By VICTORIA GUAY
What was predicted both by board members and some incorporators to be a contentious annual meeting of the New Hampshire Music Festival on Wednesday at Gilford High School remained orderly.
In opening the meeting, Edward “Rusty” McLear, chair of the Festival’s board of directors, asked the audience the keep the meeting civil.
“We’re here and we’re here to all do the best job we can do for an institution a lot of us have come to care about,” McLear said, referring to ongoing disagreements between the board and some musicians and incorporators over the board’s decision to hire a festival director, end a long-standing tradition of a permanent conductor in exchange for a series of guest conductors, and a requirement that musicians re-audition for their positions based on a new, more collaborative model.
Some incorporators and patrons have formed a non-profit group, “Save Our Orchestra Now,” which has spoken out against some of the changes.
McLear said as the board and the festival’s management have worked to make what they view as needed changes to ensure the festival’s survival, some have taken a harsh stance against those changes. McLear said it has “created a very contentious climate and a difficult year for everyone, and I mean everyone.”
He said the angry tenor of discourse between the different groups has created a tense atmosphere that is doing no one any good; and, he reminded the audience, the Lakes Region has close-knit communities where people work, volunteer or serve together on various boards, committees and governing bodies.
McLear said the board has scheduled extra meetings this winter — one in December and another in early January — to discuss some of the unresolved issues.
An announced change in the festival’s articles of agreement and its bylaws at the beginning of the meeting prevented incorporators (or donors) from making motions or taking votes at the meeting, a move which upset some.
Later in the meeting, Susan Weatherbie, vice-chair of the board of directors, said the festival’s bylaws had not been reviewed since they were created in the 1950s. She said changing the bylaws and articles of agreement was necessary to help the festival run more efficiently and to streamline the decision-making process.
She said a look at how similar nonprofit organizations operate, such as the Portsmouth Music Hall and the Nashua Symphony Orchestra, led the directors to make a change that gives the board more decision-making power.
Weatherbie said, as a business, the festival needs clear, strong leadership and it needs to address the problem of declining ticket sales. She said leaving the articles of agreement as they were would delay what the board feels are necessary changes.
“We cannot and will not be held back,” Weatherbie said, by those who would try to “subvert and threaten our plan to reinvigorate our orchestra.”
Instead of having all incorporators vote on key issues, Weatherbie said the festival will form a new board of incorporators that will act in an advisory role to the board.
Comments from the audience were held until the end of the meeting, at which time many wanted to know why there were no annual reports or at least copies of financial statements made available to the audience.
McLear said after the meeting the was adjourned that it was an oversight and that copies should have been available.
Terry Thomason of Gilford said he felt “morally and ethically” bound to speak at the meeting. Thomason said he has been a patron for more than 20 years and, for most of those years, he bragged to friends across the country and abroad about the first-class orchestra in the backwoods setting of the Lakes Region. He said last year, he felt things were changing, and not for the better.
“I thought, this is not my orchestra anymore,” Thomason said.
He said as people asked questions and got few answers, he felt more apprehensive. Finding out about the decision to take voting privileges away from incorporators was especially disappointing, he said.
“Shutting down all input from the people who pay the bills and fill the seats is reprehensible,” Thomason said.
He added that, had he been allowed, he would have made a motion to take a vote of no confidence in the board and management of the festival.
Bob Smith of Laconia spoke up in favor of the board, adding that he thinks a sense of lethargy has been plaguing he orchestra for a few years. However, he added, the board needs to communicate more with patrons.
“Outstanding orchestras have outstanding conductors,” Young said.
Arthur Albert of Campton, a former board member and one of the founders of SOON, said his group is not against change’ it just wants the board to provide the market research and statistical data to support such drastic changes. He said the way the changes are being made is too rapid and will be the festival’s downfall.
Roland Young of Moultonborough and South Dartmouth, Mass., said he drove 160 miles to attend the meeting to be able to ask the board why it got rid of the permanent conductor when, to him, that is what makes an orchestra great.
His wife, Paula, asked to see a financial statement and was disappointed no copies were available.
“I was very interested to find out how they spend the money,” Paula Young said. “We buy tickets every year; we support the organization; I thought we’d at least get to see a financial statement.”
Paula Young said that, while she and her husband disagree with the board’s decision to remove a permanent conductor and to change the lineup of musicians next year, they still want to support festival; they just want to see where their money is going.
“We love the New Hampshire Music Festival and hope it keeps going,” Paula Young said. “It’s one of best things about coming up to the Lakes Region in the summer.”
The board gave an update on the planned concert hall and musician living quarters at the former Red Hill Inn in Center Harbor, located near the current administrative office for the festival. Weatherbie said the plans are on hold because not enough funds have been raised.
McLear said he hopes the festival eventually will have a permanent home.
“If this building doesn’t get built, some of you will view that as a victory,” McLear said. “I won’t. I will view it as a tragedy for the future of the New Hampshire Music Festival.”
During his report, Ron Sibley, chair of the finance committee, assured the audience that the festival is managed well. He said the annual financial statement is prepared according to generally accepted accounting standards by a third party.
He said that, in 2008, the festival’s total operating revenue was $912,206 while expenses were $931,591, leaving a deficit of $19,375. That deficit, however, was taken care of by a surplus of more than $27,000 in 2007.
He said the capital budget had a deficit of $493,759 in 2008 but a $473,000 surplus in 2007.
Weatherbie, who also is chair of the festival’s annual fund which pays the musicians’ salaries, living expenses production and other artistic costs, said the fund did well but could do better.
In 2008, she said, the fund raised $461,000 from 385 donors, including individuals, corporations and foundations. Meanwhile, the artistic costs of the 2008 summer season were approximately $539,000.
Weatherbie said ticket sales account for only one-third of the cost of producing the summer season.
The meeting also included a presentation on the festival’s education programs, which involve working with preschool and early grade school children, using music to enhance brain development and learning capabilities.
David Graham, president of the festival, said music can help young children improve their memory, recognize patterns and think creatively.