8/12/09 – Laconia Citizen

As Music Festival and musicians talk, more supporters airing their frustration

By VICTORIA GUAY

[email protected]

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

As talks continue between the musicians and management of the New Hampshire Music Festival, the board of directors responded to a letter published recently in the media by a group of festival patrons who have formed a group to protest recent and proposed actions by festival leadership.

The group of patrons, who call themselves ‘Save Our Orchestra Now’ (or SOON), said in their letter, which was published in The Citizen Tuesday, that they and others are considering boycotting future season ticket purchases and donations.

The lengthy missive included detailed questions to the Music Festival board about financing figures for the proposed new performance space, patronage and audience numbers and proposed numbers, why the Festival chorus has been cut and about the overall financial stability of the organization.

The chairman and vice chairwoman of the New Hampshire Music Festival board of directors, Edward “Rusty” McLear and Susan Weatherbie, respectively, wrote in a letter published in The Citizen on Wednesday that “a great deal of misinformation about the New Hampshire Music Festival had been circulated in various forums in recent weeks.”

They said they wanted to address some of the misconceptions, the first being that there would be no resident orchestra next year. They wrote that there will be a resident orchestra next summer and that “a great majority of that orchestra will consist of the same musicians that have been a part of the Festival for many years.”

In answering the question of why the Music Festival needs to be changed, McLear and Weatherbie said the board of directors has been examining its business model for the last three years in response to declining festival audiences, which, according to them, have declined by approximately 25 percent in the last 10 years.

“To continue business as usual in this climate would, in fact, be irresponsible governance,” McLear and Weatherbie write, adding that to reverse the trend, a “re-energizing” of the process is necessary.

“Re-energizing the musical product with a collaborative approach involving an orchestra of professional musicians, along with guest artists and a limited number of students from the greatest conservatories in this country, is the essence of what we will be doing,” McLear and Weatherbie write, ending the letter shortly thereafter.

Stephen Tessler of Sanbornton is a member of SOON’s executive committee.

When he learned of the board of directors’ response letter, which contained few specifics and did not answer many of the questions raised by SOON in their open letter, Tessler said the lack of details is what is of most concern.

“That’s been the problem,” Tessler said, explaining that as patrons and other audience members learned of the new direction in which it appeared the Music Festival was being steered and what was being asked of the musicians, they pressed Music Festival management and board members for details.

“We looked to management for specifics and instead they come up with these generalities that just don’t cut it,” Tessler said.

David Graham, executive director of the Music Festival, said he, the Festival’s music director, Henry Fogle, and the board of directors are still in talks with the musicians so he didn’t have much to say beyond what was in the letter from McLear and Weatherbie.

“This is a time when we have not made our talks public,” Graham said, “because we don’t feel it would be productive.”

Graham said he may have more to say on the matter next week after further talks with musicians.

Valerie Watts, a flutist who has been with the festival for almost 20 years and is the chair of the musician’s negotiating committee with Music Festival management, said that although talks are still ongoing, she is pleased to report that musicians will not have to reapply for their positions.

“The prequalification requirement is off the table. Now our biggest sticking point is (management’s idea of) having students replace professional musicians,” Watts said.

Watts said she did not have an exact number from management as to how many positions would be replaced with students, but she said it at first appeared to be a large percentage.

“That is also still in flux,” Watts said, noting that negotiations are ongoing and things can change daily.

In terms of the size of the orchestra being reduced further, Watts said she doesn’t know if that is part of the plan.

“Obviously we’d like to keep the orchestra at least the same size we have now,” Watts said, noting that the festival was cut from 53 members down to 45 this year.

But Watts said the key issues have been the re-auditioning requirement, which has been eliminated, and the student question. All other issues such as pay and hours musicians are willing to work out.

“We really are trying to work in good faith with management,” Watts said.

But Tessler and others want answers to their questions now.

Tessler said he has been attending Music Festival concerts for 30 years and has never been as concerned about the festival’s future as he is now.

He said he fears the Music Festival may be no more if an agreement that is satisfying to the musicians and Festival supporters as well as management is not soon reached.

One solution, Tessler said, may be to have all interested parties, including Festival management and board members, musicians and patrons sit down with a negotiator.

Tessler said he doesn’t have a vested interest in the Music Festival, as he does not have the money to buy season tickets or make large donations to the organization.

But he said that as an appreciative concertgoer, he doesn’t understand why the Music Festival’s leaders want to change what has kept him and others coming back.

Tessler said when he first heard of plans to build a new venue for the Festival he thought it was a good idea; however, he said if the Music Festival is in financial trouble, maybe now is not the time to build a $10 million facility.

In answer to questions about funding details, Graham said Tuesday that he has not had a chance to figure out how much money previously promised to the Festival to build a new performance space is still in place and how much will need to be raised because the duties of producing the current season, which ends soon, along with the negotiations with musicians has taken precedence.

Tessler said that he and other members of SOON are especially upset by management’s plan to build a new facility when they are claiming that “declining financials” are the reason behind reassessing or re-evaluating the “artistic product.”

“We should be looking to save the artistic product,” Tessler said.

Tessler said there are better ways to increase revenues and reverse declining audiences, such as better marketing and publicity, which he noted has had a marked decline in the last several years.

“Up until 10 years ago the New Hampshire Music Festival was well publicized,” Tessler said.

Tessler said he is also dismayed by the reduction of the orchestra from 53 musicians last year to 45 this season.

Approximately one-third of the string section has been cut, which he said has hurt performances.

Tessler said more positions may be cut for next year.

In addition, remaining positions may be filled with students and not the well-established and seasoned musicians that fill those spots now, Tessler said.

“Students could bring an added dimension to the Festival, but in addition to present orchestra members, not instead of,” Tessler said.

Finally, Tessler said that when he read Henry Fogle’s introductory letter as festival director he agreed with Fogle’s statement that “a really good performance of anything should shake you to your roots.”

“Yet his actions indicate he doesn’t know that is what has been going on for all these years,” Tessler said.

Watts said she and other musicians appreciate the support of patrons, including those who have formed SOON.

“It’s been wonderful to have them to support us, encourage as we work out these issues,” Watts said.