Michael Christie and the Ongoing Rumble in the Phoenix Symphony

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from Symphony magazine
Michael Christie, on the cover of the League of American Orchestras' trade mag.

The latest issue of the League of American Orchestras' trade magazine Symphony features a cover story on Michael Christie, the 34-year-old conductor of the Phoenix Symphony and the Brooklyn Philharmonic. As is the case with most trade magazine stories, the article is flattering in the extreme. So much so, Christie could practically have written it himself.

The puff piece presents Christie as a thoughtful, sensitive innovator, who cares more about the institutions he works for than himself. In Brooklyn, he wants the Philharmonic to be known for playing the standard repertory, as well as for its adventurousness. While in Phoenix, he has inspired a "heightened artistic level," and is trying out "innovative concert formats."

We also learn Christie has a pilot license and sometimes flies from gig to gig. He directed the BK Phil once on The Late Show with David Letterman back in 2007. He's signed to the management company IMG Artists. Etcetera.

What the piece doesn't tell you is that the Phoenix Symphony is facing serious legal challenges arising from its alleged mistreatment of many of its most talented musicians. These legal challenges involve lawsuits, complaints to federal agencies, charges of wrongful termination, allegations of retaliation, and the charge that the symphony's top, veteran players are being forced to take demotions or leave the symphony so they can be replaced with younger, more compliant players.

So far, eight symphony members have lodged age-discrimination complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, one of them being Richard Bock, the symphony's longtime principal cellist, who was fired in January. (Mary Jo O'Neill, Regional Attorney at the EEOC's Phoenix District Office, declined to comment on the EEOC complaints for this story.)

Bock, 62, has since filed a lawsuit against the symphony claiming discrimination, unlawful termination, and a hostile work environment resulting from the actions of Christie, the Phoenix Symphony's CEO Maryellen Gleason, and other symphony higher-ups. (Check out a PDF of Bock's complaint, here.) The lawsuit states that Bock "experienced unfair and inconsistent treatment in comparison to other employees and was ultimately terminated to be replaced by a much younger person."

Another of the EEOC eight, veteran principal violist Peter Rosato, is embroiled in a legal fight with the symphony over unpaid wages and breach of contract, and was recently terminated, according to his attorney Guy Knoller. (Rosato's complaint can be viewed, here.)

As if all this weren't bad enough, the Phoenix office of the National Labor Relations Board has issued a formal complaint against the Phoenix Symphony's leadership, including Christie, alleging violations of the federal National Labor Relations Act, which prevents employers from interfering with the right of employees to freely associate, organize, and engage in "concerted activities" for the purposes of collective bargaining or "mutual aid and protection." The complaint charges that the symphony has been discriminating against its employees, punishing them, demoting them, and sometimes firing them because they have come to each others' defense, spoken out, and/or have made complaints against the symphony to the EEOC.

The NLRB has issued a hearing date for the case of April 27 before an administrative law judge, and the agency has suggested a remedy, which would include hiring back the dismissed musicians and paying their back pay with interest. (So far, the symphony has indicated they will not accept the proposed settlement.) But the NLRB is also considering another legal remedy, seeking injunctive relief in federal district court to halt the symphony's alleged unfair labor practices.

Currently, the NLRB's regional director Cornele Overstreet says that the move is awaiting the approval of the Board itself and NLRB's general counsel. If he receives the green light, he could then go before a federal judge to petition for an injunction ordering the symphony to reinstate the fired musicians while the case is adjudicated. Otherwise, there would be the possibility of "irreparable harm."

"Obviously, you can't just go and get another job in town playing for an orchestra, or get another job that's even close to playing for an orchestra," Overstreet stated of those forced out of their positions."If other players have essentially been told that this is the consequence for your concertedly complaining about something, that,`You'll be fired," then that quells activity that the law says you're protected in."

Overstreet explained that the NLRB's complaint does not address anything to do with musicianship or performance. What the NLRB is concerned with is making sure the rights of these musicians are not violated by the symphony's management. Some of the specific charges in the complaint, for instance, include threatening employees with reprisals, giving employees the impression that they were under surveillance and that their cell phone calls could be monitored, interrogating employees about union or other collective activities (the musicians are represented by the American Federation of Musicians, Local 586), and promulgating an overbroad rule of confidentiality, one in conflict with the National Labor Relations Act.

You can read the entire complaint for yourself, here.

Asked about the NLRB complaint, Phoenix Symphony CEO Maryellen Gleason insisted that the NLRB action was part of the fallout from music director Michael Christie's attempts to upgrade the organization.

"The overarching umbrella is that our music director has been improving the orchestra," said Gleason. "He was hired by our board with a mandate of improving the orchestra. That is being achieved. And the evidence, I would say, is that we have really improved attendance, and the orchestra never sounded better. And it's within the purview of the music director to make artistic changes."

Gleason asserted that ticket sales are up, as are donations. She also pointed to the Symphony magazine above and glowing notices from the local press as proof that Christie is on his game.(Michael Christie did not respond to an invitation to comment made through Gleason.)

As for the allegations that cellist Bock was fired in retaliation for lodging a complaint with the EEOC, Gleason insisted that in fact Bock was fired because he broke a state law -- A.R.S. 12-2238 -- which governs the admissibility of evidence derived from mediations and privileged communications.

In essence, Gleason and the symphony seem to be alleging that Bock broke this law when he communicated what happened in mediation talks with the symphony to the EEOC.

"It relates originally to musical reasons," Gleason said of Bock's firing, "and then we did terminate him for breaking an Arizona state law [A.R.S. 12-2238]. It's a law that's about confidentiality. This was all related to a dialogue with this employee about the musical standards and what the music director expected of him. It was all in the spirit of improvement, but that's why he was in fact terminated, for breaking an Arizona law."

NLRB regional director Overstreet pointed out that the law in question is actually a rule of evidence. Indeed, the law states that, "Communications made, materials created for or used and acts occurring during a mediation are confidential and may not be discovered or admitted into evidence," unless certain conditions are met. There is no punishment listed for the law.

"It is not a rule of criminality," stated Overstreet. "It simply guides how the court looks at evidence, essentially."

Overstreet said that the Phoenix Symphony's use of this law speaks to the NLRB's charge that the symphony was promulgating a rule that contradicted the National Labor Relations Act.

"If you say we fired him because we had a mediation conversation or a conversation we considered to be confidential," explained Overstreet, "and he told somebody else about it, therefore we fired him, that's a threat to employees. Even if it were not involving EEOC, even if it was just we go into mediation about your wages, and you can't talk to anyone else, that violates the National Labor Relations Act."

But what about Gleason's contention that the changes the symphony has made -- the firing of Rosato and Bock, and so on -- were done for the betterment of the symphony's sound? Phoenix attorney Doc Shreve, who said she assisted the musicians filing the EEOC complaints, vehemently disagreed with Gleason's rationale.

"If there were one musician they were targeting for this, maybe," said Shreve. "But they've gone after the strongest, most experienced musicians in the orchestra. And there's no possible way that you can say that these musicians are not up to their jobs."

Regarding Bock, Shreve pointed out that in his career Bock has been chosen to be the principal cellist by three renowned conductors: Leopold Stokowski, who chose Bock as principal for the American Symphony Orchestra; Riccardo Muti, who picked Bock as principal for the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Orchestra in Florence, Italy; and Julius Rudel, who picked the cellist as principal for the Buffalo Philharmonic. Bock has been with the Phoenix Symphony as its principal cellist since 1984, and has performed solos every season.

Several symphony members who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, indicated that the demotions and firings of veteran players such as Bock and Rosato, have had a devastating effect upon the morale of the symphony.

"It's very disconcerting when you see this happening to the people who were the stars of this orchestra - the people who have been standing up playing concertos in front of the orchestra," said one musician who wished to remain nameless. "And Christie has seen fit to find excuses to basically persecute these people. I think because he would like to hire his own people, younger players that he feels will owe some allegiance to him."

Delaine Salt, a former cellist with the orchestra, was willing to go on the record. She stated that she decided to retire in June of 2008 after 41 years with the symphony, in part because of an ageist atmosphere at the orchestra.

"I wasn't sorry to leave, because of Christie," she explained. "If there had been a different atmosphere I might have stayed."

Salt continued, "There was nothing personal towards me, I just think Christie had an attitude towards veteran musicians. Not necessarily respecting that we have knowledge too."

Indeed, as far back as 2007, the musicians of the highly regarded Grand Teton Music Festival, which takes place every summer in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, wrote a stinging letter to the Phoenix Symphony decrying "the demotions and firings" then going on at the symphony.

The letter noted that these musicians "are at the most valuable stages of their careers" and are "first rate instrumentalists and artists." The missive urges the symphony to reconsider, stating, "We are perplexed and disappointed that...the Phoenix Symphony would display such poor musical judgment and lack of respect for their most valuable musicians..."

You can read the entire letter,here.

But have the changes to the symphony, traumatic as they have been for some, improved the quality of the product?

The Arizona Republic's music critic Richard Nilsen has written glowing reviews of the symphony under Christie. In a recent piece, Nilsen labeled Christie "charismatic" and "something of a wunderkind."

Christie "has brought youth and energy to the orchestra and to Symphony Hall," according to Nilsen, "not only through his music but also through his programming and audience innovations."

However, when Doc Severinsen, the Phoenix Symphony's former pops conductor was in town recently for a performance, I asked him about the changes in the cello section and in the symphony in general. He gave a slightly different perspective.

"I don't hear an improvement in the cello section," said Severinsen, who now lives in Mexico. "Whatever was done, I don't see any improvement at all."

Though he added that, "The orchestra generally, sounds good."

Concerning Bock, the former Tonight Show bandleader stuck up for the playing of his longtime friend and colleague.

"I was sorry to hear it, and surprised," commented Severinsen. "He's an excellent player. I can't imagine that he did anything musically that would have caused him to be fired. Otherwise, why would he have been here in the first place? Unless his playing went downhill, and I never heard that happen."


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