for the RPO is evident in the way he speaks and in his actions in support of the organization."

"He is," says the report, "an important asset to the RPO."

But Craviso also adds that as the consultant's analysis was nearing an end, there was a confrontation between Remmereit and the Orchestra Committee's chair. That "raises the question," says the report, of whether Remmereit's "aggressive and confrontational behavior" was now spreading to his interaction with the musicians. The situation, says the report, should be "monitored."

It would be understandable if Remmereit's concern about his future caused its own stress. Recently, some musicians have expressed dissatisfaction with Remmereit and have supported the board's action terminating him. The Orchestra Committee, which represents the musicians, saying that the musicians "stand in support of our Board of Directors and Administrative Staff as we move forward together." But others obviously still support Remmereit.

In the January 10 meeting of his supporters, violinist John Sullivan gave an impassioned plea that Remmereit be kept on. Sullivan said he has been "musically inspired" by Remmereit.

"This decision to turn our backs on Arild's talent and vision," Sullivan said, "has inflicted a serious wound on the collective psyche of our RPO family that will be very slow to heal – if, in fact, it ever does."

And on Monday, I received a long, detailed letter from RPO cellist Ingrid Bock, expressing strong support for Remmereit and saying that her own opinion and that of other pro-Remmereit musicians were not considered. The Orchestra Committee's statement implied that the musicians were united when they are not, Bock says. I also received a strong letter supporting the RPO board's action from Doug Prosser, the RPO's principal trumpet. I have posted much of both letters on our website.

A key figure in the conflict, certainly, is CEO Charlie Owens, whose resignation many Remmereit supporters are demanding. The report says that some board members believe that Owens "does not possess the skills and leadership qualities required of the institution given its current challenges." It says that some musicians felt Owens was "too detached from them and their work and does not demonstrate an appreciation or knowledge of their contributions or the problems they may be having." And, it says, some musicians say Owens hasn't been visible "at rehearsals or after performances."

But the report also includes some complimentary statements about him. Owens became the RPO's CEO "at a challenging time," says the report, with the RPO (like many arts organizations) under financial stress because of the national economy. Under Owens leadership," the report says, the RPO "has met those challenges better than most other orchestras in like circumstances."

In a survey of RPO employees, his staff had positive opinions about him, the report says.

Craviso's report emphasizes that both Owens and Remmereit are valuable and that replacing either of them would be difficult, and it says the board should make every attempt to resolve the conflict and keep them both. But it also says that the board should have timelines and benchmarks, and that by the end of 2012, the board should "reassess the situation" and make any decision "it determines is appropriate."

Craviso's report is dated May 14, 2012. Since then, the conflict on the board and among RPO supporters has continued, as has the push to keep Remmereit in Rochester. At this point, that seems unlikely. But the dissidents' other focus is replacing Owens and the members of the RPO board. Leaders of the dissidents are urging supporters to show up at Wednesday's annual meeting, where about a third of the RPO's board members will be elected.

The RPO board is presenting a slate of eight nominees, six of whom are currently on the board. Under the RPO's bylaws, the deadline for presenting an opposition slate was October 21, but the dissidents say they believe the bylaws provide for an alternate slate in some circumstances. Remmereit's termination after the nomination deadline, they say, is grounds for a contested election.

And they say that if they are not permitted to offer their slate for a vote, they'll pursue legal action.

The organization and its orchestra are now entering a significant period – one that may give everyone involved time to reassess and move forward. One thing is clear: the board majority that voted to terminate Remmereit will continue to be the majority. Even if dissidents are able to elect a full slate this week, they'll be in the minority.

They may very well still be in the minority, in fact, when the board chooses Remmereit's successor, assuming that the board will want to make its selection within the next 12 to 18 months.

But even as a minority, the dissidents will have an important voice, privately and publicly. Their concerns, and their deep support for the orchestra, could make them valuable board members. And in any organization, differences of opinion are not only positive, they are essential. But everybody will have to move past the current rancor and figure out how to get along.

Despite this season's turmoil, the next year and a half could be an exciting one for audiences. Some of the guest conductors we see may very well be prospective candidates for the music director's position. So unless lawsuits start surfacing, prolonging the conflict, this next period has the potential to be a positive one. But a lot of things will have go to right.

For one thing, the board must recommit to the new musical path that they started down when they hired Remmereit. And they must do that not only in words but in deed. The dissidents charge that board leaders don't like Remmereit's innovative programing. As board leaders look for a new music director, they must bring in candidates who embrace a new direction and have a record of innovation with other orchestras.

The board must seek candidates with some experience as a music director. This position – which Remmereit had never held – involves more than leading an orchestra and selecting programs. It is a management position, requiring specific skills and temperament. And in American orchestras, it is a position that is responsible to a board of directors. Music directors must work with the board and with their orchestra's administrative leaders – who have increasingly difficult financial demands. It is not a position that permits unilateral decisions.

Second, all board members must conduct themselves appropriately. While three Remmereit supporters have resigned from the board, several others remain. Some of the former board members say they were treated disrespectfully, to put it mildly. That doesn't serve anyone, least of all the orchestra. And bitter infighting on the board will hurt the RPO's ability to hire a talented, innovative music director who is willing to take risks.

The RPO musicians have their own burden: rising above the tension, overcoming the division within their own ranks, and reminding concert-goers that as important as a music director is, they are the heart of the RPO and they can produce beautiful music under a variety of conductors.

The musicians have recently signed a new contract, agreeing once again to pay cuts. That's both an emotional and a financial investment in the RPO. And it's an expression of their own interest in the orchestra and their faith in its future in this community. That needs to be foremost in the minds of board members and concert-goers on both sides of this conflict.

Some Remmereit supporters have urged concert-goers to withhold their financial support and stop going to the concerts, even if they've already bought tickets. I'm not sure who that would hurt other than the musicians. The RPO board certainly knows the depth of unhappiness over this conflict.

Seems to me that everyone interested in a healthy RPO future would be doing everything possible now to support the musicians – and to insure that the orchestra is able to hire the best new music director it can find.

Additional Materials

Click here to read the full Craviso Report

Click here to read letters by musicians Ingrid Bock and Douglas Prosser

Click here to watch a video of the Remmereit supporters' January 10 meeting - which includes statements by former board members Kishan Pandya and Gwen Sterns and RPO violinist John Sullivan

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