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Tuesday, February 28, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Classical Music

Northwest Chamber orchestra faces uncertain future

Seattle Times music critic

The Northwest Chamber Orchestra (NWCO), which has battled financial woes for much of its recent history, is facing a series of new crises: the resignation of its highly regarded artistic director Ralf Gothóni, the departure of board president Dave Matison, and the inability to identify a new executive director.

Current interim executive director Deborah Daoust said earlier that she would leave that post following this Friday's "Bachanalia" fundraiser, but her replacement has not yet been found.

The past few months have seen the orchestra and its leaders struggling to redefine how this 20-member ensemble, which performs its concerts in the Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, will operate in the future.

Apparently that process, which was to have been completed by early March, has been stalled by what Daoust calls "differences in perspective and lack of communication." (She will stay on in the interim post "until they find someone to replace me.")

In an e-mail, Gothóni listed his reasons for resigning: "In this difficult time, when the classical music is suffering under entertainment and pop music, this lovely chamber orchestra would need real commitment of the board and the commitment of the media. Maybe the NWCO needs an American music director who is able to stay more in Seattle helping with fundraising, media performance and who is willing to compromise with programming. My musical understanding does not accept to replace the values of the classical music with cheap populism. My tight schedule as pianist, conductor, composer and professor does not allow me to be jet-lagged 8-10 weeks of every year."

Gothóni said the NWCO board is negotiating with him about retaining an emeritus position that calls for him to program and conduct one concert per season. Conductor/violinist Joseph Silverstein will continue his relationship with the orchestra, accepting the title of principal conductor in the coming season. Daoust explained that while Gothóni earns $10,000 (the top of their pay scale) per concert here, he makes more in Europe, without the jet-lag.

Served 8 years

Former board president Matison and his wife, Katie, both resigned after serving as trustees and also officers of the corporation over a period of nearly eight years. Matison said: "As president, I formed an artistic-advisory committee that consisted of many prominent and influential local arts patrons, advisors and trustees emeritus as well as our conductor. ... Subject to board ratification, my committee and I had located a highly qualified executive director with international experience, had arranged for beautiful new office space donated by a generous patron and created a programming committee that was working very diligently with the conductor to increase revenue. Together, we wish the Northwest Chamber Orchestra a brilliant future."More bad news arrived a few days ago, when a major venue of the NWCO's upcoming May tour to Michigan — the Interlochen Arts Festival — canceled the orchestra's two concerts there.

The orchestra, which also is touring to Michigan's Gilmore Festival and later to Finland's Naantali Festival, was "95 percent ready in terms of planning, and Interlochen concerto winners were coming to perform here in May," Daoust says.

While the NWCO will lose $20,000 in fees because of the Interlochen withdrawal, Daoust says the loss really amounts to less than $7,000 because there also were additional costs involved.

October concerts

The NWCO has planned a 2006-07 season that will be announced in the next few weeks, beginning with a pair of opening concerts Oct. 7 and 8 with star soprano Jane Eaglen singing Britten's "Les Illuminations" and Silverstein conducting. The season will feature a series of soloist/conductors.

The new board president, Stephen Brady, said the NWCO board and backers are "looking at a lot of things. We are not in a good spot financially, but if we can get through the next three or four months we will find a way to go on."

Brady said the orchestra also is looking at the possibility of a relationship with another group — Seattle Baroque — that might allow the two groups to share expenses. Daoust, too, hints at big changes for the orchestra.

"We have something in the works. It's pretty radical, and I can't say yet what it is." The orchestra itself, however, is expected to continue in its current configuration through next season.

An additional variable: The current contract between the union representing the musicians expires June 30, according to Daoust.

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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