Seattle Symphony Debacle: Inside the Sudden Departure of Thomas Dausgaard

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(Image: James Holt)

Editor’s Note: Saturday evening the Seattle Symphony sent over a list of requested corrections. We have made corrections in the body of this story and annotated and responded to the list at the end.

An Update to this story published January 26.


First things first. It must be said before anything else that the Seattle Symphony Orchestra has never sounded better in its 119 years. It’s not just that the string sound has been completely made over or that the orchestra has an expanded dynamic range and air-tight ensemble; it now plays with a discipline, sensitivity and passion that it has never had (at least in my 36 years of listening to literally hundreds of concerts). At its best now, the orchestra can be incandescent as it explores ideas, and musicians look energized and engaged on the stage. You won’t get much argument from most that the man largely responsible for the newfound polish is Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard, until last week the orchestra’s music director.

Let’s also stipulate that music directors leave orchestras all the time. Conductors wield much power, orchestra musicians can be an unruly lot, and even the best of relationships eventually fray and come to an end, usually with conflicting stories about why and plenty of nursed grievances to go around. Currently, including now the Seattle Symphony, eight major orchestras are engaged in searches for new music directors.

What raises red flags though, what is extraordinary about Dausgaard’s departure, is the manner in which he ended his relationship with the orchestra – in the middle of a season, effective immediately, and barely a month before he was about to embark on the first installment of a two-year Sibelius cycle, his passion project. Yes, music directors quit all the time, but virtually never in the middle of a season and, in the modern era, not effective immediately.

That’s what we know for sure. You will notice throughout this attempt to piece together the story behind the fiery departure is that there aren’t names attached to the stories. In contentious internal organizational situations, the zone quickly floods with gossip and inuendo. Of the some two dozen people interviewed for this story, only one agreed to go on the record. “That right there ought to tell you something about how bad a situation this is,” says one former board member before promptly going off the record. “This is a train wreck.”

Perhaps. But all the secrecy makes it more difficult to figure out the real story. If it were simply a case of a disaffected maestro throwing a tantrum and walking out and life goes on, it would be one thing. When Jaap von Zweden announced earlier this season that he was going to finish out his contract and leave his post as music director of the New York Philharmonic to spend more time with his family, observers politely nodded and moved on, even though the official reason given for his decision is the oldest cliché in the book.

Dausgaard’s sudden departure is more puzzling. Though on the surface this story is a personnel issue and there are privacy considerations, Seattle Symphony-the-institution has refused to respond to questions.  Repeated attempts to get any comment from SSO executive director Krishna Thiagarajan, board chair Jon Rosen and the orchestra’s press spokesperson were ignored. Finally I had a reply from the orchestra’s press office saying that “unfortunately Krishna’s and Jon’s schedules are completely booked” and that they are “unable to offer comment beyond what’s already been communicated in the press release and the press.”

Former board chair Rene Ancinas also did not respond to an email with a list of questions. Last night however, Rosen broke his silence with what I would characterize as a fierce email responding to the email I had sent Ancinas and Ancinas had forwarded him, disputing the premises of my questions. I responded with an offer for him to answer my questions and correct what I might have wrong today before publication of this story. By publication time he had not responded. Too bad, because he actually raised a couple of good concerns, which I have tried to incorporate into the account below.

When a publicly-supported institution refuses to even answer questions from the press, it’s usually a sign that something is not right. Note to arts managers: defensiveness might just be the cardinal sin when talking to a reporter – it makes our Spidey senses tingle and want to dig in deeper to see what’s being hidden. But it makes it difficult to get all sides of the story.

In order to be as accurate as possible, each of the stories in this report has at least two corroborating accounts from people who personally witnessed what we’re reporting. I have made a good faith effort to leave out anything for which I couldn’t confirm stories, which proved inaccurate or which were obviously hearsay.

Let’s start with the press announcement of the departure, which was annoyingly vague, playing up Dausgaard’s “defining 12-year partnership” with the organization, with cheers and kisses all around. Except. The first ten years of that association had been as a guest conductor and, since 2014, principal guest conductor. His appointment as music director had only begun in 2019, and, with the COVID shutdown in March 2020 and suspension of live concerts for more than a year, it’s been a stunningly brief time in the job. His contract was set to go to the end of the 2022-23 season, and, given the high level of the orchestra’s performance, it would have been reasonable to expect that renewal would be high on the orchestra’s priority list. Clearly something had gone seriously wrong, and fast.

A few days after the announcement, a story in The New York Times under the incendiary headline “Seattle Maestro Resigns by Email and Says He Felt ‘Not Safe’” appeared in which Dausgaard said he had had “a strained relationship with the orchestra’s managers, accusing the administration of repeatedly trying to silence and intimidate him.” Dausgaard, the Times reported, had sent a list of concerns and grievances to the orchestra board last February. Rosen, the SSO’s board chair, categorically dismissed Dausgaard’s charge that the orchestra was trying to intimidate him and said Dausgaard’s list had been investigated and was inaccurate. The Times report didn’t follow up on what the conductor’s concerns were nor how they had been addressed. Attempts to speak with Dausgaard for this story were declined through his PR representative after the Times story ran.

Dausgaard did not come off well in the article, and the headline made him seem unwell. (As a side note perhaps apropos of nothing particularly, it’s worth wondering what the reaction to Dausgaard’s charges – by the Times, by the SSO — that he felt “unsafe” and “threatened” might have been had he been a woman rather than a 58-year-old white male.)

Another part of the puzzle is that some orchestra musicians also wondered why they had seen or heard so little from their leader for most of the COVID lockdown. Dausgaard had been silent, even as the orchestra worked on virtual content, and then he missed a planned appearance at the orchestra’s season opener last fall because the orchestra had failed to procure him a visa to come from Europe (even though some American orchestras – such as St. Louis – had been successful getting their foreign-resident music directors in). When he did arrive, in November, players reported he was out-of-sorts. “It was like he didn’t want to be here,” says one musician. “Several of us felt,” says another, “that this would be the last time we would ever see him.” Dausgaard failed to show at his next set of concerts, calling in sick.

Though orchestra board chair Rosen categorically denied in the Times story that Dausgaard’s grievances had merit (a substantial and lengthy list one source reports ran to dozens of pages), it turns out the maestro is only the latest of the SSO family to jump ship. In the past two-plus years, at least 58 employees of the roster of 89 listed in late 2018 programs – including seven of the eight senior management team – have left. The board shows a similar attrition; of 39 board members listed at the end of 2018, 27 have departed.

This is an extraordinarily high percentage, but it should be stipulated that when a new executive director takes over an organization, he or she is entitled to build their own team. And, during a panel discussion I moderated at Folio in the fall of 2019 when I asked him about the rapid turnover, Krishna Thiagarajan, the orchestra’s new executive director who had started at the beginning of 2019 in September 2018, responded bluntly: “we’re replacing them with better people,” a comment that caught me by surprise. That’s an extraordinarily ungracious public remark to make to a reporter who had just published a story about the turmoil.

Rosen, in his email to me last night, wrote that the disaffection of employees amounted to “complaints from employees who were resistant to the changes being implemented by our new President/CEO Krishna Thiagarajan.  Some of the complainants had aspired to the position he was awarded.” 

Seattle Symphony President Krishna Thiagarajan

Behind the scenes the situation was volatile. Thiagarajan had accused the well-respected artistic administrator Elena Dubinets of mismanagement of funds and placed her on 30-day administrative leave. Thiagarajan’s charges were found groundless, staff was shocked by their boss’s charges, and Dubinets finally quit, joining other members of the senior team – financial officer Maureen Campbell Melville, communications VP Rosalie Contreras, development director Jane Hargraft, education and community engagement director Laura Reynolds, board relations officer Kristen Nyquist, and marketing director Charlie Wade – who departed, almost all for bigger jobs.

Hargraft now runs development for the Cleveland Orchestra, Wade runs marketing for the Philadelphia Orchestra, Contreras is communications director at Juilliard and Dubinets is artistic director of the London Philharmonic. It’s not an overstatement to say that this is an all-star cast who had accomplished much in Seattle and has subsequently gone on to bigger and better things. It’s also not a huge surprise, given the SSO’s remarkable successes with the team, that other organizations would come calling, looking to poach top execs.

And again, an incoming executive is entitled to his own team. Still, together with the board attrition, this is a significant drain of institutional memory and talent.

The senior staff departures hint at a culture that had quickly changed. Within a few weeks of arriving in the job, Thiagarajan was heard by several staff expressing his opinion that hiring Dausgaard – which had taken place just before Thiagarajan had arrived — was “a mistake.” He claimed the selection process by which Dausgaard had been chosen was flawed, lamented that Seattle was “a provincial town” and that he had “inherited a dumpster fire from Simon Woods” [the orchestra’s much celebrated previous executive director who had departed to take a job as CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic].  

Where Woods had promoted a highly collaborative institutional culture, Thiagarajan took to criticizing staff in front of other staff and pitting them against one another, staff members report. He second-guessed decisions by staff, dressing them down in group meetings, and made clear that his opinions were the only ones that mattered, they say. Even as employees were quitting, they expressed, they say – in exit interviews, in meetings, in complaints to the board – that they found the workplace toxic.

Again though, when a new leader comes in, culture inevitably changes, and there’s almost always turnover among staff.

By summer 2019, enough complaints had piled up that the board hired a workplace attorney – Trish K. Murphy – to investigate. At least six employees were interviewed. Murphy’s report was sufficiently alarming that then-SSO board president Rene Ancinas put together a thirteen-member committee from the executive board to consider the charges. Their meetings were held off-site, in a boardroom at the Davis Wright Tremaine law firm, where they were sworn to secrecy and asked to sign non-disclosure agreements.

The charges of misbehavior were alarming. Thiagarajan had made shocking charges against senior staff. And there were numerous accounts of what amounted to bullying. “It was clear we had a real problem,” says one participant in the meetings. A first vote on what should be done resulted in seven votes to remove Thiagarajan. But Ancinas, as reported by one of the group, was reluctant to fire the CEO – hiring him had been Ancinas’ first big act when he had become board chair.

There was also a financial consideration. Members of the group say Thiagarajan’s contract specified that a percentage of his remaining contract would be due to him should he be let go. This is not an unusual provision in executive pay. Quick calculation in summer of 2019, though, indicated this would amount to something close to $1 million. Rosen, in his email to me last night, disputes this account: “There is no severance or any payout whatsoever if the employment relationship is terminated for cause. There is a modest severance provision if the agreement is terminated before its term without cause by the organization, as is customary in the industry.”

Committee members also worried that firing Thiagarajan would damage the orchestra in the eyes of the community. In the end, Ancinas mustered the votes to retain Thiagarajan and the committee decided to hire an executive coach and try to improve Thiagarajan’s performance. Recommendations of the coach included that Thiagarajan should not be allowed to have any meeting with staff without the door open.  [The SSO has denied that this was a recommendation and I am unable to verify it with the coach. The SSO did not provide opportunity to check this before publication.]

Rosen again: “To assure that we left no stones unturned we arranged for a professional executive coach to work with Krishna and regularly report progress first to my predecessor and then to me.  This process was very successful and by the end of Mr. Ancinas’ term as chair the SSO was thriving under Krishna’s capable leadership, even with the many and complex strains caused by the pandemic.”  Nonetheless, one employee was so traumatized by Thiagarajan’s treatment that the orchestra paid a financial settlement and the employee was made to sign an NDA before leaving.

In the meantime, the orchestra seemed to minimize its promotion of Dausgaard. A review of press releases from the past two years shows that unlike most orchestras, which are constantly hyping the accomplishments of their music directors, SSO promotion of Dausgaard was muted. More telling is looking at the orchestra’s annual reports. Arts organization annual reports are an art form all their own. Typically they hype artistic accomplishments of the previous year, point to community engagement, gush about what is ahead, then report the financial results. This SSSO report for 2016, for example, in which there are messages from music director Ludovic Morlot, board chair Leslie Chihuly and then-executive director Simon Woods. In the more recent annual reports under Thiagarajan, however, there are only messages from the executive director, and Dausgaard is barely mentioned.

“When Ludo [Ludovic Morlot] became music director,” says one staffer, “he had a personal assistant and Elena Dubinets to support him in the job.” Dausgaard would be given no such support. Indeed, people throughout the SSO began to notice that the administration didn’t seem to be supporting him, helping him to be successful. Dausgaard was said to have suggested ideas for him to get out in the community, meet with donors or make more public appearances, but he was dismissed as a “diva.” He was discouraged from meeting with donors and musicians [see clarification at the bottom of this story].

It should be said that such activity and contact is usually coordinated with the organization, but most orchestras actively look for opportunities for the public face of the organization – the music director – to be out interacting with donors and the community. But even at obvious events – for example last fall’s opening gala which Dausgaard was unable to attend because of a lack of a visa to enter the country – the orchestra didn’t make an effort to involve the conductor – a streamed or recorded message for example. Instead, Rosen merely announced to the crowd that Dausgaard couldn’t be there [and a recorded video featuring Dausgaard was played].

Dausgaard arrived in the music director job with the highest possible ratings on evaluation forms from musicians in the orchestra. They had, after all, a ten-year relationship with the conductor, and they knew what they were getting. The search committee, which went through an elaborate process to get input on the hire, voted to hire him six to one.

That said, there was, right from the start, a small but vocal number of musicians who were not Dausgaard fans, particularly in the brass section. Such dissent is not unusual. At the end of the Gerard Schwarz era there were a number of players still loyal to Schwarz who resented Morlot. “The way you get everyone on board,” says one orchestra manager, is to have strong support from management for your music director and talk relentlessly about the future.” That apparently never happened when Dausgaard arrived.

Dausgaard was perceived as being somewhat naïve about how American orchestras work. “He should have been out there, cultivating the Simonyis and Benaroyas and other large donors,” says one board member. Musicians found Dausgaard a demanding taskmaster, but the rewards in performances were satisfying (though not for some of the musicians Dausgaard demanded more from). It should also be said that Dausgaard has not had a trouble-free relationship with his other orchestra, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

By the time COVID shut down live performances in March 2020, Dausgaard’s frustration with his situation was intense, observed those who know him. During the shutdown, when the borders were closed and Dausgaard was unable to come to Seattle, the SSO shifted to virtual performances.  Dausgaard reportedly pitched opportunities for remote contact with musicians, but it wasn’t until mid-summer that the orchestra arranged a virtual opportunity. During COVID, arts organizations have actively looked for ways to bolster and support both their internal workforce as well as the larger communities they serve. But though the orchestra was producing virtual content, Dausgaard was absent.

And 2020 took its toll on the Danish maestro, as it did on many of us. He got divorced, and his father died. His orchestras in Seattle and Glasgow weren’t performing and he was cut off from Seattle. Though many musicians wondered at his sour demeanor when he finally appeared in Seattle in November, attributing his behavior to personal problems, Dausgaard’s bad mood was more likely attributable to his obvious frustration with his situation at the SSO.

The players had been right. Dausgaard had ultimately decided there was no future in Seattle and determined to quit. His artist management team spent the next few months trying to talk him out of it, but finally, he pressed send on the now-famous email that the New York Times reported.

So where does the orchestra go from here?

The SSO clearly has some big problems. Is Thiagarajan a bully? Is Dausgaard a naif who doesn’t really understand how big American orchestras work? Whatever the problems, the blame falls on the board, which has ultimate responsibility, knew about issues and clearly failed to adequately correct them. Both Ancinas and Rosen are described by almost everyone I talked to as really great guys, but out of their depth. Ancinas, who runs a family timber company Port Blakely, is seen as “nice but unable to make the tough decisions.” Rosen is older, very dedicated to the orchestra, a labor attorney with his own firm, but described as having little experience with how big orchestras work.

The SSO board over the past thirty years has often been a contentious group. There were numerous fights during the Schwarz years, and the board has a singular reputation for not being able to make tough decisions.

One significant and complicating factor in considering Thiagarajan’s role at the orchestra is that, in part, thanks to COVID, the orchestra’s finances seem to be in better shape now than they have been for years. A long-term accumulated debt has reportedly been whittled down, something that was never accomplished during the Simon Woods years despite concerted efforts. And the 2019-20 season showed a small surplus, thanks to reduction of expenses from being unable to perform live, increased donor giving, and $3.9 million in government COVID relief (the orchestra also received another big financial boost in late 2021 from the federal Shuttered Facilities COVID relief fund).

The orchestra thus finds itself in one of its strongest financial positions in years, though it must be said that many orchestras have likewise seen a positive uptick in their financial situations during COVID. Turns out not producing concerts with their attendant expenses, combined with big boosts in community and government support is good for the non-profit bottom line. But Thiagarajan gets credit from board members for what looks like a healthy financial situation.

The immediate question is who will be the orchestra’s next music director. A search has not yet been announced, but the conductors replacing Dausgaard are not big names. Morlot returns to claim some of the dates, but it is almost certain he would not return permanently. Also looming are negotiations on a new contract with musicians, set to begin later this year. After a period of labor peace with the players, musicians now have significant concerns about the future and what their next contract will look like. And many of them, while deeply grateful that the orchestra continued to pay much of their salaries during lockdown, are deeply unsettled by the turmoil around their music director and orchestra staff.

This is a troubling story and there are clearly many sides and opinions. What we know is that the orchestra is playing well, that Dausgaard gets much of the credit for that and he’s now gone. We also know that there has been considerable turmoil inside the orchestra administration and that its leaders’ defensiveness and refusal to answer questions is not a good sign. It’s difficult, considering Dausgaard’s considerable musical success in Seattle, to see his hasty departure as anything but a massive failure on Thiagarajan’s part. And the board clearly mishandled what was a volatile and unhappy management failure, which resulted in the draining of the orchestra’s human capital from bottom to the top of the institution.

Making art at a high level – particularly at the institutional level – is the very hard-won product of an elusive alchemy, a chemistry in which all the ingredients have to interact and transform one another to higher purpose. It’s a formidable challenge for which there’s no magic playbook. For now that chemistry in Seattle is gone. Getting it back won’t be possible without painful self-examination and some wrenching decisions.


An Update to this story published January 26.

Addendum 1.

SSO president Jon Rosen on Saturday sent the following email to staff and musicians. The orchestra players organization has also called an all-hands meeting for Tuesday morning at 11.

Dear Staff and Musicians,

Yesterday evening an article on Thomas Dausgaard’s resignation and past administrative issues was published by the online Post Alley. Many of the allegations in the piece are plain wrong or distorted.

While we anticipated that the news of Thomas’ departure would create some media attention, it is disappointing that the article referenced administrative issues from several years ago which had been formally vetted and dismissed. It is also disappointing – if the article accurately conveys their complicity – that those associated with the organization have chosen to contribute to the article anonymously.

Throughout the pandemic, you’ve all been steadfast in your dedication to this organization and our community. I can assure you that the Board and I fully support the present leadership. Our shared goal is the same – from musicians to staff to my fellow board members – to build back from the pandemic and see through our promise that our orchestra plays on and to continue bringing this great music to our community and beyond. It is a testament to all of you that we stand ready to embark on a bright future.

Jon

Addendum 2.

The Seattle Symphony Saturday evening requested the following corrections and clarifications. Corrections have been indicated in the body of the story, and the author’s responses are highlighted in bold below. Additionally, we will be publishing a follow-up to this story in the next day or so.

FROM: SSO Communications Office:

In the interest of accuracy, we’re bringing to your attention some points that were misreported. We do ask that you reconsider the current presentation and amend, in light of the corrections requested below:

  1. “… he missed a planned appearance at the orchestra’s season opener last fall because the orchestra had failed to procure him a visa to come from Europe…”

    Thomas’ visa was granted on July 9. What prevented a September arrival was the lack of visa interview appointment availability at the Copenhagen Embassy. Ultimately, through the efforts of those from both within and external to the Symphony, his visa was expedited through a different channel, enabling Thomas’ arrival in November to conduct.

    DM: It’s the orchestra’s responsibility to secure the visa, and that didn’t happen, whatever the reason. This doesn’t mean that they didn’t try, just that they were unsuccessful when other orchestras were.

  2. “…Krishna Thiagarajan, the orchestra’s new executive director who had started at the beginning of 2019…”

    Krishna joined the Seattle Symphony in September 2018.

    DM: I regret the error.

  3. “Quick calculation in summer of 2019, though, indicated this would amount to something close to $1 million.”

    Appreciate your noting Jon’s clear explanation in your piece refuting this point. This is still an erroneous assertion and incorrect calculation.

    DM: I did include Rosen’s explanation in the original piece and checked back with the source who had told me about it. He stands by the recollection.

  4. “Recommendations of the coach included that Thiagarajan should not be allowed to have any meeting with staff without the door open.”

    There was no such recommendation given by the executive coach.

    DM: I was told by two sources who reported this. I was unable to verify with the coach. I would have welcomed the opportunity to check this with the orchestra before publication.

  5. “’When Ludo [Ludovic Morlot] became music director,’ says one staffer, ‘he had a personal assistant and Elena Dubinets to support him in the job.’ Dausgaard would be given no such support.”

    Thomas had a personal assistant as well as full and regular access to both the interim VP of Artistic Planning and the current VP of Artistic Planning.

    DM: I regret the error. I was unable to ask Dausgaard on this point and did not think to check the staff roster to verify. Again, something I would have liked to have checked with orchestra administration before publication.

  6. “He was discouraged from meeting with donors and musicians.”

    On the contrary, Thomas was encouraged to participate in these meetings, especially with donors, to the extent the demands of his travel/rehearsal/performance schedule would allow. Such meetings were facilitated with full staff support.

    DM: I heard from sources who reported Dausgaard was discouraged from meeting with donors alone. I also heard that he was asked not to talk with musicians who were part of the players committee. Could both things be true? Encouraged to participate in larger meetings but discouraged from one-on-one meetings? This would have been one of my questions for management for the original story.

  7. “But even at obvious events – for example last fall’s opening gala which Dausgaard was unable to attend because of a lack of a visa to enter the country – the orchestra didn’t make an effort to involve the conductor – a streamed or recorded message for example. Instead, Rosen merely announced to the crowd that Dausgaard couldn’t be there.”

    A video message from Thomas was shared with all who joined for both in-person and streamed Opening Night concerts – at the event itself as well as the digital broadcast – to ensure that Thomas had a presence at the season opening even though he couldn’t be there in person.

    DM: I regret this error. I had been told that the orchestra hadn’t tried to stream a message from Dausgaard and I mistakenly added “recorded” as well. That was sloppy.

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Doug is a longtime arts journalist, and the founder and editor of ArtsJournal.com, he's frequent keynoter on arts and digital issues, and works with a number of arts organizations nationally.

76 COMMENTS

  1. Two dozen people spreading gossip while being unwilling to go on record speaks less to a “culture of fear,” and more to a lack of quality sources.

  2. Thanks for this insightful and nuanced story that clearly shows a lot of hard reporting by someone with deep knowledge of the Seattle Symphony. It’s a shame that the symphony’s leaders don’t seem to understand the first rule of crisis management—get out in front of the storm and be as transparent as possible.

  3. An MD changing the sound of an orchestra over 2 COVID-ridden short seasons? A 58 year old white guy in fear and “not safe” while 8000 miles away? Pull the other one.

    • Exactly what I was thinking. He’s giving a disengaged conductor far too much credit. And suggesting that he would be treated better if he were a woman is just laughable.

  4. You lost me in the first paragraph. Ludovic Morlot is responsible/oversaw the vast majority of the new hires in recent years. He is responsible for the orchestra sounding so much better. This is laughable journalism.

    • This is not to minimize Ludo’s contributions in raising the standard of the orchestra considerably. He made much-needed repairs after the Schwarz years. The improvement was striking. But at least from my vantage point, having heard this orchestra regularly since 1985 – hundreds of concerts, it wasn’t until Dausgaard came that the final gleam was put on the sound and the performances. I think Morlot accomplished a lot – I was at the Carnegie Hall concert and it was an exciting night. But at its best, this orchestra is playing at a higher level now than it did a few years ago, building on Morlot’s significant upgrades. No dis to Ludo at all.

      • Sorry but you’re giving him WAY too much credit. How about contacting some musicians and management from his orchestras in Europe instead of just one or two disgruntled members of the SSO who were his acolytes and obviously have an agenda. Pathetic hit job.

        • As a long-time listener, have to say Dausgaard’s impact on the sound and performance of the orchestra was immediate. I never missed his performances in the time before he became MD, and that Sibelius cycle was unforgettable start to finish.
          BTW – if you want to be taken seriously, identify yourself as most do here – Anonymous, Back Row, ND2, Concertgoer, OnStage, etc. are invitations to just turn the page.

      • I find myself rather astounded by your denigration of Schwarz. Schwarz was largely responsible for turning the SSO into a first rate Mahler ensemble. Morlot proceeded to build on this. One of my major disappointments with Dausgaard was his failure to include a Mahler piece in his first season. Now we’ll never know.

      • there was a huge influx of new players (throughout the orchestra) hired since Schwarz’s departure. It’s a very different orchestra since those days.

    • I agree, Morlot did wonders and I did not hear more “polish” from Dausgaard. He did spend rehearsal time getting the brass more gooey. Fingers crossed that the obviously challenged Board can pull out of its textbook death spiral. Defensive or absent messaging and doubling down on support for the clearly problematic Thiagarajan, a PR vacuum, no new search announcement or indication that this time, a new conductor will be supported as they must be, unlike Dausgaard and Morlot.

  5. I will second the comment above, Ludo has far more to do with this orchestra sounding good than Thomas ever could. Has anyone considered contacting orchestras in Thomas’ home, Denmark before writing this article? Seems like a really important piece of information. Does anyone remember when Thomas tried to start a finale in concert and had to restart because his upbeat was not in the right tempo? This was not the only time he had these problems. He was not fit to be music director. Some musicians contacted colleagues overseas who had worked with him extensively and had been warned that he was not a good choice due to high amounts of hostility.
    Who goes out to destroy an arts non-profit during a pandemic? An upset former music director? A journalist? Is this respectable?

  6. It’s hard to take anything that the author writes seriously when he doesn’t disclose his personal friendships with sources, particularly Elena Dubinets, who has been at the helm of the oust Krishna campaign since his first month in Seattle. There is far more to this story than the falsehoods being perpetrated by this faction.

      • You should look into why the development department during Simon Woods’ tenure had near constant turnover due to their abusive, narcissistic VP. Despite her protestations that the dozens of staff she went through were all incompetent and she was happy to see them go, the turnover resulted in her receiving coaching as well. Perhaps in her mind, being called to account for her own behavior by Krishna equals abuse and bullying but most everyone else, including key donors, were happy to see her leave. The truth is that there was a lot of unethical behavior by Simon’s senior staff going on that was swept under the rug by Simon and the board. New leadership was tasked to clean it up, but you’ll never hear that from your sources, considering it was their mess that was the problem.

        • Jane Hargraft and her team brought in a 55 million dollar gift to the Cleveland Orchestra.
          That level of competency must be intimidating to an administrator with a checkered past spent in lesser institutions.
          The details will continue to filter out and the SSO will not benefit in any way from a protracted public airing. Time for a comprehensive reboot.

  7. The innovative program Maestro Dausgaard did with the Rite of Spring and the Ukrainian folk music group led me to believe that the future with him was bright. I have been going to Seattle Symphony programs for decades and have never enjoyed anything more. I was really looking forward to having him here for a long time. And the man could conduct Mahler. I will never forget his guest conducting of Mahler’s 10th. I was hoping that we would be treated to another performance of this work before his tenure was over. This whole story is extremely sad.

  8. Unfortunately there was never a real search when Thomas Dausgaard was selected to be MD. It was a rush job and he was pushed through by the search committee since Simon Woods was leaving for LA PHIL. Ironically (but not surprisingly) Simon Woods didn’t even last a season there. Elena Dubinets didn’t last much longer in Atlanta (also no surprise). If Simon and Elena are so great, why were they both fired from their next engagements in such short order???? Think about that for a bit. From the musicians perspective, Thomas has always been an extremely polarizing figure. This is just one of the many reasons why he never should have been hired in the first place. As for all the Krishna bashing, someone in the orchestra wanted their wife to get his gig and now they are bitter and seem willing to burn the whole place to the ground. Toxic and sad. The musicians will continue to play great despite this nonsense and distraction and they will surely find someone much better than Thomas Dausgaard to be the next MD. Time to move on.

    • Coming as I do from Scotland, I’m extremely surprised to see such praise of Thiagarajan who was, by not quite halfway through his tenure, nearly unilaterally despised here.

      Dausgaard, on the other hand, we had the opportunity to work with quite a lot before he went to the other side of the street. I have to say, those concerts were always extraordinary.

      Perhaps crossing the Atlantic has changed both people…

  9. Over many years Dausgard was by far the top voted conductor by musicians, and audiences loved his performances. His appointment should have been a great next step for the orchestra, but a few people seemed determined to sabotage it.

    • Did you mean top voted by a search committee? I heard when he was hired as music director, the orchestra was pretty split on him, and many were furious because the committe didn’t bring their recommendation to the body. The orchestra wasn’t asked. They just showed up to work one day and heard the news. As time went on, his behavior during rehearsals, concerts, and recording sessions revealed itself and he started to lose fans rapidly. Then the pandemic hit and there was radio silence from him for months. His focus now seems to be making children’s educational music youtube videos with his flute player girlfriend. I’m glad he has something to fall back on since he doesn’t seem very interested in conducting anymore. I mean, I wouldn’t show these to my kids but to each their own!

      https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCQlX3SA4MucUhAKjGd8sOXw

  10. Thanks, Doug. I’ve been following the other media reports, but this really pulls back the curtain. There is always a backstory when directors leave, but this seems byzantine in its complexity and intrigue. Thank you for such detailed reporting.

  11. One difficulty of arts organizations is that they normally empower both the artistic director and the managing director, with neither really in charge. That means disputes between these two strong-minded people must be mediated by the board or the board chair. And chairs who can do this very hard work are quite hard to find or talk into taking the job. Wouldn’t it make sense to empower a single CEO, who then manages and hires/fires the artistic director? In effect, that appears to be what has happened at the Seattle Symphony in the past two years. By comparison, in the Gerard Schwarz era, the conductor drove out a strong managing director (Deborah Card) and then installed subservient management.

    • The model you suggest failed here twice in a row. The Board should enforce the roles: President responsible for the business, conductor responsible for the music, and both responsible for seeing the other one succeed. If push comes to shove, the music is the key thing.

        • That’s interesting. I’d say the Opera would be the closest comparison; performing arts are different. The Opera certainly went through a rocky period under what I think was a marginally competent Director, before the current one. PNB is working well but is not as large. Looking around for best practices would be smart– other orchestras. If the structure is viable, I’m afraid it simply comes down to the competence of the Symphony leadership in the past five years or so, a cascade of huge mistakes over years. I certainly would not trust the current CEO to find a good new Musical Director. There must be some competent people on the Board, but they have not been evident in the results.

        • It seems to be more variegated and complicated. From the Opera website, the “General Director” is the artistic director and there’s no discernible CEO or President, just the Board above her. The SS has a business manager who is called President and CEO, of the corporation I suppose, tons of power. San Francisco Symphony has a completely different setup. LA has a “CEO” but no President. In NY, Deborah Borden is President and CEO — let’s get her! A legend.

  12. Thank you for this article. I don’t agree with the statement that the SSO paid most of the musicians’ salaries during the pandemic shutdown. Musicians were given approximately 50% of their usual pay, told to collect unemployment for a portion of the other 50%, and hurriedly asked by management to volunteer to play virtual concerts. Some musicians volunteered and some did not, which in and of itself caused division and resentment. I would assert that it is the musicians and taxpayers, not the CEO, who are responsible for the comparatively better financial situation. It sounds to me like it is time for the SSO to find a new board chair and CEO. Whatever the exact details of the last 2-3 years, given the content of this article, the SSO workplace is obviously toxic. The current leadership is clearly not in a position to lead the SSO out of this mess and to attract talented individuals to rebuild its ranks. Once the leadership has been replaced, the SSO should set about searching for a new MD in a transparent process. I hope, for the musicians’ sake, they are able to find a worthy leader who can help the organization heal.

    • Unfortunately, it will be almost impossible to find a Chair and CEO that are better enough to deal with this — given the current state. I don’t see a way out, no deus ex machina in sight. It will also be very, very difficult to convince any MD applicant to come here after twice skunking previous MDs. I was impressed with Simonyi’s comment in the NY Times piece; he obviously knows how to pull an organization out of a tailspin. He’d be a great Chair…

      “We are saddened that he is leaving the symphony,” said Simonyi, a software executive. “But we are looking forward to the renewal of the energy of the whole organization.”

  13. I did not expect such a thoughtful, well written article. Bravo to the author and to Post Alley for writing a probing text during the post-fact age we live in. Now I’ll follow Douglas McLennan.

    • I should add that before reading this article, I was already completely sold on Dausgaard based on his Schumann Symphony recordings and his Mahler 10 recording, which are NOT easy works to pull off for many reasons. These pieces do not play themselves, it takes someone with a real vision and a great ear to make them really live. They are absolutely superb. So I read this with a pro-Dausgaard bias.

  14. Bravo to the author. I suggest you investigate Thiagarajan’s relationship at his previous orchestra – another bitter and twisted affair. My heart goes out to anyone who has to work with him

    • While your at it, investigate Dausgaard’s treatment of the SSO staff, board members, and musicians (who weren’t his favorites). It was no picnic!

    • Agreed. Thiagarajan was in over his head the second he set foot in Seattle. Professionals like Elena Dubinets had him quaking in his boots because they so outclassed him in industry knowledge, connections and reputation. For someone as petty and insecure as him, the only course of action was to attack and threaten them, driving them from the organization. The board should be ashamed at how far it allowed this situation to go. They failed in their fiduciary duties to the Symphony.

      • Elena was fired by the Atlanta Symphony. You could say her going there was revenge for Charlie Wade coming to Seattle after the Atlanta Symphony fired him! Both overpayed and overrated admins. Thank you Krishna for cleaning house. It was much needed and the SSO is in a much better place without Wade,
        Dubinets, and Dausgaard!

        • I assume you’re one of Krishna’s pets who got promoted to one of their positions with a fraction of the experience and because you’ve sworn fealty to him.

          • Nope. Like my colleagues in Seattle, I’m “the product.” A fellow musician on the east coast. Keep trying.

  15. It all sounds like a mess. However, I do find it most interesting that the CEO didn’t entertain the idea of the MD wanting to help raise money for the orchestra or get him an assistant for his time when he was in Seattle, etc. This is a tier one orchestra in the US. Find another orchestra (tier 1) where the MD doesn’t have an assistant.
    1. The Assistant can help coordinate all interview requests/donor events, etc. of which he should most definitely be utilized. The states is WAY different than any other country – it’s a non-profit and depends immensely on PHILANTHROPY. What a jackass.
    2. It most definitely signals a big signal that the senior staff all left. I want to also point out that this type of leadership seems to be rampant in orchestras from their CEO’s – the tearing down colleagues in front of their subordinates and colleagues, etc. It needs to stop!

  16. I have shed tears tonight. Thank you for bringing KT’s malicious, manipulative, and bullying traits to light. Myself and colleagues were harassed on the daily during his time in Glasgow, and similarly the Board who had recruited him and paid him a ghastly inflated sum of money, so had to support him. My heart aches for colleagues in Seattle. Thank you Mr Author

      • Perhaps so, but us Scots were only too happy to see him go. The length, or otherwise, of his tenure here speaks for itself.

    • As someone who worked in this environment under Krishna’s rule, I can attest to this. Reading this was something of a cathartic release to have the truth out in the open after he caused so much unnecessary turmoil for so many people, myself included.

  17. Firstly a fantastic bit of reporting. Very thorough and insightful piece of analysis.

    I have thought deeply about whether to respond to this. It can be so easy online to gossip or spread negative opinions about others. Nevertheless I have been really affected by your words, and reading about the terrible experience at Seattle Symphony. I am also struck by some of the comments above which clearly have misunderstood the situation. It is often very difficult for those caught up in these situations to articulate exactly what is happening, particularly as they are nuanced and complex and deeply personal. It is very distressing when someone joins an organisation and works to rip the soul out of it. There are (unfortunately) leaders, such as KT, who manage to go from organisation to organisation and do just that with impunity, and no one speaks up. Staff are often left feeling undermined, dis-abled, emotionally scarred and confused, manipulated, splintered and hugely disrespected.

    Staff obviously need the opposite from their leader – to be enabled, to have structure and clarity and to feel that there is genuine collaboration and a shared sense of purpose. This clearly has been broken down at Seattle Symphony due to one person.
    How does someone get away with this? Often because the board or chair don’t have enough knowledge of the organisation or the industry, or want to protect the appointment they made, staff aren’t empowered or enabled to speak up, they don’t have something concrete they can report or articulate (situations of bullying are often so hard to explain and understand), on the surface things look ok and the organisation can look to cover up any issues that might be raised. It is very easy for the person in charge to create a narrative that bigs them up personally – the orchestra is sounding great, the finances are good, staff changes are necessary to allow a new vision which will obviously result in some unhappy staff etc..

    Dausgaard’s comments about feeling threatened and unsafe stand out for me because this is exactly what the culture was like when KT ran the RSNO in Scotland. It was chilling to read how similar the situation was, and I know there will be a number of people associated with the Scottish orchestra for whom the mention of bullying and toxic environment will really strike a chord.

    I don’t know if you have any interest in exploring the story any more but nothing you have outlined is sadly specific only to Seattle. I’m sorry to say that there are numerous stories to tell from the previous role KT held in Glasgow.

    Anyway thank you for bringing this story to light in such a perceptive manner, and I hope that this toxic behaviour is dealt with by the Seattle Symphony board in the appropriate way. This man sadly is not fit to lead the administration of an orchestra.

  18. At the end of the day, the Seattle Symphony finds itself in a very public and embarrassing food fight courtesy of Thiagarajan and his leadership skills.

    The board knew very early on of his shortcomings and clearly their intention was and continues to be, to double down on the bad hire they made. As a former SSO staffer, I’m insulted and offended by Jon Rosen’s remarks that anyone who had a problem with Thiagarajan was ‘resistant to change’. The little that I’ve seen of Dausgaard’s concerns completely dovetails with my experience there – I can cite a similar and specific incident(s) for each of them. And they range from downright weird to lawsuit potential.

    It’s a shame that it took the abrupt resignation of Dausgaard to highlight the abuse of staff in both Seattle and Glasgow. There are exactly no winners here – every party involved has been damaged in some way. And yet, Thiagarajan is still the executive director……

  19. Rosen also made a massive misstep in his email to employees at the weekend, expressing his disappointment at the “complicity” of those who contributed to the article – a very revealing and shocking choice of word. He had a huge opportunity to reassure folks in that email that the board was committed to creating a safe workplace and a healthy working culture, and he never said it. Which confirms what the previous comment says about the board being more interested in doubling down on its mistakes than in the wellbeing of employees.

  20. For those of you who have not seen it, here’s board chair Jon Rosen’s email to staff and musicians sent Saturday afternoon. The orchestra players committee has also called an all-hands SSO meeting for 11AM Tuesday morning:

    Dear Staff and Musicians,

    Yesterday evening an article on Thomas Dausgaard’s resignation and past administrative issues was published by the online Post Alley. Many of the allegations in the piece are plain wrong or distorted.

    While we anticipated that the news of Thomas’ departure would create some media attention, it is disappointing that the article referenced administrative issues from several years ago which had been formally vetted and dismissed. It is also disappointing – if the article accurately conveys their complicity – that those associated with the organization have chosen to contribute to the article anonymously.

    Throughout the pandemic, you’ve all been steadfast in your dedication to this organization and our community. I can assure you that the Board and I fully support the present leadership. Our shared goal is the same – from musicians to staff to my fellow board members – to build back from the pandemic and see through our promise that our orchestra plays on and to continue bringing this great music to our community and beyond. It is a testament to all of you that we stand ready to embark on a bright future.

    Jon

  21. Another “real life” Scotsman here to say down with Krishna!!

    *No I was not paid to make this comment with a 6-pack of Duff beer.*

  22. This is an interesting article to say the least. I am a long-time supporter of the organization and remain so. My true north are the artists and the programming. They are great and an evening at the Symphony is a sublime experience most nights. The management and who holds the baton is fungible as there are many fine conductors to select from and I am confident that the next MD will be a great addition and carefully chosen.

    The organization has evolved over the years. The Schwartz years were marked by much growth and support, but Gerard ran roughshod over the organization and did not play by rules not of his making. Big dollars were paid due to his errors and at times the organization was on the financial brink.

    Simon Woods was affable and did some good things. But I heard from a reliable source that he and Ludo were such a toxic pair together that they had a form of couples counseling to deal with this. Ludo was a great guy, valued by most, excellent musician, and on his watch many fine commissions and recordings took place, with Pulitzers and Grammys to boast about. I wish that Ludo had seen his contract extended. He lived in Seattle with his family and was part of the community. Not so with TD, who never planned to move to Seattle and was an infrequent visitor. I hope that the next MD is required to live in Seattle.

    Elena was and is awesome. Responsible for most programming and hiring of soloists. And for many commissions including Become Ocean. On paper the MD is in charge of what we hear and see on the stage but in reality, the heavy lifting is done by the associate VP of artistic planning. She is an astute musicologist, published in English and Russian and I miss her. I am concerned and don’t know the details of the row she had with KT. I do know that she left Atlanta in the throes of Covid that started shortly before or during her arrival, and her departure was likely a cost-saving maneuver as most performing organizations were shedding staff. She has landed on her feet in London and her star continues to rise.

    A number of the departed staff retired and had planned to do so, while others were recruited elsewhere as the author notes. It is a credit to the SSO that it has a bench that the next tier up wants to recruit from.

    Yes Covid has been good for the organization’s finances, but they were improving under Woods and more so under KT. I had been told that KT was hired in part to do a workover of the financial aspects of the org, and truly ensure that the budget is balanced and there is a surplus. Past managers have been indifferent or at least not up to the task of running a fiscally sound ship. One can’t require of the donors after the fact, to make up a deficit, and those of us who donate want to contribute to a solidly run organization and give to make it better and thrive, but not to keep it from failing, or avert catastrophes, as has been the case in the past.

    My gut is that TD was disengaged to a large degree from the start. It is simply not credible that he could not get his Visa. Whether this was his failing or that of management, I can’t say. But a call to one of our representatives by management to help renew the visa of the MD of the regions key orchestra would have been a no-brainer, and it did not happen. Perhaps management was calling out Thomas for his failings, which might have contributed to his feeling “unsafe”. I don’t know. All I know is that he was rarely here and won’t be missed by me. There are a lot of fine visiting conductors, great soloists, new music being commissioned and a wonderful group of musicians committed to the city and the Symphony.

    Is KT a bad manager or an unpopular one due to his doing a tough job effectively? I don’t know as I have not served under him and the reports of those who have are their opinions but many artists are clueless about how their paycheck is generated. The Board by design are volunteers who are not orchestra professionals. And the executive board, a small group relative to the larger body, is where the power and true responsibility lies. Jon Rosen is a smart and seasoned employment attorney, who mainly represents plaintiffs. So the conflict is well within his wheelhouse.

    Nobody will be happy with all that has or will happen. Such intrigue seems to be common in arts organizations and especially orchestras, given the egos who perform and attend. I am confident the SSO will survive and come thru this somewhat manufactured crisis, all the better with lessons learned.

  23. Dausgaard apparently has been notably absent from other engagements as well, even without pandemic restrictions. This Scotsman article says he “has also cancelled key January dates in Scotland, where he hasn’t been seen for 20 months” and quotes Dausgaard himself saying that he is not comfortable traveling during the pandemic. Given his refusal to travel and his deteriorating relationship with musicians, not to mention the distraction of a messy divorce, it seems likely that Dausgaard was at least partly to blame for his absence.

    https://www.scotsman.com/whats-on/arts-and-entertainment/is-the-thomas-dausgaard-era-at-the-bbc-sso-as-good-as-over-3526882

  24. Thomas D. is an extraordinary musician/maestro. There is only a handful (one hand that is) like him. The orchestra has never sounded better as it has under his direction. I am very sad to see him go. Seems he was sabotaged from the start…

  25. Don’t believe this hack-job of an article. It’s all deflection from the real problem: Thomas’s lack of commitment to the musicians and organization during the pandemic. He sabotaged himself by “checking out” during a crucial time when his leadeship was sorely needed. When he finally did show up last Nov, he acted like a diva and didn’t fulfill his obligations. Truly bizarre behavior.
    Shame on him for taking a paycheck while he was doing nothing for the SSO for all those months and everyone else was working so hard to keep the music going. Selfish, pathetic and sad. Neither his behavior or self-indulgent conducting will be missed by the vast majority of the orchestra. Everything was always about him, even when he conducted concertos. Embarassing. Enough is enough and time to move forward.

  26. I guess Dausgaard demanded excellence which you could not deliver?!! Dausgaard is far from a Diva. He is a genuine true musician of the highest order who encouraged all of the musicians to bring their best to the table. Spreading such travesty as you post, is undignified. Thomas was sabotaged from the start. The toxicity Krishna brought to the management reminds me of the Schwarz era. Most unfortunate.

  27. I’ve been a subscriber to SSO for a least a half-century now and will say without hesitation that some of the most memorable performances came with Dausgaard on the podium – his Sibelius run from a few years back in particular – so I certainly agree (as a non-musician with a love for chamber and orchestral performance) with the positive assessments here of his impact on the orchestra.

    As to the machinations within, it seems obvious from the clumsy exit and other bungles – just try even getting a response, of any kind, from the SSO press office – that management needs a shakeup. I’m struck, as always, by the vehemence within and without orchestral organizations, made vivid in all the comments above. Love and hate in abundance.

    A question, though — why are pseudonyms allowed in these comments? It’s hardly helpful to judge sources and information when paragraphs are written by Anonymous, BackRow, Concertgoer, OnStage, etc. though it surely invites the anonymous visceral insult. As we see here.

  28. Rarely does an article push upon so many sore spots. But this one has stuck in my mind, so I’m going to write many a few words. The comments on how orchestra members are 🙄. Hector Berlioz wrote a very funny book ‘Evenings with the Orchestre.’ It might help us, even orchestral musicians, get a better awareness of our often misunderstood being.

    In Vienna, often touted as the music capital of the world, it would be a scandal that would grace every tabloid and paper, if a conductor were to quit. Seattle Symphony has always been an independently Progressing Orchestra. Music directors and admin change often, while the musicians are usually there for life. They left the AFM union in the 80’s, which as I understood it, allowed them to be the film music/modern classical music hub that once was Los Angeles. They dominated this until much and most non-high profile high budget film music was moved to eastern Europe. Fabulous way to develop a lush sound and to know the true reality of their sound…hearing it through recording.

    In my almost 20 years of orchestra playing in 7 different orchestras, I’ve never heard of a music director not having an assistant…Like never… and one can always tell how things are going by taking a look at the assistant’s face. Not the conducting assistant that steps in if the conductor gets sick, but the conductor’s secretary so to say, that keeps everything the conductor has to do together. Gustavo Dudamel and Simon Rattle have assistants whose faces are as clear in my mind as their faces which grace posters all around the world. Artistically Unifying almost 100 insanely skilled (talented is a word used for children, not Shokunin) musicians on stage is his/her primary job.

    Sometimes the shoe doesn’t fit, sometimes there is a small pebble that makes it unbearable to wear? Idk what happened, I’m not part of that relationship.

    An orchestra is a little like a family and this is a serious relationship break up. I hope they really take their time to recover, heal, come together, and enjoy the process of looking for their new leader. I greatly hope that the board gives them, the musicians, the flexibility to autonomously find their match and take as much time as they need to do this. Not to appeal to a demographic, or charm certain members, but respark the collective soul of the musicians who have already had a difficult year of unemployment, pay cuts, and much tension between the ununified society we all live in. (Somehow this is reminding me of the recent voting rights discussions on the radio)

    There are many conductors and conductresses, available out there that would 🤤 🤩 at the chance to work with Seattle Symphony. Many who don’t have numerous residences and the ability to quit working, but who have struggled immensely during this pandemic. I think of the sadness I felt at the article mentioning a female conductor recently who gave birth and was on the podium for another concert a day later. I hope that the Seattle Symphony, financially lucky at the moment (learned from this article), can give many new possibilities to enliven the orchestra members and their audiences through their choices going through 2022.

    Vienna philharmonic does not have a music director and is self governed within the musicians, outsourced by them when needed. I bring this up, because it is possible to exist without one, therefor not requiring any quick decisions.

    I am fortunate to feel unrestricted in my comments, not belonging to any musical organization at the moment, and having been saved by the tech giants of Postmates and Uber Eats to support myself during these unsafe times. I have never worked with the Dausgaard, but I have been to Denmark during the pandemic, and felt unbelievably safe. I am not being paid to support the conductor or defend their positions anymore…that’s not an easy job; dramatic authority figures usually rub many the wrong way. I have seen the YouTube videos of his recent making. I only include one link as I could not make it through this type of pontifications regarding music. https://youtu.be/W6kLVUFYRz0

    I sincerely hope that the polarization of Orchestra does not occur moving into a negotiation year as well as conductor search. The musicians I know from years ago are strong enough to pull together and cut out the BS to make the music happen, and maybe if I’m lucky I will get to see an uploaded YouTube link that’s some quality performance of some great work. 🤞

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