New Management for Fremont Symphony at a Critical Stage

August 16, 2012

New Fremont Symphony music director Gregory Van Sudmeier with R2D2 at Skywalker Sound The Fremont Symphony has announced that it is replacing long-time Music Director David Sloss, who has headed the orchestra since 1980, and General Manager Sue Rose, with the husband-wife team of Gregory Van Sudmeier and Lee Foster. Foster has stepped in as executive director.

The "challenging new direction," announced on the orchestra's website is spurred by a new grant from Board President Steve Pietkiewicz and his wife Edith, "inpired to assist the Symphony after the Board announcement that they would reluctantly curtail their 2012-2013 season."

The $33,333 challenge grant is to be matched 2-to-1 by individual donations by March 31. The goal is to raise $100,000. Recent reports on orchestra finances showed a budget between $250,000 and $400,000, with a $40,000 deficit.

Last month, Fremont Symphony scaled back its upcoming season because of financial troubles. Entering its 49th season, the organization canceled regular orchestral performances, planning only children's concerts and a duo-piano recital.

"Like many regional symphonies, there are financial issues that are being worked out," Pietkiewicz said at that time, adding that "it's extremely difficult" to meet budget requirement during the ongoing recession.

Lee Foster heads three organizations Sudmeier's extensive conducting career includes work with Skywalker Sound at Lucas-Digital/Lucasfilm where he has worked on feature film soundtracks, jingle and album sessions, as well as John Williams' Grammy-nominated StarWarsTrilogy CD on the CBS Sony Classical Label. Sudmeier and Foster, parents of four children, also head operations at Diablo Ballet in Walnut Creek and Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City. Hillbarn is in its 72nd season, a company emphasizing musical works.

A Foster City Patch story yesterday carried the headline "Hillbarn Theatre Merges With Fremont Symphony," but Foster emphatically disputed it:

There is no plan whatsoever to merge the companies in any shape or form. Merger would imply a total legal restructuring of entities and that's not true. We're partnering. They are independent 501c3 nonprofit groups and legal entities with separate boards of directors.

Indeed, the new management's Web site does not mention merger or Hillbarn subsuming the orchestra, referring to collaboration instead, and a "collective project ... for economies of scale."

SFCV asked Foster to define the relationship between the organizations she now heads. She deferred to Pietkiewicz, board chair of the orchestra, and forwarded this statement from him:

Fremont Symphony is pleased to be included in Hillbarn Theatre's family of products to provide economies of scale and support for smaller nonprofits. Managing multiple arts organizations under one executive team is a modern and increasingly popular concept in the nonprofit world.

Administrative costs for each organization are reduced because one set of essential services is shared across several organizations. Lee will manage the Symphony’s affairs from her offices at Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City. As a stand-alone organization, the Symphony was spending a large percentage of revenue on administration. Going forward, due to Hillbarn's support, they will enjoy lower administrative costs, and be able to spend a higher percentage of their revenues on concerts and musicians.

Foster added: "It is just an opportunity to use the resources of Hillbarn Theatre, which has over 100 shows a year and a large full-time staff, to support smaller nonprofits and to provide more of a living wage to the people that work here. For the Fremont Symphony, we can now provide an executive director, marketing and publicity director, box office, and a full-time staff — all for the cost of the former executive director alone."

David Sloss, 32-year tenure ended Fremont orchestra musicians are members of the "Freeway Philharmonic" club, driving from city to city in the Bay Area, cobbling together a living by playing as many concerts as possible. The situation in Fremont impacts the musician's situation, although in recent years, they could count on only a handful of performances at best.

Some hope that the reorganization may improve the situation in the future, but the Fremont Symphony Orchestra Players Committee issued a strong statement about being "surprised and dismayed to learn that the Board of Directors voted to summarily dismiss the music director of 32 years, Maestro David Sloss," and quoted Pietkiewicz that "32 years is too long for one person to hold that position."

The statement went on to say: "Fremont Symphony musicians similarly [to some board members] expressed outrage over the firing of Maestro Sloss, saying they felt the Symphony had been 'sold for only a potential of $33,000,' and questioned the ethics of firing and hiring a conductor without any input from the musicians themselves."

Until Fremont Opera ceased operations a few months ago, the Fremont Symphony, under Sloss' baton, served as the company's orchestra.

Sloss told SFCV "the financial situation was dire. As the end of the 2011-2012 season approached, the Symphony's credit lines were maxed out. A substantial deficit was looming. Not counting the $45,000 owed on the lines of credit, liabilities were still $10,000 to $15,000 above assets. Endowment funds totaled $42,000."

But, Sloss said, "everyone wanted to make big plans for the orchestra's 50th season in 2013-2014" and when he came up with a minimal, affordable plan, the board approved, but "Steve [Pietkiewicz] told me that the board, in closed meetings which I had not known about, had decided to 'go dark' for the 2012-2013 season. Planning would continue for the following year. I was to be laid off in the meantime, and no decisions had been made about who would conduct the 50th season."

The next thing that happened, according to Sloss, was the reorganization of management.

Along with news of the Hillbarn-Fremont association, other changes and consolidations are being announced in the area, as listed in the Palo Alto Daily News:

  • Broadway By The Bay reorganization, and rescue by Fox Theatre owners Eric and Lori Lochtefeld
  • TheatreWorks is moving from its Menlo Park offices to a new, non-profit center in Redwood Shores
  • Hillbarn Theatre is in a new alliance with Notre Dame de Namur in Belmont
  • Dragon Theatre in Palo Alto is moving into a larger space on Broadway in Redwood City

The question is when — not if — will the Bay Area's hundreds of music organizations belatedly engage in more active regional collaboration and even, not unlike Hillbarn-Fremont in name at least, create a merger.