Seattle Symphony Executive Director Quits Amid Discontent in Ranks

Classic Arts News   Seattle Symphony Executive Director Quits Amid Discontent in Ranks
Paul Meecham, executive director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra (SSO), revealed yesterday that he will leave his position when his contract expires in December of this year.

Both The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer report that Meecham is leaving, in his words, "for personal reasons, and I am asking everyone to respect that." The Times adds that he may leave earlier if a good job opportunity should present itself.

The announcement of Meecham's departure comes at a sensitive time for the orchestra, according to both papers, with the fiscal year ending June 30 projected to show a deficit — the second in a row, those two being the first shortfalls in well over a decade — and the impending release of a survey of SSO musicians which will reportedly show considerable unhappiness in their ranks with longtime music director Gerard Schwarz.

Meecham came to the Seattle Symphony in 2004, after holding general manager posts at the New York Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony. (He succeeded the well-regarded Deborah Card, who went on to the Chicago Symphony.) There were reports at the time his appointment was announced (the fall of 2003) of dissension within the orchestra over his engagement, with some articles in the local press saying that he was unimpressed with Schwarz.

The SSO has seen a number of favorable development during Meecham's tenure, as the Times in particular points out: successfully negotiating a contract with musicians; a plan to achieve financial stability by 2009 and increase the orchestra's endowment; the release of commercial recordings on the Naxos label; the launch of nationally syndicated radio broadcasts.

The Times did mention that several senior staff vacancies are taking a long time to fill, though Meecham told the paper that any delay is due to "'an over-fished' pool of talent at the level we need now." The Times also made a point of quoting both Meecham and Schwarz as saying that their working relationship was good.

The Post-Intelligencer, on the other hand, concentrates on the survey of SSO musicians, which is expected to be made public next week, and the players' ongoing discontent with Schwarz. The newspaper mentioned alleged threats of dismissal if any player should leak survey results in advance (i.e., before the end of the fiscal year), and particular dismay among orchestra members with the renewal last month of Schwarz's contract through the 2010-11 season.

Not mentioned in either report were the personnel difficulties with musicians which have arisen on Meecham's watch, most notably the dismissal of concertmaster Ilkka Talvi after 20 years (and the subsequent release of his wife from her freelance duties as an extra string player) and a lawsuit by section violinist Peter Kaman alleging harassment by Schwarz.

Alluded to in the Post-Intelligencer, and in a pointed article in The Seattle Weekly last month, is the long-rumored conflict between those SSO board members who believe that the orchestra desperately needs some fresh musical leadership and those who favor keeping Schwarz because of his universally acknowledged skills as a fundraiser. "As Schwarz has his allies on the board," the paper wrote, "he has allies in the orchestra who are fervent in their support of the maestro. Each side calls the other a minority voice."

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