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ARTS: Remmereit, supporters address controversial RPO decision

Community group seeks to change RPO board leadership



A standing-room-only crowd packed the Central Library’s Kate Gleason Auditorium Thursday evening as a group identifying itself as RPO Community Supporters held a public event to address the November decision made by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s board of directors to terminate the four-year contract of music director ArildRemmereit two years early. Remmereit himself addressed the crowd of approximately 150 people, many of whom wore Remmereit pins handed out at the door. While the maestro did not speak to his firing directly, he expressed his long-term vision and hopes for the orchestra, while Remmereit supporters explained to the gathering they're thoughts on how the group should proceed with the orchestra in light of the controversial decision.

Following opening statements by moderator, attorney Eileen Buholtz, and several impassioned speeches, Remmereit entered the room to a standing ovation from the crowd. He then read from a statement which detailed his decision to move to Rochester from Vienna, Austria, to lead the orchestra in 2011, how “thrilled and moved” he has been by the community’s open arms, and his work with the orchestra to “build bridges to the community, to reach non-concert-goers” through the use of unconventional classic-music programming, and partnerships with local visual artists and poets.

Remmereit referenced his current situation by mentioning that the orchestra and its community is in a time of tribulation, and that “emotions are running high.” He concluded his speech by expressing the hope that the passion surrounding the current situation can be channeled into “meeting the obvious common goal, a great future for the RPO.”

Immediately following his statement Remmereit left the room, again accompanied by a prolonged standing ovation. Following statements by two former board members of the RPO, the audience was invited to submit questions to the organizers -- questions had to be submitted in writing, and “vetted” before being read. One question asked if Remmereit was currently working with the orchestra, and whether he was getting paid. His attorney, Glenn Pezzulo, confirmed that Remmereit has not been paid since December, as the orchestra board is citing breach of contract on the music director’s part. Pezzulo disputes the claim said that he and his client hope to resolve the matter before it goes to court.

The evening’s main call to action came from Buholtz, who explained to the crowd how they could best make their feelings about the Remmereit termination and other issues known to RPO management. Chief among her suggestions was for RPO members to attend the January 23 annual meeting of the organization, during which new board members will be elected. Although the deadline to nominate prospective board members passed months back, Buholtz encouraged the crowd to attend the meeting anyway, and mentioned the possibility that a new alternative slate may be able to be introduced.

(Mark Berry, vice president of media relations for the RPO, told the media following the event that nothing in the organization’s bylaws allows it to disregard its own rules, so a new slate of nominees will not be accepted at this time.)

Barring the adoption of an alternative slate, Buholtz told the crowd to “take the long view” by looking forward to next year’s board elections. (One-third of the RPO’s roughly 30-member board is elected each year, Buholtz said.) “We need to make a fundamental change in the board, the attitude of the board,” she said.

When asked later in the evening about what Remmereit supporters can do about getting the embattled maestro reinstated, she pointed out that members have no control over what happens with Remmereit, but they do have control over the way they vote in the annual meeting.

Other speakers at the gathering included Liane Curtis, a musicologist at Boston’s Brandeis University and founder of the Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy group, who came to Rochester for the meeting. Curtis has been a vocal Remmereit champion, having started two online petitions to get the conductor reinstated with the RPO. Her advocacy group created a new award for Remmereit based on his programming choices for his first two seasons with the RPO, which heavily featured work by female composers like Amy Beach.

John Sullivan, who has been a violinist with the RPO since 1979, addressed the fact that while many musicians in the orchestra have publicly supported the decision to terminate Remmereit’s contract, that feeling is not universal among the performers. He called the decision and its fallout “a serious wound to the collective psyche of the RPO family, one that will be slow to heal, if in fact it ever does.”

Two former members of the RPO board who resigned in the past few months also spoke about their concerns with the RPO leadership and its decision to terminate Remmereit’s contract. Gwen Sterns and KishanPandya both read their letters of resignation to the group, which included allegations of board mismanagement, withheld information, the neglect of financial responsibilities, and the alienation of major donors.

Following the event, Mark Berry of the RPO said that he was at the meeting to listen, and was pleased to see so many people who are so passionate about the RPO. He couldn’t comment on the specific allegations made about board conduct, as he was not party to those meetings. However, he pointed out that the vast majority of board members were in support of the decision to terminate Remmereit’s contract, and that many of the musicians also have publicly supported the decision.

David Angus is a horn player with the orchestra and president of the Rochester Musicians’ Association, the union that represents the performers in the RPO. Following the meeting he expressed unhappiness with the group’s plan to go after the RPO board, and said that many people in the group are operating with “limited information.” “The meeting only told part of the story,” he said.

Angus and Berry both referenced the fact that, since being given notice that his contract would expire in May, Remmereit has failed to fulfill his duties to the orchestra. Earlier this week the RPO announced that guest conductors would be handling the Mozart programming scheduled for the end of January because Remmereit refused to confirm that he would be at the podium.

Angus said that Remmereit has failed to show up for auditions and rehearsals, and that planning for the 2013-14 season is going on without him because the schedule must be released regardless. (Berry said that they hoped to have next season’s programming unveiled by late winter.)

“I’m not sure how you do that and hope to come back at some point in the future,” Angus said. “I just don’t see how that could happen.”

Regardless of the Remmereit situation, the RPO continues to perform. This weekend the orchestra will play with jazz-trumpet icon Chris Botti at two nearly sold-out concerts at Kodak Hall.

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