ANY dictionary will tell you that a symphony orchestra trades in harmony. Anyone who has spent much time around orchestras will tell you that the harmony often stops at the music’s edge; that tensions abound in a body of 100 or so high-strung thoroughbreds as a music director seeks to impose a single vision.
And to judge from alarmist reports coming from here over a dozen years or so, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra has carried disharmony to new heights, lurching from crisis to crisis. There have been allegations of vandalism aimed at players, including a dented French horn and a razor blade planted in a mailbox; a players’ survey that condemned the conductor only to be deep-sixed by management; and lawsuits filed by players accusing the conductor of mental if not physical abuse.
It is a cautionary tale of how the relationship between performers and a long-term leader can go awry and how, in an artistic hothouse, a tangle of emotion and politics can veer out of control and take on a life of its own.
Yet even as this soap opera has unfolded, the orchestra has continued its rise from regional ensemble to national presence. With a current roster of 88 and a budget of $22 million, it plays in one of America’s finest modern auditoriums, Benaroya Hall. It also churns out recordings while others remain mute and made its Carnegie Hall debut in 2004. It has a large and loyal audience and, as of this season, a balanced budget at a time when neither can be taken for granted.
Much of the orchestra’s success can be attributed to its conductor, Gerard Schwarz, a throwback to the era of long-ruling maestros, having held the podium for nearly a quarter-century. He has been the kind of music director often held up as the ideal, heavily involved in fund-raising for the orchestra and active in the civic affairs of Seattle.
But like many long-serving maestros Mr. Schwarz has also made enemies and generated reservoirs of ill will among the players. Now a lawsuit brought by an orchestra member, scheduled for trial next month, suggests a more complete picture of dysfunction at the Seattle Symphony. It paints a damaging portrait of Mr. Schwarz, 60, who was long prominent on the New York music scene: as trumpeter at the New York Philharmonic, founding music director of the New York Chamber Symphony and music director of the Mostly Mozart Festival.
At least 15 current or former members of the Seattle Symphony have signed sworn declarations on behalf of that member, Peter Kaman, many of them creating an image of Mr. Schwarz as a vindictive, harsh taskmaster who has undermined morale. Even given the strong feelings players in many orchestras have historically had about their conductors, the degree of public criticism is stunning.
“It’s a bully atmosphere,” John Weller, the acting associate concertmaster, said in an interview echoing his declaration. “We’re sitting there with a sledgehammer over our heads. There’s no music or inspiration coming from him to nurture us or show us the way. He’s left doing damage control: ‘You’re playing too loud, too soft.’ It’s what’s not there that we find appalling.”
Mr. Schwarz, who has calmly deflected such criticism over the years, forcefully rejected that portrait recently, blaming a small coterie of media-savvy musicians who, blinded by personal animosity, are fomenting discord.
“What I’ve done in my life as a musician, and especially in Seattle, which is the focus of my life, has been to be a great advocate of my orchestra, to work very hard on a musical level at all times,” he said. “I have always treated everyone with respect. I have been and continue to be demanding artistically, but never harsh. I have never raised my voice. I have never said anything that one could criticize. I only deal with musical issues.”
Mr. Schwarz said that he has fired only three people for incompetence, and that his opponents number only a handful.
“No music director is loved by everyone,” he added. “What I try to do in my life is not to be loved by the orchestra but to do a great job artistically.”
Mr. Schwarz has defenders, including Bruce Bailey, a cellist who deplores the factionalism among the musicians. Mr. Schwarz has done a “tremendous amount” for the city and the orchestra, said Mr. Bailey, a longtime member. But he did suggest that Mr. Schwarz’s sheer longevity was not entirely a good thing.
“I think change potentially would be good,” Mr. Bailey said. “That’s not saying anything bad about Gerry.”
Mr. Bailey chiefly blames past orchestra executives for not nipping the dysfunction in the bud, particularly when vandalism directed at Schwarz supporters was reported. “They clearly did not comprehend the depth of the antagonism toward our music director,” Mr. Bailey said.
Now, he and orchestra managers argue, the problems are past. “The atmosphere is much improved,” Mr. Bailey said. “We are attending more to business this year.”
The current court case was brought by Mr. Kaman, a violinist in the orchestra since 1981. He charged that the orchestra had discriminated against him because of a disability: severe anxiety disorder, a condition made worse by what he calls systematic harassment. Mr. Schwarz, the complaint alleges, repeatedly denounced Mr. Kaman for talking during rehearsals, accused him of slumping in his chair and threatened to fire him.
By his own account Mr. Kaman is deeply troubled, having suffered from nightmares, depression, paranoia, anxiety, exhaustion and obsessive-compulsive behavior. Yet past and current colleagues describe a pattern of harassment of him by Mr. Schwarz, including physical abuse in a 1999 elbowing incident as the maestro left the stage after a concert in Tacoma, Wash.
A Superior Court judge in King County, Wash., threw out two of Mr. Kaman’s claims related to discrimination, but a third remains: that the orchestra inflicted outrageous conduct and emotional distress on him. The orchestra is seeking to have that charge dismissed too.
Mr. Schwarz, in the interview, denied threatening to fire him and called the elbowing charge “absurd.” He acknowledged asking Mr. Kaman not to talk in rehearsals. “We have a very well-disciplined orchestra,” he said. “We’re very serious about our music making.”
Mr. Schwarz was reared in Weehawken, N.J. A gifted trumpeter, he studied at Juilliard and became a co-principal of the New York Philharmonic in 1972. But he had aspirations to conduct and left the Philharmonic in 1977. He founded the Y Chamber Symphony, later the New York Chamber Symphony, which he directed until 2002. He was music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra from 1978 to 1985 and of the Mostly Mozart Festival from 1984 to 2001.
He became music adviser of the Seattle Symphony in 1983 and music director in 1985. Most parties agree that the relationship turned for the worse in 1995, when Mr. Schwarz brought in his Juilliard friend and Philharmonic colleague John Cerminaro, a French horn player who had begun a solo career, to play in the orchestra.
Normally orchestral openings are subject to rigorous blind auditions, but Mr. Cerminaro was invited to substitute for a player on leave. He eventually auditioned for a permanent job, but an orchestra committee rejected him by a vote of 9 to 1. Mr. Schwarz appointed him anyway. A number of players continued to oppose Mr. Cerminaro; he and Mr. Schwarz attribute that to jealousy or personality conflicts.
“Success is the only unpardonable sin with these people,” Mr. Cerminaro said in an interview. Some of the critics question his musical style and Mr. Schwarz’s role in bringing him in.
The board refused to ratify a labor agreement with the players unless they accepted Mr. Cerminaro. The players and management compromised: Mr. Cerminaro was granted tenure, but only as long as Mr. Schwarz remained music director.
Musicians who had publicly opposed the appointment said that Mr. Schwarz struck back. One, a violinist, sued in 1999, saying he had been denied solo opportunities, given unfounded reprimands and denied a permanent spot far up in the section. The case was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.
Another who claims to have suffered vengeance is the former principal trumpeter Charles Butler. “I stood up in front of the orchestra committee and complained about having John Cerminaro there as principal horn, and three weeks later I got a pink slip,” he said.
“He’s no grand maestro,” Mr. Butler said. “He envisions himself as Eugene Ormandy, an orchestra builder. The guy’s a total fraud.” (Ormandy spent 44 years as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra.) In his declaration supporting Mr. Kaman, Mr. Butler said Mr. Schwarz displayed “hostile behavior” toward him and his colleagues on “many occasions.”
Mr. Schwarz said Mr. Butler had been fired because his playing had deteriorated. “The issue was he was ruining concerts, and something had to be done,” Mr. Schwarz said, “and the musicians agreed with me.”
Another who opposed Mr. Cerminaro’s appointment is Christopher Sereque, the principal clarinetist. Mr. Sereque said in his declaration that he was asked to sign a “declaration of loyalty” to Mr. Schwarz, circulated by Mr. Cerminaro among principal players in spring 2002, when Mr. Schwarz was negotiating a contract.
Mr. Schwarz “thought that would be of utility,” Mr. Sereque said, in an interview. “It was just so wrong, like the McCarthy era.” Mr. Sereque said he refused to sign and was later denied concerto opportunities and threatened with firing. “That was the end of my solo career with the Seattle Symphony,” he added.
Mr. Schwarz said he had worked with Mr. Sereque to improve his playing.
There was also turmoil in the management ranks. In 2003 Deborah Card, the executive director, left for the same job at the more prestigious Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Local newspapers reported that there had been friction with Mr. Schwarz.
The board moved to hire Paul Meecham, a former general manager of the New York Philharmonic who is well liked in the industry. But Mr. Schwarz opposed him. “I didn’t think at the time that he had the kind of leadership, especially fund-raising, that we needed when he came,” Mr. Schwarz said.
Orchestra and former board members recalled that he waged a bitter campaign against Mr. Meecham. Mr. Schwarz denied that and said he had worked well with Mr. Meecham and supported him.
But on June 26, 2006, less than two months before the board would extend Mr. Schwarz’s contract for three years and before his own contract was to expire, Mr. Meecham abruptly quit. He cited “personal reasons” and said he had had no problems getting along with Mr. Schwarz. Contacted recently, Mr. Meecham, now president of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, said he could not comment, on the advice of his lawyer, because he may be a witness in Mr. Kaman’s lawsuit.
The Cerminaro and Meecham affairs are cited as examples of Mr. Schwarz’s willingness to use his influence to sway the board and control its membership. Donald Thulean, a former board member and now music adviser to the Quad City Symphony Orchestra Association, based in Davenport, Iowa, said he was convinced that his disagreements with Mr. Schwarz had led to his departure in 2005. “I’m quite sure he has an influence on people who are invited on the board and who at the end of their terms are not invited to return,” Mr. Thulean said. “He values loyalty very highly.”
Mr. Schwarz acknowledges that he has close friends among board members but denies exerting influence on board actions.
The orchestra’s troubles, widely known in the industry, made it tough to find a successor to Mr. Meecham. The board hired an executive recruiter, Pamela Rolfe. In February she quit, blaming the orchestra for not revealing the extent of its financial problems, according to her resignation letter.
Mr. Schwarz, meanwhile, was pushing an old friend: Thomas Philion, the president of the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro, N.C., where Mr. Schwarz was the principal conductor. Mr. Philion was hired by the Seattle Symphony in March; Mr. Schwarz was named music director of the festival in September. “It was a pretty rough experience,” Ms. Rolfe said. “I’ve done a lot searches, and this was the most disappointing one I ever experienced.”
Meanwhile other events had riled the orchestra. When Mr. Schwarz took over the Seattle Symphony, he took with him Ilkka Talvi, who had been the principal second violinist of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, as concertmaster. In 2004 Mr. Schwarz said a “new leader” was needed to “help us achieve our potential as one of the great orchestras of the world.” Mr. Talvi’s contract was not renewed.
He fought the firing and soon after attacked Mr. Schwarz and his former stand partner, Maria Larionoff, who had become acting concertmaster, on his blog (schmaltzuberalles.blogspot.com). The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that he said the police had visited his home because of a comment on his blog wrongly interpreted as a threat to Mr. Schwarz’s family. Ms. Larionoff threatened to sue him for libel, and Mr. Talvi apologized. The next year the orchestra and its union reached a settlement over Mr. Talvi’s dismissal.
Two years passed before Mr. Talvi was replaced. In August the orchestra announced it would fill the job with four concertmasters, a highly unusual arrangement. “There will not be a single leader,” Mr. Schwarz told The Seattle Times. “I’m the single leader.”
Mr. Schwarz also faced trouble elsewhere. Friction built at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in England, where he had become principal conductor in 2001. Malcolm Stewart, the orchestra’s concertmaster of 24 years, quit in 2003. And in 2004, 40 of the 65 musicians cast an anti-Schwarz vote.
“How he survives is a complete mystery,” Mr. Stewart said. Mr. Schwarz took differences of opinion as personal affronts, sought to undermine Mr. Stewart’s position and tried to model the Liverpool orchestra after the Seattle Symphony, Mr. Stewart said.
Mr. Schwarz’s contract was not renewed last year, and he rejected a guest-conductor position. But he had supporters. Several patrons criticized the decision, and one withdrew some $700,000 in support.
“They tried an experiment with me,” Mr. Schwarz said. “They were used to a principal conductor and did not have the music director type. They voted unanimously that I take on those kinds of responsibilities. I was making decisions that were previously in the hands of the orchestra players themselves. It was a success as far as I was concerned, but after three or four years it wasn’t what the players wanted.”
Around the same time negotiations began over an extension of Mr. Schwarz’s contract in Seattle, which was due to expire at the end of this season. Members of the players’ elected artistic advisory committee said their request to give input was rejected. In May 2006 the board voted overwhelmingly to extend the contract by three years. The decision inflamed many members of the orchestra.
Geoffrey Bergler, a trumpeter, published a letter in The Seattle Weekly saying, “The vast majority of Seattle Symphony musicians are shell-shocked and dismayed: they recognize the need for change.” Mr. Bergler wrote that he liked Mr. Schwarz, and that Mr. Schwarz was “enormously popular with our major donors,” but that it was time for “fresh artistic leadership for the symphony.” Mr. Schwarz retaliated, Mr. Bergler said in a recent interview, declaring his playing substandard.
Mr. Schwarz raised the orchestra’s artistic level and financial standing in the first half of his tenure, said Mr. Bergler, a former student and tennis partner of his. But the balance changed, he said.
“The orchestra kept going up, and he didn’t,” Mr. Bergler said. “I suspect his frustration and his need to protect himself and his job started kicking in.”
Mr. Schwarz responded that his feeling about Mr. Bergler’s performance that there were “sound issues” and “issues with leadership” preceded publication of the letter, and that the timing of the notice to Mr. Bergler was decided by the section principal, not Mr. Schwarz. “I stayed out of it,” Mr. Schwarz said.
The next month the orchestra committee carried out a survey of the players. It was never made public, and the board hired a survey firm to analyze its methods, which were found wanting, according to The Seattle Times. Mikhail Shmidt, a violinist and a committee member, said he and his colleagues were threatened by the administration with losing their jobs if they released the survey. “This was one of the most ugly displays of board priorities,” he added.
A recently obtained copy of the survey showed that the players voted 61 to 8 in favor of new artistic leadership and 61 to 12 to form a search committee for a new music director. Players anonymously poured out a litany of complaints some stated with eloquence, others with angry language about Mr. Schwarz and the board’s attitude toward their opinions.
MATTERS TURNED EVEN NASTIER in the wake of Mr. Schwarz’s contract renewal. Mr. Cerminaro, the horn player, posted a comment to a blog on SeattleWeekly.com in July 2006, saying his horn had been dented, his car scratched, a photograph of him marred and threats phoned to his home. “I have never before encountered orchestral terrorism until now,” he wrote. Mr. Cerminaro also said that a razor blade and a hot cup of coffee had been placed in his mailbox. The principal flutist, Scott Goff, had his car scratched, The Seattle Times reported.
Several Schwarz opponents suggested that the charges had been invented to discredit Mr. Schwarz’s critics. Mr. Bailey, the cellist and Schwarz defender and a friend of Mr. Cerminaro’s, said those who had cast doubt on the vandalism charges were lying. He said he had seen the evidence.
Mr. Thulean, the former board member, longtime music director of the Spokane Symphony and a 16-year veteran administrator at the League of American Orchestras, said that he was baffled by the reports of vandalism, and that he found it unimaginable that musicians would be responsible. “It’s really kind of sick,” he said. Resentment among musicians born of long-running music directorships was not unusual, he added, but the “open turmoil” in Seattle was unique.
“I haven’t seen anything,” he added, “as openly volatile as this.”