Updated: More turmoil at the Seattle Symphony

The top manager, Tom Philion, is stepping down at a critical moment, in what is becoming a habit at the troubled institution.
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Seattle Symphony Executive Director Thomas Philion.

The top manager, Tom Philion, is stepping down at a critical moment, in what is becoming a habit at the troubled institution.

Updated 9 am, Dec. 18.

The rocking boat that is the Seattle Symphony has just lost another leader overboard. Tom Philion, president of the Symphony for the past 2.5 years, just announced that he won't be renewing his contract next June. As usual, the Symphony wasn't explaining. Philion's predecessor, Paul Meecham, also left abruptly with no explanations, eventually decamping to the Baltimore Symphony. Meecham's predecessor, Deborah Card, clashed with the music director and departed to the Chicago Symphony.

All this leaves the SSO in the perilous position of having a lame-duck music director and an executive director heading out the door — not to mention a new board chair who is new to the board, a new chief financial officer, and a growing deficit.

One reason for these sudden resignations is ongoing political warfare within the orchestra's board. When Meecham took the job, he was opposed by music director Gerard Schwarz, and Schwarz's supporters on the board, since it was thought that Meecham would have the delicate task of suggesting it was time for a new conductor. Meecham never really patched up that rift, and when the board surprisingly extended Schwarz's contract, Meecham up and quit.

Enter, after an awkward interregnum of board direction, Tom Philion, who seemed to be very much on Schwarz's good side, since the two shared managerial and conducting jobs at an Eastern North Carolina festival. Philion, while relatively inexperienced for leading a major orchestra, nonetheless brought a new financial survival strategy to the SSO — lots of non-classical programming and building each program around a name composer or soloist. The agonizing decision about Schwarz was finessed when the conductor announced his plans to retire at the end of the 2010-11 season. But still the orchestra struggled financially and has not been able to bolster its small endowment.

Another factor in the instability has been the improvised nature of some recent appointments, including Philion's and the most recent board chairs. Board members were said to be pleased with many aspects of Philion's leadership, particularly calming down some of the anger, but also growing unhappy at his management of the orchestra, particularly the financial reporting (a change in CFO has just happened). Labor negotiations put management at a disadvantage by not having solid financial numbers. One source tells me that the board decided that in moving forward, the symphony was going to need to appoint a fully experienced leader, as part of attracting a top conductor when Schwarz retires. Sensing the writing on the wall, this source says, Philion decided to give notice of not seeking a renewal of his contract next spring.

The moment for this change could not be more ticklish, with the management and the players' union at the critical moment in contract negotiations. Almost certainly, the players will be asked to make some deep cuts in salaries, number of positions, and benefits going into the next multi-year contract. One source says the talks have been grim, though with a little ray of hope appearing, at least in tone, last week.

One source tells me that the players, suspicious of management and tired of their maestro, have been trying to insert all kinds of restrictive clauses — the kind of thing that may make hiring an exciting new conductor more difficult. Tim Hale, a spokesman for the players, flatly denies that charge, saying it's management that has been turning down the union's offers for more flexibility. Such offers, says my source, have been rejected because they come with big salary boosts. At any rate, the two sides are still negotiating, with the deadline for a vote probably about to be extended somewhat into January.

So what's going on? The board probably wanted its manager to oversee more successful contract negotiations. Philion was trying to walk a tightrope between factions, trying to restore trust with the musicians. Whether this task was simply too difficult or whether Philion was too inexperienced to do it (or both) is the key question. Nor were things helped much by Susan Hutchison's reputedly imperious manner as board chair, since she seems to have sided with the group on the board that felt the long-suffering musicians were demanding too much. And the Symphony's new board chair, Leslie Chihuly, wife of the famous glass artist, is also new to symphony matters. Meanwhile, the orchestra's financial position remains precarious, although a new bank line of credit was recently secured that will help.

The venerable organization seems to have reached the point where every key position is a seat too hot to occupy for very long. I suspect the long-in-the-dark board will soon be asking harder questions and trying to install more lasting fixes.


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