The roots of discord at the Aspen Music Festival |

The roots of discord at the Aspen Music Festival

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – On April 29, Alan Fletcher, the president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School, was the subject of a no-confidence vote called by the Music Festival “corporation,” a 147-person body comprising mostly faculty members. The measure passed, but had no binding effect on Fletcher’s position. By a count of 76 to 58, the corporation sent the message that it did not have confidence in its head administrator.

Which is a lot better than how the corporation treated Mike Hammond. In 1987, Hammond, a former associate conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and college president, and at the time the dean of the music school at Houston’s Rice University, was hired by the Aspen Music Festival board of directors to replace Gordon Hardy as president. But the corporation, which includes 37 members of the board, had other ideas. While Hammond was in Aspen for his introduction to the festival community, a representative of the corporation politely – or maybe not so politely – told Hammond to head back to Houston, that he was not about to take over the reins in Aspen. The corporation had decided that Hardy, who had been directing the organization since 1977 and been dean of the school since 1962, was still their man. Feeling undermined, 22 members of the board resigned in protest, but Hardy stayed put till 1989, when he decided it was best for all concerned that, after nearly three decades at the festival, he move on.

The Hammond incident indicates just how much power the faculty has historically wielded at the Aspen Music Festival. From the early years, the organization has been, more or less, driven by the artists – the faculty members who play chamber music, hold vital roles in the resident orchestras, and, probably most significantly, teach the next generation of classical musicians. Until recently, virtually all actions of the board of directors had to be ratified by the corporation – which counts 90 faculty among its 147 members – before they were officially adopted.

Though Hammond had been selected by the board, his hiring wasn’t a done deal until the corporation said it was. The corporation’s power over festival actions extended to such matters as building concert venues and selling property.

This organizational structure is unique among classical music festivals. Fletcher, whose previous jobs include provost at the New England Conservatory, doesn’t know of a comparable festival. Paul Kantor, a violinist who has been on the Aspen Music School faculty for 32 years and is a member of the Music Committee, an 11-person group of musicians that is part of the board of directors, calls it a “wonderful, strange” form of governance and praised the structure for providing “a tremendous sense of ownership among the artists.”

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Given that feeling of ownership, it was predictable that when the Music Festival decided to cut faculty positions, there would be considerable blowback. A year ago, the board of directors adopted a strategic plan that, in light of the economy and a long-standing desire to shorten the summer season by a week, called for reducing the faculty by some 16 members. Those cuts – which were negotiated down to 11 – were made by Fletcher prior to last summer. So when the 2009 festival season arrived, the pure joy of making music with old friends was darkened by a cloud of disharmony over the festival. The battle lines generally pitted faculty against administration.

In mid-October, simmering tensions came to a full boil when the executive committee, a 9-member sub-group of the festival board, essentially shoved Fletcher out of office. In mid-November, however, other members of the board protested that responsibility for such personnel decisions rested with the full 50-person board. At a subsequent special meeting, a narrow majority voted to bring Fletcher back. He ultimately signed a contract that continues through the 2010 festival season.

A relatively calm winter turned into a tumultuous spring on April 9, when it was announced that David Zinman, the festival’s music director, had asked to be released from his contract. That request was granted. Fletcher, commenting on his relationship with Zinman, said he believed the two had a good-enough working dynamic, even if they weren’t close personally.

“I’d ask him if there were problems and he’d say, ‘No, no, I don’t have any problems,” Fletcher, who has led the festival since 2006, recently told The Aspen Times. “And yet, there must have been problems. But I felt they were on his side, and not on mine. I have had no troubles working with David.”

Zinman responded with a written statement to the Aspen newspapers, contesting that view.

“For some time I have felt that Mr. Alan Fletcher’s vision for the festival was no longer the same as mine,” he wrote. “Mr. Fletcher was more than aware of our inability to work together. I have made it clear that I felt strongly that my opinions no longer mattered nor were they seriously considered.” Zinman added that he found himself “unable to continue to work in an atmosphere of tension, uncertainty and disrespect.”

Several days later, a group led by members of the Music Committee called for a special meeting where the corporation would vote on the no-confidence measure regarding Fletcher. Twelve people attended at Harris Hall, with others voting by proxy or via teleconference. The measure passed, but Fletcher remains in office, and both Fletcher and the board have indicated that no moves are planned before summer’s end.

“He’s our CEO and will continue to be,” Rob LeBuhn, the chairman of the Music Festival board, said following the vote.

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The corporation did not vote, though, on the strategic plan. Because of fairly recent changes in the Music Festival bylaws, the plan – including the faculty reductions – was adopted by the board alone. When Fletcher began making the cuts, there was an outcry among the faculty – about how affected faculty members were notified, about a perceived failure to gather input from the faculty as a whole, among other concerns.

Kantor, a leader of the no-confidence push, said the plan itself was not the problem, but how it was carried out.

“It’s more subtle than that,” he said by phone from Cleveland. “It’s, ‘How do we go about becoming a leaner institution? How do we talk to the artists who weren’t going to be on the faculty anymore?'”

Kantor believes that Fletcher’s handling of the cuts stemmed from a broader failure to grasp the festival’s distinct personality. “I think Alan, who is a very intelligent person, started at Aspen without a clear sense of our history and our unique and bizarre culture,” he said. “Alan started moving very fast, and these quick maneuvers did not go over well with the faculty.”

Fletcher, however, came in with a mandate to effect change. He succeeded Don Roth, whose three-year term as president is widely seen as a low point of administrative strength. When Fletcher was offered the job, in December 2005, Al Dietsch, board chairman at the time, told him that some change to the organization’s bylaws would be necessary, to clarify the relationship between the board and the corporation. Fletcher agreed the festival’s structure was out of date, considering the organization’s growth, increased prominence and the rising number of dollars involved – a budget of $500,000 in 1970; over $12.5 million last year.

“That feeling of everyone playing softball and having barbecues is lovely,” Fletcher said of the romantic vision of the festival community. “But one thing you don’t hear about anymore is, the faculty barely got paid at all. They were young, happy-go-lucky people, but now they have different needs. Housing them, paying them, is completely different.

“We’ve become an international organization. The organization has changed; it feels different. And there are a few people saying it’s all because of me; if we just get rid of me, everything will go back. But these were not my ideas. It’s because of the world.”

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In fact, it may be the smaller world of the Aspen Music Festival, its culture and history, that has put Fletcher on the spot for implementing the directions of his board.

The sense of ownership vested in the artists, which was formalized in 1952 with the creation of the corporation, has been an artistic plus. Countless musicians over the years have commented on the exceptional passion of Aspen concerts, that performances here are not just another gig on the schedule. There is widespread agreement, too, that the educational experience is sublime. Numerous top musicians have demonstrated a deep devotion to the festival. It is telling that, following Zinman’s resignation, conductors have lined up to be considered for the music director’s post. Fletcher calls the early list of interested candidates “dazzling” – despite the present turmoil.

“The faculty feel a sense of responsibility and ownership of the mission and the quality of the enterprise,” Kantor said. “It results in a faculty that has been exceptionally committed, loyal and generous.”

But, given that sense of ownership, faculty members did not take well to the prospect of losing their grip on the festival. It is possible that, no matter how he handled the cutting of positions, Fletcher would have come under fire.

“Changes like this come along, where lives are affected, and it causes difficulty. Not all the changes are easily accepted,” said LeBuhn, who has been chairman of the board since last June, and a board member for six years. LeBuhn added, “these changes probably haven’t been managed as well as they might have been. Both sides – the people affected and the administration – could have done better.”

Among those was Zinman. According to several accounts, Zinman distanced himself from the business of laying off musicians, even declining to serve on the committee that came up with the strategic plan. It is likely that cutting faculty was too painful for him; it was Zinman who pushed to lower the cuts from 16 to 11. It is possible he did not want his fingerprints on the ax. (Zinman declined to be interviewed for this article.) And by his nature, Zinman preferred to dwell on the artistic end.

“Perhaps, even by his own admission, he lives in the music primarily. That’s his primary role,” Kantor said. “He probably could have been more involved [in implementing the plan].”

Taking sentiment out of the equation, it’s arguable that faculty cuts were simply appropriate. Student enrollment had been reduced from a high of more than 1,000 to 750, and this year, in accord with the strategic plan, to 625. Those reductions were considered necessary to improve the learning experience. And the idea to shorten the festival had been discussed for a decade or more; at nine weeks, it was the longest summer festival in the country. This year, also as dictated by the strategic plan, the festival is shortened by a week on the front end. Even before the latest trimming, there were faculty members who were glaringly underused.

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Another historical quirk looming over the current squabbling is the RH factor – the legacy of the late Robert Harth, who served as festival president from 1989-2001. Harth’s tenure is hailed almost unanimously as a bravura performance – a time when Harris Hall and the Benedict Music Tent were built; David Zinman was hired, raising the artistic bar several notches; the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen was established; and artists, administration and the Aspen community were generally pulling in the same direction (even if, behind the scenes, Harth was having his own clashes with the board).

“There’s a feeling we were in our golden period there,” Kantor said. “Robert was a special personality. He came out of the festival culture – both his parents were on the faculty here, and Robert ran the lemonade stand as a kid – so there was that special connection to our institutional culture. That made him special in our eyes. We had the clear feeling he respected us. And the respect flowed both ways.”

Harth’s lingering presence was confirmed by Zinman’s statement to the community in April. “When I first came here to work with Robert Harth, we worked and planned for the future of the festival in harmony and excitement,” Zinman wrote. “Nothing seemed impossible, and indeed nothing was for him. His vision coincided with mine.”

Neither Fletcher nor Zinman has Harth’s casual, easy-to-embrace quality; both seem to have an inherent reserve. Toward the end of last summer, a small chorus arose among concertgoers, complaining of Fletcher’s cold demeanor, and claiming he plays favorites with concertgoers, cozying up to some and ignoring others. A former festival staff member, in a letter to the editor last month, criticized Zinman for an aloofness toward the staff. But both are far from being raging jerks. The staff that works daily with Fletcher has lined up in support of him, while Zinman earned a deep, well-rounded respect from the artists.

“I think we’re still working out from under the shadow of Robert,” observed Tom Buesch, a CMC Aspen teacher who leads a course in music appreciation in association with the festival, and who has attended concerts since the festival’s opening year, in 1949. “He fit in every way. He was a great schmoozer. It’s hard – old people have this model of Robert, and it’s unfair.”

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In some ways, the near future of the Aspen Music Festival is murky. With Zinman’s resignation coming less than two months before the start of the summer season, this year’s festival will be held without a music director. Fletcher’s summer will be clouded by the no-confidence vote. Last summer, the atmosphere at the Benedict Music Tent and on the Castle Creek campus was anything but festive. “The mood of the faculty was the worst I’d ever seen. No doubt,” said Lori Schiff, the chair of the Music Committee and a faculty member for 17 years. Given the tension reported at last month’s meeting of the Corporation, and the polarizing comments from many people involved, there might be little improvement this summer.

But even greater than the gloom is the feeling that the Aspen Music Festival is bigger than any personality spats, accusations of mismanagement or feuding factions. For 61 years, Aspen has been a place where, come summer, excellent music is made, aspiring artists get an incomparable educational experience, and the cause of classical music is advanced. No one expects to be interrupted because of backstage drama.

“That might be the one thing we all agree about – it’s definitely bigger than any CEO,” said Fletcher, who added that he has not pursued any other professional opportunities since the no-confidence vote. “But it’s also bigger than any music director. If board leadership says, We’re done fighting now; we will no longer tolerate this condition of battle … I still think a majority of faculty want to come to Aspen, do their work, and not be involved in in-fighting.”

“What will happen this summer, I can promise you,” Kantor said, “is we will have fantastic students. We will have wonderful teaching going on. You will hear beautiful concerts. All this other stuff with management is on a secondary level.”


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