Festival directors pull off coup
Gilford — In a bloodless coup worthy of any tropical junta, the Board of Directors of the New Hampshire Music Festival, Inc. yesterday stripped a dissident group of patrons of their role in the governance of the non-profit corporation and gathered all authority into its own hands at the incorporators annual meeting at Gilford High School.
The meeting followed months of strife between the management and directors of the Festival and “Save Our Orchestra Now” (SOON), a group of contributors and ticket holders that has challenged the board’s decisions to pursue a fresh artistic course and restructure the festival orchestra, while at the same time questioning the financial health of the corporation.
On the eve of the meeting, tensions flared when SOON learned that on November 6 the board adopted amendments to the corporation’s by-laws depriving its incorporators, or those who donated to the annual fund, of their authority to elect the board of directors, call for special meets and approve changes to the by-laws. At the same time control and management of the corporation would be vested exclusively in the board of directors of between 10 and 20 members, elected by the board after nomination by its own governance committee.
Smelling trouble, management confined attendance yesterday to eligible incorporators “by invitation only” and hired three local police officers to keep order. Those whose names were not on the invitation list kept at the door were asked to leave the building, and if necessary escorted outside by the police, who were present throughout the meeting.
A significant number of invitees sported the purple ribbons, first worn this sumer by the musicians and subsequently by those supporting their resistance to restructuring the orchestra.
Yesterday, Art Albert of SOON announced that the musicians, who overwhelmingly rejected changes in the festival’s personnel policy, have filed a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board.
After the custodian of the school made an obligatory announcement about the location of the fire exits, Chairman Rusty McLear welcomed close to 200 incorporators by joking, “would somebody pull the fire alarm?”He said that as he left home his wife wished him well, adding “I’m glad I’m not you,” then he added, “I wish I weren’t me under the circumstances.”
McLear went on to speak of “a terrible year, a difficult year for everybody,”when the Lakes Region community split into “two factions with dramatically different visions of the future of the New Hampshire Music Festival.”
Changing his tone, McLear reaffirmed that the board was determined to pursue the course it had set, reminding those who think “it isn’t united,” he declared “it is!” The board, he continued, “is determined, but we can’t do it alone.”
As soon as McLear called the meeting to order a lady moved to conduct the proceedings by Roberts Rule of Order. “We are not accepting any motions from the floor,” McLear replied, clearly signaling that the board would brook no challenges to its authority, a message amplified by Susan Weatherbie, who reported on behalf of both the artistic and governance committees.
Weatherbie said that in 2007 the artistic committee, concerned by declining audiences for conventional classical musical performances, concluded that only performances of “superior quality” could reverse the trend. “Performances,” she said, “are not of the superior quality we seek to achieve.”
A year later, Weahterbie continued, the committee approached the Orchestra Committee, which represents the Festival musicians, asking about inventorying the “skill set” of the different players. Instead, she claimed, the musicians sought representation by the American Federation of Musicians. Consequently, she said that the committee could not engage the orchestra in the process of shaping the future of the Festival.
Weatherbie stressed that engaging Henry Fogel, who she described as the foremost impresario in the county, as Festival director and Johnny Gandelsman, a celebrated violinist with diverse musical sensibilities. as artistic director, were the first steps toward “reinvigorating” performances by enabling the musicians to share in the interpretation of the music. Through what she called a “collaborative” approach, the players would take ownership of the music, which in turn would enrich and enhance performances.
By her words and tone Weatherbie made it plain that the board was determined to change the musical character of the Festival and would not be deterred.
Turning to the by-laws, Weatherbie amplified the message. Earlier she explained that the annual fund, which in 2008 collected $461,000 from 385 donors, failed to meet the operating costs of the Festival. The board, she said, had a fiduciary responsibility to the donors — individuals, corporations and foundations — to boost ticket sales, which represent about a third of the operating budget, and shore up the donor base.
Forestalling a challenge, Weatherbie said that the amended by-laws “are in full force and effect” and noted that similar organizations operated under rules “very much like those we have adopted.’
Acknowledging that “change is difficult for everyone” and that some are “unhappy and confused,” she declared “we and only we have a plan” and “we cannot and will be held hostage by a few who may have thought to use the previous governance structure to subvert or threaten a carefully laid out plan to reinvigorate the Festival.” The changes, she insisted, “would ensure that the Festival remains in responsible hands.”
When McLear opened the floor to questions, Jay Buckley was the first to sound a theme raised by SOON by suggesting that “the Festival has a marketing problem and thinks it has a quality problem.” He said that “the marketing stinks,” noting that the festival does not appear among the first 150 listings on Google for “clasical music in New Hampshire.”
Deborah Stewart, a former director, accepted the need for change, but expresed concern “about the way this has happened.”
Another former director, Art Albert of SOON, said that the board was changing the product without sufficient information. “There is no indication, ” he claimed, “that the improved product will have the desired effect.”
Robert Smith of Laconia agreed that the marketing effort must be strengthened, but reminded his fellow incorporators that the Festival has changed. He said that when it began the musicians came to New Hampshire to play music first and then vacation, but now they come to vacation, then play music. “You need to know more about what the board is doing,” he said.
Calling the board’s conduct “reprehensible,” Terry Thomason of Meredith recalled the controversy that began on the eve of the first performance, when the players were told they would be required to audition for their seats next season. “The more I heard from the board,” he said, “the less I believed what I was hearing.” Now, he continued, “the enemy is your constiuency. You have shut off all parliamentary process and rewritten the rules.
This board, Thomason charged, “is shutting down all input from those who pay the bills and fill the seats.”
Thomason conceded that he could not offer a motion from the floor, but said that if he could he would move “no confidence” in the direction the board was taking the Festival. When he asked the incorporators to applaud if they agreed, the room appeared almost evenly divided.
“The board heard you,” said McLear. ‘Your statement was eloquent. It will be discussed. That is all I can promise, but I do promise that.”
Following the meeting SOON issued a statement warning that the board’sd actions threatened the financial stability of the Festival by discouraging contributions to the annual fund and purchases of season tickets. “It is not too late for the board to correct this situation and find a way to hold the Festival together,” the statement read, “but that will require them to step back a bit from their current course of action.”
SOON reassured the board that it remains open to discussion and expressed hope that by working together agreement on plan for financial and artistic direction could be reached.