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Wednesday, July 2, 2008 12:53 pm

Same song, second verse

Illinois Symphony Chorus sings requiem for yet another departed conductor

For the second time in three years, the volunteer vocalists of the Illinois Symphony Chorus have lost their leader to an unhappy departure. Richard Robert Rossi, who joined the ISO in August 2005, shortly after the board terminated the employment of previous chorus conductor Marion van der Loo, surprised ISO executives by tendering his resignation on May 13 [“Cap City,” May 29].
“It’s a devastating loss, because he’s so wonderful,” says a six-year-veteran chorus soprano who asked to have her name withheld. “I have sung [professionally] in New York, and I have never worked with a director who is more gifted than Richard. He’s extraordinary.”
Music director Karen Lynne Deal and the ISO’s board of directors initially declined to accept Rossi’s resignation and, during the month of June, tried to negotiate a new contract that would entice the 45-year-old conductor/counter-tenor/composer/keyboardist to stay. After a few offers and counter-offers, the board decided that Rossi’s financial demands were more than ISO could allocate from its $1 million budget.
Board president John Wohlwend announced the end of Rossi’s tenure in an e-mail sent to some chorus members on June 23, telling the vocalists that Deal and ISO executive director Cheryl Snyder had “worked tirelessly in an attempt to retain Richard” but that negotiations had stalled after Rossi requested “a sizeable monetary increase . . . which is far above the usual and customary remuneration for this position.”
Rossi, who is also the director of orchestral and choral activities at Eastern Illinois University and organist at First Presbyterian Church in Champaign, began his term with ISO at a salary of $11,500 per season. In 2006 his salary was increased to $12,500, but it shrank the following year when ISO began paying him on a “per-service” basis. During negotiations, ISO offered to raise his wages by $10 per service, or about $360 per season. Rossi responded by requesting a salary of $16,500 — a demand that ISO refused without making a counter-offer. Wohlwend’s e-mail to chorus members concluded with an invitation to meet with him on June 27 at a church just south of downtown Springfield, and about a dozen of the 78 chorus members showed up. The sparse turnout was attributed to an incomplete e-mail list, high emotions, and short notice, according to some chorus members. The church where the meeting was scheduled to take place wasn’t open, and the group had to move to the lobby of a nearby high-rise, where tenants walked past their group.
“In addition to our all having heavy hearts, to have to meet in a public place about something so private — it was very peculiar,” the soprano says.
Wohlwend, Deal, Snyder, and a handful of board members were present to answer questions, and singers say the administrators also encouraged them to begin raising funds to support their chorus. The unpaid singers already provide their own dresses and tuxedos and sometimes their musical scores. In return, they get one or two vouchers per concert, entitling friends or family to a $10 discount off the ticket price. “That wasn’t really a big issue for most of us — we’re happy to do it,” one soprano says, “but we got the feeling we’re not really sure they want the chorus to continue.”
Snyder didn’t return a reporter’s call, and Wohlwend declined to be interviewed for this story. In response to an e-mail seeking comment, Wohlwend wrote: “I would have no other information to provide other than the information you have already presented in your article in the May 29, 2008, issue of the Illinois Times.”
In a written statement, Deal said, “I was very disappointed that Richard made the decision to resign. He did a wonderful job with the chorus and we were all looking forward to the Brahms Requiem and Messiah, which we had planned together. Many of us worked for over six weeks trying to get him to reconsider. It is an especially difficult and emotional time for the chorus members since their relationship with him was very close — this is what troubles me the most at this point, that they are going through this. I am now working on reprogramming the Brahms concert, but I am still looking for a way to keep Messiah on the season.”
Rossi likewise declined to be interviewed, other than to address the implication in Wohlwend’s communiqué to chorus members that his resignation was based on greed. “If it was true that I had resigned exclusively for the issue of money I would not have taken the position three years ago when the board and Karen clearly indicated that the salary was low,” Rossi wrote in an e-mail. He quoted his father — a Juilliard-educated vocalist who has performed on Broadway — who advised him to “follow the goodness of your heart” and allow his actions to speak for themselves. “My Dad is right,” Rossi wrote.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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