How a toxic clash between musicians and management nearly killed the city's largest arts organization

Editor’s note: It’s been 11 years since the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, which kicks off its fall season on Thursday with “Twisted 3,” nearly collapsed amid a scorched-earth battle between musicians and management. Columbus Monthly documented that near-death experience in this October 2008 cover story.

Junichi Hirokami chooses his words carefully, something he's rarely done in recent months. The Japanese maestro, dripping with sweat from a vigorous rehearsal finished minutes earlier, glances at a sheet of talking points and explains in broken English why Central Ohio must save the struggling Columbus Symphony. He calls it the most undervalued orchestra in the country and predicts it will grow into one of the nation's best if given time and support. “I would like to say to the public: Don't screw this orchestra up," he says, sitting in a tiny dressing room at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in August.

In a few hours, the diminutive conductor will lead the embattled orchestra in a performance with a lot more at stake than a good review in the next day's Dispatch. The unusual musician-organized concert—a battle for the hearts and minds of Columbus, if you will—is the latest twist in a public drama with enough intrigue, betrayal and paranoia to fill an Italian opera. "It's really just a sad situation all around," says Donald Rosenberg, the Plain Dealer classical music critic and the author of "The Cleveland Orchestra Story."

This past January, management proposed reducing the number of full-time players by 40 percent to clean up the symphony's finances after years of deficits and donor bailouts. Since then, barbs have been traded in the press and on the internet, the summer Picnic with the Pops and the fall classical music season have been cancelled, players have been without wages and benefits since June (forcing six to take new jobs), and grievances have been filed with the National Labor Relations Board and the American Arbitration Association. The tumult has attracted national and international publicity and confirmed in some minds the stereotype of Columbus as nothing but an unsophisticated football town (city leaders have faced criticism for refusing to rescue the arts organization). "An incredible amount of damage has been done," says Bob Milbourne, the head of the Columbus Partnership, a powerful business group that includes many of the symphony's top corporate donors.

The Columbus Symphony suffers from the usual ailments of a struggling arts group: aging supporters, inconsistent leadership and a lousy endowment, among other things. But more than anything else, a toxic culture is at the root of the crisis, with lingering distrust from previous labor wars poisoning the relationship between musicians and management and preventing them from resolving a financial emergency everyone acknowledges is real. “I have never seen anything like this before,” says Bill Conner, the head of CAPA, which owns the Ohio Theatre, where the symphony performs.

The orchestra owes CAPA about $375,000 in back rent and wages forwarded to stagehands. If the musicians and management can't work out a deal soon, CAPA might have to lay off staff, Conner says. Meanwhile, everything from BalletMet's production of the “Nutcracker”to music education could suffer. In addition to the symphony outreach programs that would disappear, some of the best music instructors in the city might leave town (many players also teach at colleges or privately) if the combatants can't make peace. “These guys need to sit down,"Conner says. “No matter what, they need to be talking."

Hirokami, the symphony's music director for the past two years, has played a central role in the conflict. As the bitter feud paralyzed the city's largest arts organization, Hirokami refused to stay neutral, vigorously defending the players—always his biggest fans in Columbus—and attacking management. He even called the symphony board of trustees "stupid" in a May interview with the New York Times. 

In turn, management tried to fire Hirokami during contract talks with musicians in July. But the artistic alliance proved strong: Players unanimously rejected the offer (even though it would have benefited them financially), and Hirokami flew from his home in Japan to appear at the August concert, paying for his own ticket. Asked backstage at Vets why he sided with the musicians, the maestro says, “I'm human."

The situation seems untenable, and it's no shock when Hirokami declares he can no longer work with current management. “Impossible," he says. He wants a complete leadership shake-up. In fact, he says he'd gladly step down, too, if a few others—including board chairman Robert “Buzz" Trafford and executive director Tony Beadle—follow him out the door. “Why only me have to hara-kiri?" he asks, referring to the samurai method of ritual suicide. An impish grin spreads across his face as he offers to lend his enemies a sword. 

***

In a conference room at the Downtown offices of his law firm, Porter Wright Morris & Arthur, Buzz Trafford is doing what he does best—making his case. The volunteer chairman of the symphony board is flying solo: no numbers guy, no spin doctor, no executive director beside him for support (or to watch his words).

On this day in August, Trafford vigorously defends his record and puts the blame for the symphony stalemate squarely on the shoulders of the musicians. “I go to bed at night perfectly comfortable that we have always tried in good faith to work with them through this negotiating process," Trafford says. “There has been no games-playing, no posturing on our part. Our cards have always been on the table, not only for them, but for everybody else to see.”

Trafford speaks calmly and looks professorial in a bow tie and frameless glasses. But don't let his appearance fool you. During a two-and-a-half-hour interview with Columbus Monthly, Trafford pulls few punches, accusing the musicians of “stubbornness" and distorting the facts. “You would think you are dealing with cultured, sophisticated people, that the level of conversation would be different," he says. “But that's not been the experience so far." He even describes a May press conference hosted by the musicians as "something out of Soviet propaganda.”

The past few months have been hard on Trafford. One of the city's top business lawyers with experience litigating difficult securities, trade secret and malpractice cases, Trafford says he's never experienced anything like the symphony impasse. “Sometimes, I feel like, 'Geez, did they hear us?’ ” he says. “I don't mean that in a flip way.” The other side seems equally bewildered. "Something unique happened in Columbus," says Doug Fisher, the president of the musicians' union. “I don't know what it is."

A 48-page report—Trafford's “cards," so to speak—sits on the table in front of him. The document, titled "The Path to Financial Stability and Future Growth," is at the root of the conflict. Plan supporters say the proposal—which suggests cutting some $3 million from the symphony's $12 million budget—will end the era of fiscal irresponsibility and help the organization regain credibility with donors. Critics argue the cuts would destroy the artistic quality of an up-and-coming orchestra (22 of the 53 full-time musicians would be converted to part-timers and the number of performance weeks reduced from 46 to 34). 

The plan is sort of a larger scale version of what Opera Columbus has accomplished over the past two years. By cutting staff and performances and negotiating new terms with its lenders, the arts organization avoided bankruptcy and is now comfortably in the black. "Our artistic quality didn't suffer, and our education and outreach programs have actually expanded during this time," says Opera Columbus executive director Press Southworth, a retired accountant who was appointed to the Columbus Symphony board this year because of the turnaround.

In September 2006, Trafford took the reins of the board. At the time, he and others hoped that the symphony was about to start a new period of growth after four years of declining ticket sales and mounting budget deficits. Musicians had agreed to $1.3 million in contract concessions the year before, and new artistic and administrative leaders were in place. Hirokami started in June 2006 while the new executive director, Beadle, a former manager of the Boston Pops, began a few months earlier. 

The recovery never happened, however. What's more, the orchestra already had burned through most of its savings—about $1.2 million, according to Trafford—and the donors were growing tired of the symphony's begging brigade. Under Trafford's predecessor, Ford Huffman, bridge funding (emergency donations from top corporate benefactors such as Limited Brands, Huntington, Nationwide and Battelle) kept the orchestra going the previous two years.

But in the spring of 2007, those donors closed the pipeline, forcing management to borrow $1 million from a symphony endowment to make it through the 2006-2007 season. While civic leaders recognize that the symphony creates Downtown and cultural vibrancy and improves the quality of life in Columbus, they also believe the organization never may fix its finances if corporate benefactors keep bailing it out, says Milbourne of the Columbus Partnership. "It's got to resolve in an enterprise that is sustainable," he says.

Trafford faced a day of reckoning, and he started to develop a strategic plan to fix finances. Management also kept the plan secret from musicians. Trafford calls that decision “terribly unfortunate," but claims management had no other choice. Over the past 20 years, he says, musicians have turned on the board and waged vicious public relations campaigns whenever concessions have entered the picture. "If you connect the historical dots, you come away with the conclusion that engaging them as part of the process sounds like the logical thing, but has historically not been real constructive," Trafford says.

Indeed, the musicians have created that rarest of things in Columbus—an assertive union. They've fought hard for artistic control and job security, and members have gained considerable power and influence. In fact, Fisher, the president of the Central Ohio Federation of Musicians, is the symphony's longest serving leader. The savvy bassoonist has remained a steady presence atop the union for the past 12 years as maestros, board presidents and executive directors have come and gone. 

Trafford and other board members were still bruised from their last high-profile war with the musicians. Before agreeing to an 11 percent pay cut in their collective bargaining agreement in May 2005, players lobbied publicly for the board to accept an offer from a group of donors—led by developer George Skestos—that promised $800,000 if outgoing maestro Alessandro Siciliani was reinstated and executive director Dan Hart was fired. The union's stance galled the board, which rejected the offer on the grounds that it would be inappropriate to terminate someone in return for cash. (Hart ended up leaving a few months later, anyway.) After all, the musicians had played a behind-the-scenes role two years earlier in pushing the popular Siciliani out the door. “The Siciliani change was wholeheartedly endorsed by the musicians," Trafford says. “It could be stated more strongly, but I won't.”

The schism even contaminated management's relationship with the new music director. In one of their most remarkable negotiating coups, musicians won veto power over the hiring of Siciliani's replacement—a rare occurrence for an orchestra in the United States. They used that power to push through Hirokami, who received a unanimous vote of confidence from the players. Over the next couple of years, Hirokami would spend a lot of time socially with the musicians—something managers noticed. “He clearly allied himself with the musicians," says Beadle, the executive director. "He had deeper relationships and friendships with people in the orchestra." Beadle says management thought Hirokami would tip off the union if he knew about the strategic plan, so they kept him in the dark, too.

In January, Trafford finally broke the news to the players and Hirokami. It couldn't have gone much worse. Fisher was furious even before he met with Trafford; a half-hour prior to the meeting, the union chief got a call from a Dispatch reporter who received a copy of the strategic plan before he did. “I was horrified," Fisher says. Fisher and the five members of the orchestra committee (the liaison between management and musicians) walked out of their meeting with Trafford after about 30 minutes when he mentioned the staff reductions.

Trafford then got the PR war he feared. Hirokami has spoken out against the cuts from the start, even though it's customary for music directors to keep quiet during labor fights. “I encouraged Junichi to remain neutral, and he has refused to do that," Trafford says. And musicians blindsided management with a media ambush of their own—a payback of sorts for what happened in January with the Dispatch.

After formal talks broke down, the musicians released a critical analysis of the symphony's finances at a May press conference. The report, written by Dublin financial advisor Daniel LaMacchia, identifies several budgetary problems. Symphony leaders were angry that the musicians didn't discuss the conclusions (almost all of which are wrong, according to management) before releasing it to the public. Trafford says he didn't see the document until veteran TV reporter Carol Luper handed him a copy while she was interviewing him on camera. David Thomas, the principal clarinetist in the orchestra, says the press conference was a mistake. “I think, in hindsight, we realized tit for tat didn't work," he says. 

Meanwhile, uncertainty was affecting the symphony's cash flow. Managers couldn't sell subscriptions for the following season without a long-term financial plan in place (the musicians' contract expired at the end of August), and two key sources of public funding—the Greater Columbus Arts Council and the nascent Thrive in Five campaign—held back grants, which could have amounted to nearly $1.5 million. A six-figure gift from an anonymous donor (widely believed to be longtime symphony supporter Anne Melvin) allowed the orchestra to finish the 2008 classical season, but the cash crunch forced the cancellation of the popular Picnic with the Pops this summer and the fall classical season, devastating music lovers. "I get these letters from symphony supporters, particularly people who attend the symphony on a regular basis,” Milbourne says. “And they really are heart-wrenching letters. These are people who really do care about and feel strongly that the community needs a symphony orchestra.” 

Still, corporate donors want the symphony to stop running deficits, and they contend that management's plan—as hard as it is to swallow—is the best way to get there. Backers of the proposal also note that the same number of players will be on stage during performances, just more of them will be part-time, so the orchestra can reduce its health benefits burden. "If musicians want to grow and prosper in the future, they also need to recognize what the limitations are today," Milbourne says.

Musicians feel aggrieved. They're hardly overpaid (colleagues in Cleveland earn twice their $55,000 minimum salary), and they saw no return on the leap of faith they made three years ago when they accepted concessions. And unlike management—the financial stewards who failed to balance the books—it's hard to claim the musicians are incompetent. They've made remarkable artistic strides over the past two decades, and almost everyone agrees they are playing better than ever under Hirokami. “Something must have gone really wrong in terms of management and board oversight for this to have happened,” says Rosenberg, the Plain Dealer music critic. "It's their job to keep the orchestra flourishing. They're the ones who are supposed to raise the funds and find sponsors and keep the place afloat."

In early August, Thomas, the clarinetist, hosted a party for Hirokami. The get-together gave musicians a rare opportunity to laugh, unwind and forget about their troubles for a few hours. They also got a chance to hear what could be their swan song. In the spring, the orchestra, thanks to a gift from longtime symphony booster Gene D'Angelo, made a live recording of Tchaikovsky's “Fifth Symphony” at the Ohio Theatre. At the party, musicians heard the final edit of that recording, which the Japanese label Denon will release in the fall. Tears were shed as the music played and the sound engineer who handled the project raved about the performance. “We had begun to believe we are not worth what we have been paid for the past decade or two," Thomas says.

***

Nearly 3,000 people file into Vets Auditorium, about the size of a sell-out crowd at the Ohio Theatre, which has a capacity of around 2,800. Minutes before the show begins, a white-haired lady in a row toward the back surveys the scene and whispers to a friend, “Where were all these people when we needed them?"

The musicians are dressed less formally than usual—no tuxes tonight—and use musical scores and stands borrowed from Ohio orchestras and colleges. The ensemble also includes supplemental musicians from as far away as Tennessee and Oklahoma, as well as a few others who aren't long for Columbus. Mark and Wendy Morton are playing their last concert with the symphony. “We leave Columbus with very mixed emotions," says Mark Morton, a double bass player in the orchestra for the past 23 years. He and his wife, a cello player, and their two boys are moving to Lubbock, Texas, where Mark has accepted a teaching job at Texas Tech University. "It's really a tragedy," he says. "The orchestra has really matured and has sounded better than ever. We are at an artistic height, but a financial low.”

In August, musicians quietly submitted a new proposal to the board. Neither side would disclose any details, though a knowledgeable source says the offer disappointed management. “All I can say right now is the orchestra is gone, and unless something significant happens, it's going to remain that way," Fisher says.

Trafford says the musicians need to face facts. “The choice is between a budget we can afford or no orchestra," he says. For the moment, artistic pride outweighs economic circumstances, and the musicians would rather see the ensemble die than live on in a diminished form. “I don't foresee that changing," Fisher says.

The situation is so bleak that even D'Angelo, one of the symphony's biggest supporters, is ready to give up. The retired WBNS-TV general manager has done just about everything at the orchestra, from playing and composing music to leading its board during a previous bankruptcy scare to hiring its most popular maestro—Siciliani, who led the symphony to a triumphant Carnegie Hall debut in 2001. But these days, D'Angelo fears the organization has become too dysfunctional to save, and he has no interest in stepping in to lead a turnaround, as he offered to do during the last crisis in 2005. “I think they are going to have to let that orchestra die," he says.

A leadership void also is looming, Even if board members still wanted Hirokami, they probably no longer could afford his contract, which expires in 2009. Hirokami is supposed to earn about $360,000 a year, Trafford says, though he's received only a $5,000 to $6,000 monthly stipend since June. (Donations are covering expenses.) 

Then there's Beadle, who's been a punching bag throughout the crisis. He faced heat, perhaps unfairly, for comparing the orchestra to a dinosaur in an interview with the Dispatch. (He clearly was making a size analogy, not likening the symphony to an extinct creature.) He did, however, look bad when he criticized Hirokami for living in Japan while Beadle commutes on weekends to Boston, where his family lives.

Beadle says he didn't anticipate the “power of blogs.” One blogger created a caricature of him as Jabba the Hutt from the “Star Wars” movies while another accused him of making rude anonymous postings on his website. Beadle denied he made the comments, and the blogger removed the item—though references to it remain on other websites. Beadle, who took a 20 percent pay cut in August, says he’s unsure if he will stay with the symphony. “You have to look at the ability of the current board and management to lead,” he says. “Nobody knows what that is.”

Indeed, a change at the top could help. “Maybe it’s just going to take some different leadership,” says Rosenberg, the Plain Dealer critic. Thomas, the clarinetist, says a breakthrough won’t occur without new faces. “There is something in the chemistry right now that is poison,” he says. Trafford agrees. “Unless there is a less adversarial relationship, I don’t think we’ll ever have a successful symphony,” he says.

Back at Vets, men and women clad in black T-shirts are stationed at doorways and ticket booths. The volunteers with Symphony Columbus, a new pro-musician group, helped organize this show and two previous ones at Vets to raise money for the players—about $20,000 through August—and help them rally the public to their side. Early this year, a similar volunteer group played a key role in ending the lockout at the Jacksonville Symphony in Florida.

That organization, Friends of the Jacksonville Symphony, vowed to raise around $150,00 a year to help pay for musicians’ salaries. Symphony Columbus isn’t making such promises at the moment, but co-founder Jim Mitchell says his pool of 300 or so volunteers could help the orchestra reduce costs by doing jobs that it previously paid for, from menial things to top management positions (temporarily). “We’ve got a whole list of people who have been involved in symphonies before, who have been involved in running companies, and would be happy to assist in the project as volunteers and then let the melding of the old board and the new management structure do what is necessary to grow the symphony again,” says Mitchell, a retired executive who’s headed robotics and computer processing companies.

Mitchell also says his group would bring some new ideas to the table. He and other volunteers want to use the internet to collect large numbers of smaller donations—a la Barack Obama—and experiment with concerts in new settings, such as Ash Cave in the Hocking Hills (they hosted a small concert there in August). In fact, Mitchell says Vets, though a less regal setting than the Ohio Theatre, offers better acoustics and excellent amenities. Before the August show, for instance, organizers hosted a tailgate, taking advantage of the audiotorium’s large parking lot and cooking facilities. Addressing the crowd at the auditorium, Mitchell announces, “Our problem isn’t the budget. Our problem is the failure to market this wonderful group of musicians.”

The audience is enthusiastic. They groan and boo when Mitchell mentions that an Australian TV quiz show included this question in a recent program: What U.S. city is about to lose its symphony orchestra? “The answer—at least what they were looking for—was Columbus, Ohio,” he says. “Hardly the reputation we’re looking for.”

Music is almost secondary on this night, with the crowd giving Hirokami and the musicians several standing ovations before they play a note. Both the maestro and tuba player Jim Akins address the audience, too. “This is a great orchestra; I’m not lying,” Hirokami says, drawing a big laugh. Then Akins reminds everyone what’s at stake. “We hope this is not the last time you can hear this orchestra,” he says.

***

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