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.”
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.
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.
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:
- “… 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.
- “…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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “’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.
- “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.
- “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.