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Thursday, June 10, 2010 01:41 am

Raw Deal

Karen Lynne Deal opens up about leaving the Illinois Symphony Orchestra

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Karen Lynne Deal
PHOTO BY TERRY FARMER

Music director Karen Lynne Deal will be saying goodbye to the Illinois Symphony Orchestra at the end of the coming season, but the controversial maestra would prefer to stay if she could.

“I wish this wasn’t the way this was ending, because I feel like we’ve finally gotten the pieces of the puzzle together so I can focus on my work,” says Deal, who has worked at ISO for 10 years. “Now that we’ve got those pieces, the board has chosen to make a change.”

In a press release announcing Deal’s departure, ISO president Carole Ringer said Deal and the orchestra’s board of directors had come to a “mutual agreement to conclude her tenure,” characterizing the change as a shared decision. But Deal, asked why the decision was made to let her go, said she was only told she had become “a lightning rod for the negative.”

“I haven’t been given a clear answer as to why,” Deal says. “It’s a mutual decision because it was something that they suggested and I respect their position as leaders of the organization…. I’m totally heartbroken. This is my life’s work, and I thought that I had given it my all and done my very best.”

Deal says her departure is largely due to media reports by Illinois Times detailing discontent among some musicians in the orchestra [see “Out of tune,” by Dusty Rhodes, May 14, 2009, at illinoistimes.com]. That discontent led to a vote of no-confidence by musicians under Deal’s leadership and ultimately culminated in a vote among musicians to unionize. But Deal says both votes were prompted by a poorly understood personnel matter involving a terminated orchestra employee.

In October 2008, Kamen Petkov, a violinist and former employee of the orchestra, was fired from his office job, and Petkov’s friends in the orchestra mistakenly believed Deal was to blame, she asserts. Though Deal declined to say why Petkov was terminated from the office position, she made the distinction that he was not fired from the orchestra. Illinois Times previously reported that Deal fired the employee for seating a violinist who had not auditioned for a specific division of the orchestra.

Deal says the employee’s removal prompted his friends to circulate an unfair ballot in a vote of no-confidence, which tallied 72-2 against Deal. The ensuing unionization effort was undertaken by musicians afraid of losing their seats in the orchestra, she says.

“And if no one will give me a straight story … then I’m going to think, ‘If that can happen to that person, then it can happen to me, so maybe we need to talk among ourselves to get protection from undue firing,’” Deal says.

Carole Ringer, ISO president, said Deal was not fired because of criticism from musicians.

“When we look at the whole thing, we listen to our musicians, but that was not the deciding factor in making this change,” Ringer says. “We are working through some strategic plans, … and it seemed like the right way to go.”

Deal applauds a move by the orchestra to concentrate decision-making responsibility with the orchestra’s board of directors. Previously, decision-making was shared between the board of directors and boards of advisers in Springfield and Bloomington-Normal, the two communities where the orchestra performs.

“It’s like getting married without ever consummating the marriage,” Deal says of the old arrangement, which Ringer says was meant to maintain the orchestra’s strength in both communities, but had proven unnecessarily cumbersome.

“As we’ve moved forward, it’s obvious that we need to restructure it and put all of the governance where it really, officially does belong, with the board of directors,” Ringer says. “It’s a natural evolution of the way things have been and should be as we move forward.”
Deal says she hopes the orchestra will continue to find new audiences in addition to the usual senior patrons, something she says she strived to accomplish during her tenure.

“Speaking informally at concerts about the music is something that new people appreciate,” Deal says. “Speaking in a way that makes people feel welcome and comfortable is also a tool for audience building and helps break down the stigma associated with classical music…. Inviting students, reaching out to the black community, giving free public concerts – these are all ways to build.” As for the orchestra’s future, Deal says she wishes everyone the best after her departure at the end of the 2010-2011 season.

“I love the community, and all my friends and all the people associated with the symphony,” she says. “I want to be remembered as someone who expresses gratitude, not whining. I’m upset, but I’m grateful to have done my life’s work here…. I believe the Illinois Symphony Orchestra is an organization people can and should put their trust and support in.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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