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The RPO drama: Can this marriage be saved?


This should be a joyful week for the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. It's celebrating its 90th anniversary, and its new music director, Arild Remmereit, begins his second season on Thursday night with a successful first year under his belt.

Success wasn't guaranteed. Remmereit's predecessor, the highly popular Christopher Seaman, was a hard act to follow. On top of that, Remmereit injected into his first-year programs a healthy dose of music new to the orchestra and to many of the RPO concertgoers. At the concerts I attended, though, Remmereit got enthusiastic applause. He was putting his own stamp on the RPO, right from the start. And many of us hoped he was proving that large RPO audiences could be introduced to orchestral works they had never heard and wouldn't bolt for the door.

At least among my friends, there was a good bit of excitement about the RPO.

Unfortunately, this year's season opens under a cloud. A looming deficit and rumblings about discord at the RPO – on the board and between Remmereit and the RPO's CEO, Charlie Owens – turned into major news on Sunday with a Stuart Low article in the Democrat and Chronicle.

Conflict in arts organizations isn't new. Nor is this the first for the RPO. And maybe it's no surprise that it comes as the RPO, like many other arts organizations throughout the country, struggles with financial problems. Put any organization under financial stress, and conflict may very well break out.

Low's article focused on both the interpersonal conflict and the financial stress. Some RPO supporters feel that the bigger challenge is financial. I'm not so sure. And best I can tell, financial challenges didn't spur the conflict; personality did.

I haven't talked to Remmereit or Owens, but I have talked to supporters of both men. And based on those conversations, I'm worried. If the RPO board can't remedy the situation, it may be almost impossible to raise the money the orchestra needs.

In his article, Low says the conflict originated with disagreements between Remmereit and Owens over "artistic and administrative priorities." Supporters with whom I've talked go well beyond that, complaining about what they see as problems in the management style and communications skills of both men.

One result is an RPO board that is divided – as are some patrons. Remmereit and Owens each have strong supporters and strong critics – so much so that when they talk about the two, it's as if they are seeing entirely different people. And predictably, morale is said to be low.

As it should have, the RPO board brought in outside help to try to improve the relationship between Remmereit and Owens. Management coaches like this can do great things, and I'm relieved to hear that the board took this step, and that Remmereit and Owens were willing to work with the coaches.

The question is: now what? The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra is a Rochester treasure, and not just historically. It's important to the Rochester economy, contributing to a quality of life that few cities this size can match.

Can Owens and Remmereit heal their rift – and make whatever other "management style" changes they need to make? There are reports that they're trying. Ultimately, it's up to them – and just as important, it's up to RPO board members and leaders. They must come together, agree on firm goals, state clearly what they expect, and hold everybody accountable.

The RPO will live through this. And I don't want to blow the conflict out of proportion. But I do think it's serious, and fixing it won't be easy. The level of animosity and mistrust seems deep.

People on both sides of this conflict believe sincerely that they are right. Maybe one side is. But it would be a good idea for each side to listen to the other, to stop pointing fingers. The RPO is far more important than personal allegiances.