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Thursday, June 30, 2005 06:34 am

Discord in the Symphony

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COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY GINNY LEE

If it had happened at a basketball game or a beauty pageant or a spelling bee, it might not have merited a second thought. But in the refined, tuxedoed world of symphony orchestras, where etiquette follows forms etched more than a century ago, an artist taking a bow at the end of a problematic performance cannot mutter an angry remark to the symphony maestra. Nor should the artist take her pretty congratulatory bouquet — presented, as always, by the Symphony Guild — and toss it to the floor as soon as she’s offstage, especially if Guild members are right there watching.

Nobody knows this better than Marion van der Loo, the widely respected conductor who led the Illinois Symphony Orchestra Chorus for 12 years before being abruptly fired on May 2. At the time, ISO officials said only that the governing board had voted to “change the leadership direction of the chorus next year.”

However, a few clues to the board’s reasoning were released June 14, when John Newcomb, the orchestra’s former executive director, sent chorus members a letter describing van der Loo’s muttered remark and flower-flinging fit — committed in the aftermath of Illinois Symphony Orchestra’s April 2 performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Requiem” — as “totally inappropriate.”

The letter also includes Newcomb’s analysis of the Concert Comments speech given by Maestra Karen Lynne Deal, music director of the ISO, just before the “Requiem.” Newcomb states that Deal described van der Loo’s singers as “mostly” white, middle-aged, and Midwestern (and therefore challenged by the rock & roll section of the piece) but says that his survey of a dozen concertgoers proved that these comments weren’t derogatory. Chorus fans say that Newcomb softened Deal’s words (they say that she said “too white, too middle-aged, too Midwestern”) and insist that her speech was every bit as inappropriate as van der Loo’s postperformance snit.

This whole spat might have been much ado about nothing were it not for the long history of tension between van der Loo and Deal. Dating back to at least January 2003, it revolves around such esoteric questions as whether it’s appropriate for a conductor to chastise unpaid choristers in public and whether Mozart’s “Coronation Mass” is as musically satisfying as Verdi’s “Requiem.”

These issues apparently stumped even the ISO’s governing board. Over the years, various chorus members sent letters to the board asking for help in resolving the conflict between the orchestra conductor and the choral director, but these letters were seldom answered or acknowledged. Similarly, van der Loo says that she sought meetings with board members but was usually rebuffed, leaving her no way to speak for herself.

With no resolution, the tension grew until subtle slights turned into final straws.

“My life was hell that week,” says van der Loo, referring to the series of rehearsals before the Webber “Requiem,” “and it has been hell for at least three years. I guess I should’ve known that I would snap at some point.”

Yet it took not just dismissal but the added sting of Newcomb’s letter, six weeks later, to give the choral director her voice.

“I have to say ‘ouch.’ I am confounded that there are people who think I haven’t lost enough or been humiliated enough or devastated enough,” van der Loo says.

“My heart feels broken, my spirit feels broken, and I feel as if there are people delighting in it and dancing on my grave. It’s venom that is beyond my ken.”

To most people, the worst part of getting fired is financial. To van der Loo, the lost income — though certainly hurtful — pales next to the loss of her musical instrument. Without a chorus to conduct, she’s like a violinist without a violin, a guitarist without an ax.

“The money part is probably the very last thing on the list,” says van der Loo, who is an adjunct professor of voice at Millikin University. “The first thing was the chorus. The second thing was the opportunity that gave me to make music.

“Music is who I am. It’s not all I love, but it’s what I love professionally, and my profession is seven-tenths of who I am.”

Van der Loo received her bachelor’s degree in opera performance from Temple University in Philadelphia. She had been making her living for more than 10 years as a mezzo-soprano when part-time jobs leading a church choir and a chorus of 180 schoolkids convinced her that her true passion lay in conducting. She returned to Temple and earned her master’s degree, then began work on her doctorate at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. But when the ISO needed a new choral director and called UIUC seeking applicants, one of van der Loo’s conducting professors recommended her for the job.

Van der Loo auditioned in 1991. Ken Kiesler, who was then musical director of the ISO, has no trouble recalling the impression she made in the interview before she ever lifted her baton.

“Marion had a very strong command of languages, diction, and pronunciation. There were other [applicants] who could say the words, but she had a real love of the words. She displayed the meaning on her face when she read the words,” Kiesler says from his home in Michigan, where he directs the orchestral program for the University of Michigan. “So that was the first sign of something good, because good conductors bring what’s on the page to life. . . .

“Since that time I’ve auditioned hundreds of conductors, and the one who stands out is always the one who has a personal resonance with the music,” he says. “She offered helpful and concise vocal direction, she was clearly motivated by the music, and she also made people feel comfortable. She was clearly the one.”

Her residency at UIUC made it impossible for her to accept the job that year, but in 1993 the ISO forged an agreement with First Presbyterian Church to jointly hire van der Loo. Under this arrangement, she would devote 25 percent of her time to the ISO chorus and 75 percent of her time to the church choir, and the two organizations would pay corresponding portions of her salary.

Because of this somewhat unique situation, van der Loo’s place in the ISO organizational chart had her reporting to the executive director, not the musical director. But as anyone who has worked with a symphony orchestra knows, the musical director is the artistic top dog, the ultimate authority on everything from who gets to play in the orchestra to what repertoire the group performs. For this reason, van der Loo knew that, as chorus director, she would always be second fiddle to whomever was leading the orchestra — and that was fine by her.

“That’s the nature of the job,” she says.

She found a kindred spirit in Kiesler. Having earned his master’s degree in choral conducting, Kiesler loved the kind of big musical works that combined orchestra and chorus. In fact, when he was hired by the ISO in 1985, the organization had no chorus, so he established one. In planning each season’s concert schedule, he began by slotting in performances that would include the chorus, then scheduled all the smaller concerts around them. And every season he ensured that the ISO Chorus would have plenty of meaty music to sing, because the music is the only payment singers receive.

“With choristers, their emotional involvement is the way they measure the experience,” Kiesler says. “Their enjoyment of rehearsals, their camaraderie, their musical satisfaction, and the big payoff of a concert — that is why they do it.”

Once the repertoire was set, Kiesler and van der Loo would get together and pore over each score measure by measure, marking tempos, phrasing, and pronunciations — usually in complete agreement. But even though they were in sync musically, they occasionally clashed. Kiesler, by all accounts, reigned as a consummate musician with an artistic temperament to match.

“Ken’s style was kind of explosive,” recalls former ISO board president Fred Stericker. “He would get mad, get it off his chest, get it over with.”

“He could be difficult at times,” says van der Loo, “but the minute I would sit down and watch him work, it didn’t matter. He’s just so utterly passionate about what he’s doing, and he’s so incredibly good at it.”

Just 26 when he was hired by the ISO, Kiesler says that he matured during his two decades here. “If you ask the right people, you could get a list of all the things that I did wrong,” he says. “I was a very different person when I left.”

During his last few years here, Kiesler commuted between Springfield and Ann Arbor while the ISO searched for a suitable replacement. The 1999-2000 season consisted entirely of concerts coordinated by Kiesler but conducted by finalists for the job — concerts that, to keep the playing field level, could not include the ISO Chorus. To keep the singers involved, Kiesler added to the schedule a separate stand-alone concert featuring the chorus with a small chamber orchestra and asked van der Loo plan the program. It was like handing her a treasure.

“It has been a love for me,” she says.

The first chorus concert was such a success that ISO made it a permanent addition to the schedule. Van der Loo had already planned her concert for the 2005-2006 season to feature Gabriel Fauré’s “Requiem.”

“I assume they’ll have somebody else do it, which kind of bothers me, because it’s my program,” she says, “but I no longer have a say over anything.”

ISO musical director Karen Lynne Deal insists that she had nothing to do with van der Loo’s firing — she wasn’t consulted and didn’t know about it in advance, she says. “The people that are unhappy about this are trying to make it a Marion/Karen issue, but it’s not,” Deal says, emphasizing that she could not have been involved because the ISO organizational chart did not give her direct authority over van der Loo.

But orchestra and chorus members have ample reason to assume that Deal wanted to get rid of van der Loo. The discord between the two conductors is widely known and extensively documented.

Their relationship started off harmoniously. Van der Loo, who was informally included in the search committee, thought that Deal was the strongest candidate to replace Kiesler. In the summer of 2000, during one of Deal’s initial visits from Nashville, where she was associate conductor of the symphony for eight years, she stayed an extra day just to watch van der Loo conduct Mozart’s “Requiem.”

“I was very flattered that she stayed,” van der Loo says.

When Deal accepted the job, in the fall of 2000, van der Loo drove her around Springfield, house-hunting, and hooked her up with a good real-estate agent.

But it didn’t take long for problems to develop. When budget concerns forced the ISO to cancel some pieces planned for the 2003-2004 season — including the Verdi “Requiem” — chorus members believed that they saw a pattern developing in which their performance role was being steadily diminished. Replacing the Verdi with a bit of Mozart failed to placate the group.

“I must say in all honesty that the ‘Coronation Mass,’ one of Mozart’s less memorable works, is quite a letdown,” mezzo-soprano Julianne Glatz wrote in a Feb. 20, 2003, letter to then-executive director Maureen Earley. Not only was it “well below the technical level of which the chorus is capable,” but it was also short on choral substance, with only about 15 minutes of singing, according to the letter.

Glatz, a former member of the of the Chicago Symphony Chorus and a charter member of the ISO chorus, went on to warn that more symphony seasons without consequential chorus music would drive the volunteer singers away.

“I am absolutely convinced that if the amount and quality of programming for the chorus does not substantially increase, the Illinois Symphony Chorus will cease to exist in the very near future,” she wrote.

A few months later, a group of 19 chorus members met to brainstorm ways to improve the chorus. Some ideas, such as having section leaders and marked score copies, were aimed at enhancing performances. But most of the discussion focused on what Glatz, in a follow-up letter to chorus members, called “the marginalization of the chorus.”

And even though Glatz’s report of the meeting contains no blatant complaint about Deal, it’s clear that a communication gap yawned between the orchestra director and the chorus.

“There was a general consensus that the chorus should have a relationship with Karen Deal and the ISO organization that would allow for expression of these problems,” Glatz wrote.

On June 2, 2003, chorus members met with ISO board member Rex Schaeffer, who described himself in a letter to Glatz as the chair of a newly formed “conductor liaison committee.” Notes of the meeting show that Schaeffer and the choristers found little common ground (Schaeffer encouraged them to recruit more singers; the choristers said that they couldn’t recruit singers when there was so little music to sing). Schaeffer presented a packet purporting to prove that the chorus was singing more than ever, but the choristers discounted this analysis because it gave short, simple four-minute church anthems the same weight as sophisticated half-hour collaborations with the full orchestra.

One thing everyone agreed on, though: Deal and van der Loo weren’t getting along. According to a log of this meeting, “[Schaeffer] noted the lack of trust and poor communication between the two directors. He stated this was not a productive relationship for the organization.”

But that fruitless session was apparently the first and last meeting of the conductor liaison committee. The problems were acknowledged but not solved.

Six months later, the tension boiled over in front of the entire orchestra, the chorus, and a guest handbell choir. Deal was presiding over a rehearsal for the holiday pops concert, and when it came time for the chorus to sing “Carol of the Bells,” the altos came in flat. Deal lit into the chorus and van der Loo, complaining that the singers had not been properly rehearsed.

Whether Deal overreacted or simply dished out criticism that the singers deserved depends on whom you ask. But Deal herself apparently felt compelled to explain her behavior and came to the next night’s rehearsal armed with a typed statement that she read, from the podium, to the chorus.

It said, in part:

“The source of my frustration last night and previously has not been your lack of devotion or talent. I feel powerless when the music is not adequately prepared. This is out of my control and yours, therefore, we all feel frustrated because we know it can be better.”

She then chastised the chorus for the meetings that had taken place months earlier:

“I was quite personally stunned and hurt by actions taken in the name of the symphony chorus this summer. . . . Some among you went over my head in a letter-writing campaign to the Board to express your grievances. . . . This was not only unprofessional, but represented you as far less than I know you can be. It was also personally hurtful.”

Stericker, who was president of the ISO board at that time, remembers that Deal’s comments during the pops rehearsal provoked a firestorm not only from singers but also from orchestra members.

“There were a lot of phone calls, a lot of e-mails, a lot of letters came from a lot of people,” Stericker says. “It was a very time-consuming several months when all of this was bubbling up, creating a lot of emotion and taking a lot of energy out of people, I’m sure.”

Stericker says that the board sent Deal some sort of letter explaining how they wanted to move on, but Stericker declines to elaborate. “I don’t want to comment any further,” he says.

When the two conductors collaborated again, on Webber’s “Requiem,” the outcome was even worse.

van der Loo says she learned that she would be preparing the Webber work when a symphony newsletter arrived in the mail. Deal had not consulted or informed her of the repertoire chosen for the 2004-2005 season.

Best known for its lovely soprano/boy-soprano duet “Pie Jesu,” the “Requiem” is actually a modern, atonal piece with grating dissonances, sudden screeches, and shifting meters. Van der Loo calls it “probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever taught the chorus.” At rehearsals with the orchestra days before the performance, van der Loo says, Deal told the chorus that they were singing the entire section wrong.

But that wasn’t the only problem. Besides orchestra and chorus, the piece calls for a children’s choir and an organ. Because neither venue where the orchestra performs (Illinois State University’s Braden Auditorium in Bloomington and the Sangamon Auditorium) has such an instrument, a donated organ was brought in.

At the first performance, in Bloomington, the sound-system balance went awry. After that concert, Deal told van der Loo to be ready to handle any similar problems at the Springfield performance. So the next night, van der Loo went to the control booth. Midway through the performance, the speaker system began to hiss and hum. The noise (later found to be caused by a faulty cable) became so loud that Deal stopped between movements, gesturing to the stage manager.

For performers, this kind of unplanned, unexplained pause can be excruciating. For van der Loo, who has no training or experience with sophisticated speaker systems, the realization that she was supposed to fix this problem made the awkward lull even worse.

“It was horrifying,” she says. “I was, like, ‘What’s going on? There is nothing we can do about it, whatever it is.’ I was in a cold sweat.”

By the time she was called onstage for bows, van der Loo was furious. She turned to Deal and asked, under her breath, what had happened with the sound system. The obligatory congratulatory bouquet was more than van der Loo could bear.

“I had just been through a week of compressed criticism and accusations and slights and humiliation and blame for things over which I had absolutely no control,” she says, “and when they handed me the flowers, it seemed like this painful irony — a gesture of congratulations when I knew exactly what had been thought of my work. So I threw them away.”

It’s one flick of the wrist she would take back in a heartbeat, if she could.

“Obviously I’ve relived and regretted it,” she says. “I feel terrible about it.

There’s something about Marion van der Loo that inspires intense loyalty and affection among most of her choristers. They talk about how knowledgeable she is, how dedicated, how patient. For example, Joanne Hott, a veteran music teacher herself, can’t come up with anything negative to say about van der Loo.

“I think she’s an extraordinarily wonderful musician,” Hott says. “I wanted to sing for her because I knew she did good music well. You don’t often find a conductor who’s as professional as she is. We never had a negative reaction from her. She was always trying to accomplish things in a tactful way. I was really delighted to have this experience with her.”

Yet somehow, van der Loo’s popularity seems to have worked against her. In off-the-record conversations, van der Loo’s detractors portray her supporters as brainwashed groupies (they have been dubbed Marionettes). In the days and weeks after her termination, they protested her dismissal, creating a Web site that embarrassed van der Loo, who finally persuaded the site’s creators to take it down.

It was the messages on that site that John Newcomb, who recently resigned as executive director of the ISO, was responding to with his June 14 letter. Besides revealing van der Loo’s flower fiasco (unseen by the audience and most of the musicians), Newcomb defended Deal’s Concert Comments in which she talked about the chorus’s age and lack of racial diversity.

“There were a few choral [spouses] telling what they thought they heard, and I wanted to let them know what really happened from my point of view,” Newcomb says.

But his conclusion that 10 audience members told him that Deal’s remarks were not derogatory doesn’t convince chorus and orchestra veterans, who have witnessed Deal’s ability to pad a seemingly positive speech with subtle barbs. Her 2003 holiday-pops lecture that provoked so many letters was just one example; another appeared in a 2001 State Journal-Register article, shortly after Deal took over the orchestra:

“Good leadership has to start at the top,” Deal said, “and it is against human nature to respond to someone who is mean or condescending or egocentric or who doesn’t know what they’re doing.

“One of the things I’m enjoying about the Illinois Symphony Orchestra is that I’ve changed their work environment. The musicians now want to come to rehearsal. They want to practice. They enjoy playing their instruments again.”

Orchestra veterans recognize that seemingly upbeat statement as a swipe at Kiesler.

“That’s the steamingest pile of [excrement] I’ve ever heard,” says one musician, who requested anonymity for fear of losing his job. “Just hearing that she said that is pretty infuriating.”

Yet Kiesler is also the man on whom van der Loo’s detractors have relied to justify her firing. In the wake of protests about van der Loo’s termination, someone in the ISO released a 1998 letter Kiesler wrote van der Loo, chiding her for grumbling to the chorus about not being given music to rehearse for a holiday concert as early as she had hoped.

Newcomb says that this letter proves that van der Loo and Kiesler “did not have a good working relationship.” He admits, though, that he’s basing that assumption strictly on the memo; Newcomb has never actually talked to Kiesler himself.

Earlier this week Kiesler told Illinois Times he has mainly positive memories of van der Loo and doesn’t even remember writing the memo Newcomb referred to. After having the letter read aloud to him, Kiesler said that he must have written it at a time when he was aggravated. “Does that letter mean I’m not supportive of Marion? That she’s not a good conductor? No,” Kiesler says. “All it means is: Marion, don’t talk about those things in front of the chorus.”

In fact, Kiesler says, he called van der Loo the moment he heard she’d been fired.

“I was worried about her, so I asked if there’s anything I could do to support her,” he says. “I wrote a letter of recommendation for her for another position within the week.”

Van der Loo just hopes the controversy will end. “They’ve taken from me the love of my professional life, and it’s absolutely devastating to me,” she says. “I want them to know that it’s enough. They can stop now.”

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