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Thursday, May 14, 2009 11:56 am

Out of tune

Musicians aren’t the only Illinois Symphony players disenchanted with conductor Karen Lynne Deal

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Karen Lynne Deal and the Illinois Symphony Orchestra take their bows at the end of a recent performance of “The Planets,” which featured NASA footage projected onto a large movie screen above the musicians.
PHOTO BY DUSTY RHODES

Everybody in this story loves the Illinois Symphony Orchestra. The musicians who drive hundreds of miles from every corner of this state to play for $63 per performance love the orchestra; the board members who pony up $1,000 a year for the privilege of attending meetings and working at fundraisers love the orchestra; the bare-bones office staff who juggle budgets and logistics while massaging the egos of temperamental artistes and pretentious patrons loves the orchestra; and the same undoubtedly holds true for Karen Lynne Deal, the music director for almost a decade now, who considers herself to be synonymous with the symphony.

Over the years, though, some of the ISO’s staunch supporters have noticed an unsettling attrition among players, donors and key support staff. Some of these departures have been hard to miss — two chorus conductors left discordantly, and ultimately the 70-member chorus itself disbanded — but most of these music lovers slipped away silently. In the spring of 2004, then-executive director Maureen Earley resigned with her office staff for reasons that have never been made public. A similar exodus occurred in May last year, when the ISO’s board president resigned, along with a vice-president, most of the office workers, and the marketing consultant. About the same time, Earley’s successor, Cheryl Snyder, was demoted from executive director to a development post. Later last summer, when the ISO board offered the top management job to an orchestra executive from Florida, he declined.

Some musicians have severed ties with the orchestra since their beloved personnel manager, Kamen Petkov — a violinist who has played with the ISO since 1994 — was terminated in November. One longtime member of the ISO advisory board also resigned in protest.

What has caused so many people so passionate about music to give up on the only professional orchestra in town? It’s hard to know for sure, since several of the departed remain resolutely mum, but the ones willing to voice their disgruntlement unanimously blame music director Deal. Even the musicians have expressed unhappiness, holding a no-confidence vote that resulted in a 72-2 tally against their maestra. They’re now attempting to unionize.

Karen Lynne Deal
PHOTO BY TERRY FRAMER

In the past few weeks, Deal has not responded to a reporter’s request for comment on news of the musicians’ vote, nor has she been willing to answer questions for this story. ISO board president John Wohlwend says the conductor has his full support.

Deal and the ISO made some pretty sweet music together when she was hired in 2000. Deal, then 42, was the winner of the ISO’s two-year search to replace Ken Kiesler, who had led the orchestra since 1981. Her audition concert featured a flute concerto (Deal herself is a flutist); she made her debut as ISO music director that August at the Illinois State Fair Grandstand, conducting a smorgasbord of classical chestnuts and patriotic plums.

A native of Virginia, with a master’s degree in conducting from Virginia Commonwealth University and doctoral studies at Peabody Conservatory, she was associate conductor of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra for six years, and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra for eight years, where she established a popular annual concert tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., called “Let Freedom Ring!”

When the State Journal-Register interviewed her as a finalist for the ISO baton, Deal came off as charming, personable and almost folksy. “I am so opposed to the maestro myth,” she told the reporter. “If you present yourself as an intimidating figure, people aren’t going to want to approach you.”

Indeed, during her first few seasons here, Deal beguiled audiences with her publicity panache. The ISO’s Olympic-themed concert at the 2004 State Fair inspired U.S. Judge Richard Mills to write a glowing letter to the SJ-R, declaring that “Central Illinois is blessed to have Maestra Deal and this outstanding Illinois Symphony Orchestra.” For the 2005 Pops in the Park concert, Deal rode in on horseback. The following year, she arrived on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

Musicians, however, look to a conductor for musical guidance, and they say 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. Similarly, in the office, Deal would tell the staff that she knew how to do all their jobs better than they did. The real Deal was the opposite of the friendly finalist who had publicly denounced the maestro myth.

”Karen never seemed to respect anybody,” Spa says. “Her attitude was always, ‘I’m the conductor, I’m above you.’ ”

The first high-profile departure, Maureen Earley, has steadfastly declined to explain why she and her three-person staff resigned in 2004. However, before they left, they met with a group of musicians who made notes that they have kept in an e-mail archive. According to those notes, the staff felt unable to do their jobs because Deal had become “increasingly uncooperative,” refusing to communicate except via e-mail, not allowing them to arrange appearances or introduce her in public. According to the notes, the staff also believed that Deal had plans to restructure the organization to gain direct authority over the chorus conductor and personnel manager.

Marion van der Loo conducted the ISO chorus for 14 years before being fired in 2005.
PHOTO BY GINNY LEE
Richard Robert Rossi, ISO chorus conductor from 2005 through 2008, resigned after asking the board for a higher salary and more repertoire to conduct. The chorus itself was subsequently disbanded.

A year later, in May 2005, longtime chorus conductor Marion van der Loo was fired. Tensions between the two conductors had been festering for more than two years, and culminated in a fairly public exchange of unpleasantries after a concert in Bloomington [see “Discord in the symphony,” June 30, 2005]. Van der Loo’s successor, Richard Robert Rossi, believed he could get along with the maestra. “Karen made it clear that she doesn’t tolerate insubordination,” Rossi says. “She said we need to make sure that people know we’re on the same page.”

Since there can be only one conductor on stage at a time, Rossi’s job was often to “prepare” the chorus (teach the singers their parts), then step aside and let Deal conduct the performance. Occasionally, he was allowed to conduct the orchestra (or the smaller, more elite chamber orchestra) with his singers. Having signed on in August 2005 for the bargain wage of $11,500 plus gas money (Rossi commuted from Charleston, where he conducts several vocal and instrumental groups and teaches conducting at Eastern Illinois University) and getting no significant raises the first two years, he considered such performance opportunities to be his true salary.

”I was doing it because I really loved working with those musicians and those people. The Mozart ‘Requiem’ and the Durufle [‘Requiem’] were what got me through,” he says.

By his third season, however, that non-monetary stipend was dwindling. In a February 2008 e-mail with the subject line “next season,” Deal outlined the repertoire she planned for the orchestra and noted, “there is not anything for you to conduct next year.” She offered to allow Rossi to lead one performance of Handel’s “Messiah” (an audience favorite, but considered old-hat by serious singers) and a few pieces on the Holiday Pops concert.

Their disagreement spilled out during a staff meeting May 5 at St. Agnes Catholic Church, which ISO had just secured as its venue for chamber concerts. As key ISO personnel sat in the Parish Hall discussing the upcoming season, the two conductors argued over which performances Rossi would conduct. Spa, then-ISO’s special events coordinator and a member of St. Agnes, had negotiated the venue agreement, and she cringed as Deal lost her temper in the presence of the priest.

“She kind of threw a hissy fit and slammed down her pencil and said, ‘I’m so fucking tired of this’ and a few other profanities. I was just mortified,” Spa says. “She pretty much ended the meeting by storming out.”

Rossi and the other staff members went back to the office and reported the ugly scene to Joan Walters, who Rossi says, lent a sympathetic ear.

Walters — the former budget director for Gov. Jim Edgar and then-just-retired head of customer service for the city of Seattle’s electric utility — had come home to Springfield in 2005 and thrown herself into volunteer work, serving on the boards of the ISO and Lincoln Memorial Garden. In 2008, she stepped down from her position as vice president of marketing on the ISO board to serve as “transition coordinator” in the orchestra’s administrative office, where Cheryl Snyder had just been demoted. Snyder, a member of the ISO Guild and a close personal friend of Deal’s, had been interim executive director since 2005, but people who worked in the office say Snyder never appeared to be truly in charge.

Spa puts it bluntly: “I feel that Cheryl lacks leadership skills and basically was a puppet for what Karen wanted.”

For example, Deal insisted on approving every item that carried the ISO logo. “At one point she told me in a very angry, pushy way that . . . I was not to do anything that she did not see,” Spa says. “I understand that the music director is the face of the organization to the public, but I don’t see that the music director is the organization, and that statement was made several times by Karen and Cheryl.”

Karen Barber (she calls herself “the other one”), was president of the Springfield branch of the ISO Guild during the 2007-08 season and spent hours volunteering in the office. She says Walters stepped down from the ISO board and into the ISO office to provide administrative leadership.

The ISO board has three tiers: At the bottom are up to 60 “advisors” (one group in Springfield, another in Bloomington-Normal) who function chiefly as fundraisers. About 19 elected officers from the advisory boards and the two ISO Guilds (separate support organizations, formerly the “ladies auxiliaries”) form the board of directors. The top tier, called the executive committee, consists of six people — the presidents of both advisory boards plus two other directors from each region — and handles all personnel matters. Barber was a member of the middle rung; Walters was on the top tier.

Despite her stellar resume, however, even Walters ran into conflicts with Deal, especially over the design of the 2008-09 season brochure. On May 8, three days after Deal’s blowup with Rossi, Walters resigned as transition coordinator, resigned from the board, and cancelled the remainder of her season tickets. Jane Denes, who was then president of the ISO board, resigned almost simultaneously. Neither Walters nor Denes responded to requests for comment.

Barber, who co-chaired ISO’s 2008 fundraiser with Walters, sent her friend a lengthy e-mail expressing her frustration with the chaotic situation at ISO. Walters responded, “It was just best to walk away.”

Once Walters left, Spa says, the office atmosphere became so stressful that the thought of going to work made her physically ill. With no employment lined up, she quit her job (she soon landed a similar position with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra). Another office worker, Beth Wakefield, resigned a few weeks later. Rossi, who had been in the midst of contract negotiations, left after the board refused his request for a salary of $16,500.

Musicians don’t buy Rossi’s salary request as an excuse for his departure. Even though instrumentalists normally disdain choral conductors, orchestra members admired Rossi’s conducting skill, calling him “thoroughly prepared” and “vastly superior in musical knowledge” to Deal. “The orchestra could see: This guy’s a good musician,” says one veteran string player, asking that his name be kept confidential for fear of losing his job. “We liked him, we could talk to him, and it was immediately apparent that there was rapport. So it was only a matter of time; his days were numbered.”

Kamen Petkov, violinist and personnel manager for ISO, was offered $5,000 to keep quiet after he was fired from ISO last fall. He "proudly did not sign" the confidentiality agreement.
PHOTO BY DUSTY RHODES

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. “Some people tell me that I am born to do this,” he says.

ISO is a hodgepodge of players from several states, only some of whom have one-year contracts with the ISO. To field a full orchestra, Petkov usually had to bring in extra musicians, or “subs.” He lured them here with a reliable paycheck (he always made sure musicians got paid on time), personal charm, and, if necessary, vodka and cigarettes. He felt that he was personally responsible for making each player’s ISO experience a positive one.

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.

This obsession over where a musician sits might seem strange to anyone who hasn’t played in an orchestra or wind ensemble, but the etiquette is as ingrained in musicians as the intervals of a diatonic scale. Principal (or “first chair”) players are positioned closest to the front of the stage and handle all solos. The violin section is divided into two blocks (Petkov calls it “two acres of strings”) — the first violins, who occupy the front rows, and the second violins, who sit farther back. Any musician, whether on stage or in the audience, can look at the seating arrangement and immediately understand each player’s rank. Moving players who have never auditioned ahead of players who have is a blatant insult.

The seating-chart dispute led to a series of squabbles between Petkov and Deal. She criticized the way he filled out forms and missed office hours; he reminded her that he played ISO functions for free in exchange for time off. By April 2007, Deal was talking about demoting Petkov. In March 2008, she sounded exasperated. “I am routinely ignored by Kamen. Either I am the music director or I am not,” she wrote, in an e-mail addressed to both Snyder and Petkov. “Perhaps now is the time to consider hiring an operations manager and using Kamen as an hourly employee.”

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.

The musicians immediately launched an e-mail letter-writing campaign, sending more than 30 missives to board members with poignant stories of how Petkov had repaired a player’s car, scrounged up extra concert attire or provided a loaner instrument in a pinch. The nonprofit ISO board’s executive committee responded by presenting Petkov a one-way ticket home to Bulgaria plus the offer of $5,000 severance pay — in exchange for signing a confidentiality and “mutual non-disparagement” agreement. The agreement, which Petkov says he “proudly did not sign,” would have been nullified if any word of Petkov’s termination was leaked to the media, regardless of the source.

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.

“In hiring Kamen, one determining factor was how well-liked and respected he is by musicians throughout Illinois,” Furniss wrote in an e-mail to Illinois Times. “The response from our players to the hiring of Kamen . . . has been overwhelmingly positive.”

For the ISO musicians, who had tolerated Deal’s imperious attitude for almost a decade, the loss of the popular Petkov was “the drop of water that made the cup overflow.” Inspired by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s no-confidence vote in conductor Gerard Schwarz (the result was 61-8, and he is stepping down from the job in 2011) and having gotten a positive response to the idea in a telephone poll of contracted musicians, 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.”

He sent a four-man subcommittee (three board members plus an attorney) to meet with the players who had instigated the vote. The musicians arrived armed with a long list of specific examples of Deal’s ineptitude plus a request to perform regular evaluations of her skill (a common practice among orchestras worldwide). Wohlwend says that neither the list of examples nor the request for evaluation was passed on to him. “To me, that’s not a board of directors issue,” he says.

Some people describe the executive committee as impenetrable. Marion van der Loo, the chorus conductor fired in 2006, made numerous futile requests to meet with the small group; Rossi also asked to meet with the committee, succeeding only after he had submitted his resignation. Members of the lower advisory board have the same complaint.

One current board member, who asked not to be named, calls the ISO board “the silliest board I’ve ever been on,” and compares it to a cheerleading group. “I’ve never been on a board where we couldn’t vote on anything and couldn’t know anything,” the advisor says.

Richard McDaniel, who sang in the ISO chorus for 25 years and served 10 years on the advisory board, resigned that position earlier this year because of his discomfort with the top committee’s decisions. “There was significant staff turnover in the last couple of years, and we were never really given solid reasons for it,” he says.

He believes the orchestra musicians’ recent announcement of their intent to unionize is due to the opacity of the board’s top tier. “My biggest concern is that the leadership has been concentrated in a smaller and smaller group,” McDaniel says. “John Wohlwend and Karen Deal are seemingly running the group. There’s no protocol for conflict resolution within the organization.”

Karen Barber, the former ISO Guild president who resigned from the board a year ago, has held season tickets for so many years she remembers when they cost $10. She still attends performances, still houses musicians in her home, still loves the Illinois Symphony Orchestra.

In an e-mail last summer, she tried to alert the board to problems underlying the spate of resignations. “This is not acceptable, and the fact that we have sat around for a month and act like we just need to replace some counter workers at a retail outlet is an insult to the professionalism of our staff,” she wrote. In a separate e-mail, Barber told Wohlwend that she was declining an appointment to the ISO advisory board, “simply because I have no faith that this organization will deal with its problems.”

Wohlwend declined to comment. ”I’m a business person. I scrutinize the financials. I’m very analytical and I’m proud of that,” he says. “I look to where we’re going rather than where we’ve been.”

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