Peoria Symphony – Where the walls come tumbling up!

I’ll never forget watching a NBA post game news conference when the winning coach was asked what made him think to put the ball in the hands of a rookie who then scored seemingly at will to win the game.  His response and I paraphrase:

I didn’t, the guy thought we were in trouble and he stepped up to help the team, he led the leaders and we won the game!

The Peoria Symphony needs someone like that to step up to save their team…well someone has tried and failed, so now someone else needs to ……Time for some Schock treatment!……not a misspelling I assure you…..

As this article shows, the Peoria Symphony is being torn apart.  Everyone is trying to take the lead, and communication is devolving into letters and petitions.  It’s as if each faction is building a wall around themselves to lob proverbial grenades at each other, and guess what….. THEY ARE ALL HITTING THEIR TARGETS!  Worse than that though is that in the cross fire is their future audience, donors, foundation grants and board members.  Or to put it more succinctly, the survival of the orchestra and therefore live Symphonic music in their community.  They have already suffered their first casualty in this regard as former Caterpillar Inc. President Robert Gilmore who offered to be the mediator is pulling out his substantial annual contribution since he was rejected outright.

This all stemmed from a dispute between music director David Commanday and the board that became public after a clandestine delivery of a packet of info to the Peoria Journal Star.

From an an earlier article:

Some key members of the Peoria Symphony Orchestra Board are guilty of mismanagement, making misleading statements and violating the music director’s contract, according to departing music director David Commanday.

Commanday made the statements in a more than 30-page document sent to the full board last fall.

Commanday wrote the document in response to board members at the Peoria Symphony who changed the orchestra’s 2008-09 program without his knowledge as well as statements in the music director’s performance review.

“I urge the Board(sic) to put a stop to this inappropriate conduct by a few members of the Board(sic) leadership,” Commanday wrote on Nov. 17. “It is vital that these members take responsibility for their mistakes and act to correct them. If not, they should step down and allow the institution to recover and restore its full potential . . .”

The board voted not to renew the popular music director’s contract late last year.

Commanday’s letter was part of a packet of documents that contained both the music director’s performance review and Commanday’s critique of the review. The packet was delivered anonymously to the Journal Star

YIKES, and now the orchestra wants to unionize and one reason it seems is because they are worried about being treated the same way that David was!

From Michael Dicker, principal Bassoon:

“A clear contract . . . protects the musicians,” Dicker said. “You know then that it’s not going to be arbitrary, that it’s not somebody’s friend who is trying to influence a personnel change.”

Dicker said he’s not pointing any fingers.

“It’s simply that we’re concerned, I believe at least a majority is, that when you have a full house of people at almost every concert, when the music is being received very positively from concert-goers, when the orchestra is pleased to work with somebody, when the economic situation of the orchestra appears to the players to be quite solid, then why is that decision regarding (Commanday) being made,” Dicker said. “The manner in which that was done is a way in which the players in the orchestra could be treated as well.” (my emphasis)

I’m not against unions at all and it’s refreshing to hear someone go to bat for their music director, but  it seems that there’s some confusion within their own ranks as to why they want to unionize (from the latest article):

Players’ representative Peggy Bonner also spoke to the board about a recent letter sent to symphony business manager Judy Furniss announcing that the players were seeking possible union representation. Collective bargaining agreements are natural progressions in the professional development of an orchestra, Bonner said. She said that this action “in no way, whatsover” was meant to intervene in the situation between Commanday and the board. The two are separate issues, Bonner said. (my emphasis)

The board vote was 16-7 to uphold the decision, even after being presented with a petition of hundreds of signatures gathered by Gary and Sara James, representatives of Save Our Symphony, a local group.  The board have even announced the opening and have received resumes.   OK on that point, I would at least suspend the search until something is resolved or there will be no point in having a search!

Bottom line, everyone is against each other, there’s blame to go round, and it’s an ugly situation being played out in public.  Curiously I have not read any statements from their executive director Judy Furniss.  Maybe silence is the best option at this point!

Can he save them?
Can he save them?

So now what?  Well it’s time to introduce the rookie who just may have a “shot” at saving this.  The Congressman from Peoria Illinois is Aaron Schock recently voted by Huffington Post as the hottest freshman in Congress.  His story is amazing with tales of overcoming adversity such as running for a seat on the school board at the age of 19 and after being rejected for the ballot, entering as a write in candidate and winning!  He’s only 27 but has a stake (and his next election) in his home town.  He has national attention, obvious skills, and I would hazard a guess he would not be refused a meeting if he could be convinced to help!  Whats more, it looks like a hopeless situation, and that is what he seems to be good at dealing with! ( Of course there is another rookie, a junior Senator from Illinois, but it seems he may be tied up for a while!)

They now need to at least unify to the point that they agree to the need for an intervention, or their orchestra will be lost!

9 thoughts on “Peoria Symphony – Where the walls come tumbling up!”

  1. Thanks Ron for writing about the situation at the Peoria Symphony. I would like to clarify a point that you made about the musicians.

    While the treatment of David Commanday certainly served as a major heads up to most musicians as to how vulnerable they are to similar treatment, the relationship between seeking a collective bargaining agreement and the David Commanday issue are varied from musician to musician.

    There are those musicians who are profoundly affected by the decision of the board to terminate the Music Director, who are very upset, and for whom his treatment served as a powerful force in their interest in unionizing the orchestra. For others, while they may agree or disagree with the board’s action, they see the value of unionizing whether or not Commanday remains on the podium (which it appears he will not). For still other musicians, there are those who have been interested in organizing for its own sake for some time, and for those folks, the Commanday treatment is an unrelated issue. At least two of these opinions have been expressed publicly.

    The Peoria Symphony, like any other organization, is comprised of many individuals with varying points of view. The fact remains that the majority of PSO musicians have expressed their interest in being represented for the purpose of collective bargaining by Local 26 of the American Federation of Musicians. The degree to which that interest is related to the termination of David Commanday will invariably differ from person to person.”

    The way Commanday has been fired was indeed a rude wake-up call to musicians that the same thing could happen to any of them. In fact, it caused some of us to look at our player agreements and find that we have no protection whatsoever from arbitrary actions by the powers that be, thus the move to unionize.

    Thus, while it would be correct to say that Commanday’s firing gave an impetus to the organizing effort, the effort itself is distinct from the issues surrounding the dispute between Commanday and the board. Rather, it has everything to do with the musicians wanting the power and protection of a union in dealing with matters that so clearly affect their working conditions.

    Margaret Briskin
    member of the Peoria Musicians Organizing Committee

    • Margaret, thanks for your perspective. It is great to get more perspective, but just like I said to Eileen, the only perspective that’s available is from the press (specifically the Peoria Journal Star) which is where I got it, so they are controlling the narrative and it seems the communication too. It’s not a good place to be because it will be lopsided to the side that they think will sell them more papers, not to the side of what is in the best interests of the PSO. There needs to be an agreement on a media blackout so people can come together and talk freely and openly without fear of being misinterpreted… the press!

  2. I disagree that the publicity about the situation in Peoria is a negative. We need more transparency about all not-for-profit boards, not less. They spend tax money, grants from the Illinois Arts Council, for example.

    That’s a matter for our state legislators, not Aaron Schock. All boards who receive more than say $50,000 annually in tax funds should be subject to the state’s Open Records Act and Open Meetings Act.

    If that had happened with the Peoria Symphony Board, the public might have learned that its popular conductor was on the agenda to be let go,and could have reacted before the decision was set in stone!

    • Elaine, I definitely agree with you on your point about overall transparency. It seems that Illinois sunshine laws apply only to government bodies whereas here in MO all non profits are subject to them. I do think though the way this is happening in the public eye is a huge negative, what with an anonymous letter drop and now a major donor pulling out! There is a difference to making something public or accessible as opposed to making something published at the mercy of the press who might spin it as negatively as possible to sell more papers! They are now controlling the narrative, not the PSO, not a good place to be. Also, even though there is much support for David in Peoria, it’s potentially damaging to his career now that his comments to the board have been published (the ones selected by the editor of the PJS) without proper context. When applying for Music Director jobs, it’s mostly board members that make up the search committees so this could be a real negative for him. That is not fair. It makes me wonder that if there is so much support for him, did someone just not realize that it potentially hurts him to provide his comments to the PJS? They buy ink by the barrel!

      One could say that the legislature with their contribution is a major donor but that is all. They have no jurisdiction or say when it comes to governance and nor should they since an Orchestra is not a government agency and the contribution is probably less than 5% of the overall budget, hardly a controlling stake. Also once the government controls something it’s not selective, they will have a hand in all decisions, hardly the best formula for the creative freedom an Orchestra needs! They would sooner just drop the funding than get involved anyway. My suggestion to contact Aaron is based on his obvious skill in dealing with people as evidenced by his meteoric rise. Right now it’s not about who is right, but who can bring everyone to the table to work something out before irreparable damage occurs.

  3. No one is talking about government control here, just opening up the process to the public. As for Commanday’s career, he’s so good I doubt this will hurt him. Would he want to work with board members who do not respect dissent and the press? Probably not.

    • Kate
      Carlo Ponti is not conducting the concert, so why is he still coming into town? Sounds like the press is suggesting he is candidate. Of course that is probably want they want people to believe because it keeps the story going, papers selling and traffic to their site online (hey your comment did it for them) Again, they are controlling the narrative, because the only side we get, is their side, the side that wants to sell papers and drive web traffic their way. Get it out of the press and behind closed doors, so everyone can talk freely and not be reported and quoted out of context. The Columbus Symphony (OH) only worked out a deal after they announced a media blackout but a lot of damage was done with the intense vitriol back and forth in the press. Now they have no Music Director, their executive director has departed and their season is downsized. They have a long road back…so don’t go down that road!

  4. What you’re suggesting is secret decision-making outside the light of public purview. It’s unfortunately true that once you pick up a rock and shine a light underneath it, all sorts of unsavory things turn up, such as the PSO board apparently telling the former president of Caterpillar, who offered to negotiate between the two parties, that there was no point because there was nothing to negotiate. I’ll bet the PSO would’ve liked to keep that a secret, too, except the former president of Caterpillar preferred the sunshine and went to the press. In other words, you’re blaming the newspaper for merely reporting the news.

    • I wouldn’t confuse the kind of light the paper is shining on this as sunlight, it’s a spot light and they are controlling the filter, what’s actually lit, and what stays in the dark. Negotiations need to occur between parties of interest and a mediator. The paper doesn’t mediate, they essentially report to their advantage when it comes to disputes and they take sides, it’s how they sell papers. They would be more interested in prolonging this…you know print negative comments from he Music Director, mention that the guest conductor who changed the program is not conducting, but is still coming to town? Report on donors pulling their money, mention the vote totals to highlight the divide. In other words their spotlight shines purely on the negative and the conflict because it is to their advantage to do so. Someone may say something to try and help and then it could be twisted by the paper and taken the wrong way further deepening the problem, is that what people want? Is this what you mean by public purview? Negotiations usually happen in private, it is the deal when all parties agree that is made public (with all the details). The paper is not a vessel for communication but a source of information…the information and narrative that they want people to see and read, which in this case is stoking the flames. If it keeps up like this, it wont matter who is right or wrong, because it will all go up in flames! Finding a way to stop talking to reporters and start talking to each other is the only way to save things, it’s what they did in Columbus to work things out, it’s what needs to happen here too.

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