Symphony musicians targets of vandalism
Seattle Times music critic
Vandalism, mail tampering, a razor blade, anonymous threats — it all sounds like something out of a "Sopranos" episode.
But it appears to be musicians, not sopranos, who have been targeting their Seattle Symphony colleagues with anonymous acts that one player calls "orchestral terrorism."
There haven't been any injuries and the police are not involved, although the symphony's acting executive director, Mary Ann Champion, said Benaroya Hall security is working on the matter.
She said she told symphony members at a meeting Friday about the vandalism and threats and said that "this behavior is not tolerated."
"The musicians' own contract stipulates the behavior standard that they agreed to," Champion said. "We are not minimizing this situation; we want to ensure the safety of everyone in the orchestra. These are the unfortunate actions of a very small group, and I don't want the full orchestra painted with this brush. We are respectful, civil people."
Champion said security, including guards and backstage cameras at Benaroya Hall, "is on top of this" and that there is no need for police intervention.
The vandalism and threats have been going on since the orchestra's board of trustees renewed music director Gerard Schwarz's contract in May. The vote keeps the conductor on the podium through the 2010-2011 season.
And it ignited a controversy among the anti-Schwarz players who conducted an in-house survey in June said to be critical of Schwarz's leadership (survey results have not been released, even to the players).
The chief target of the vandalism and other reprisals has been the orchestra's principal horn, John Cerminaro, a longtime friend of Schwarz and an outspoken advocate of the conductor who hired him.
In July, Cerminaro wrote in an online posting that he had been rewarded for his candor by "someone anonymously denting my horn, scratching my car, stealing from my orchestra mailbox, desecrating my photo with pinholes to the eyes and forehead, and phoning my home and threatening my family. I have never before encountered orchestral terrorism until now."
This fall, Cerminaro said, the activities have continued after he spoke out in an orchestra meeting: A half-cup of hot coffee was placed in his high-lying mailbox so that it could fall on him when he reached for mail.
Later, when Cerminaro pulled a heavy magazine out of the mailbox, he dislodged a razor blade, which he assumes was placed there so he would cut himself while extracting a smaller piece of mail.
He could have injured his hands in either incident.
Cerminaro is not the only player targeted; flutist Scott Goff's car was keyed.
He confirmed the damage but declined to comment further. Reports of other incidents remain unconfirmed.
One orchestra member, cellist Bruce Bailey, who joined the symphony in 1962, says a certain amount of discontent is endemic to orchestras, but the situation at the Seattle Symphony goes far beyond the "usual routine of backstage bickering, love affairs and lots of performances."
Modern conductors, says Bailey, whose wife, Mariel, also plays in the orchestra's first violin section, can't retaliate like the maestros of a previous generation, who had only to point to a rude or recalcitrant musician and say: "You! OUT!"
So the malcontents stay in the orchestra unless they can be proven incompetent by a jury of their own peers, as well as by the conductor.
Bailey says some orchestra members feel "a terrible frustration, the feeling that they are being held back by this man [Schwarz]."
The hope held by some musicians that the players' artistic advisory committee could influence the board not to renew Schwarz's contract was squashed in the spring, and the contract renewal "came as an awful shock" to players who thought their opinions would sway the board.
That's when one or more of the discontented players "stepped over the line, into sabotage and physical acts," according to Bailey.
Why target Cerminaro?
"He has a sky-high opinion of himself, which is completely justified, but which antagonizes some of his colleagues," Bailey says. "He could be driven out of the orchestra, which would be a blow to Schwarz. But it would be a huge blow to the orchestra, too."
Champion, a former board president, is acting executive director while the search continues to find a replacement for Paul Meecham, who left this past summer.
The balance of power in American symphony orchestras has long been an uneven troika of music director (conductor), executive director (top administrator) and board of directors (which hires and fires the previous two).
Over the past century, that balance has shifted away from a powerful and autocratic conductor toward a more powerful executive director, who in some cases can maneuver conductors out of their posts.
In Seattle, mainly because of Schwarz's support from the board of trustees, such maneuverings have been ineffective.
It was no secret that Meecham's predecessor, Deborah Card (now executive director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), did not see eye to eye with Schwarz during her Seattle years.
A persistent rumor at the time of Meecham's arrival suggested that he had been hired to secure Schwarz's departure, a rumor Meecham denied.
In any case, the board's extension of Schwarz's contract as music director in May was approved by an overwhelming majority (a reported 56 to 2).
Melinda Bargreen: 206-464- 2321 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company