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What’s Up with Symphony Napa Valley?

November 19, 2015

Updated with Corrections: Charles Letourneau never served as general director of Symphony Napa Valley and had resigned from IMG almost one year ago.

Symphony Napa Valley played a well-received concert on Nov. 21 to mark the 10th anniversary of the Lincoln Theater’s reopening. After the Saturday night concert, $300-a-ticket patrons were invited to Raymond Vineyards, to a gala hosted by Jean Charles Boisset and Gina Gallo. Two hauts. He of the village of Vougeot in Burgundy; she of Modesto and the largest wine producing family in the world. Together, “entrepreneurs of the year in 2014.”

Yet despite the hoopla and hauts, there had been some confusion surrounding the concert, particularly among musicians concerned that the Lincoln Theater would not agree to a union contract. The theater is not a union shop and finally there was no bargaining agreement for this concert, as there was none for an earlier concert in October. 

But not for lack of trying. The president of Musicians Local 6, David Schoenbrun, told us 10 days ago that for months he had been trying to reach the Charles Letourneau, artistic advisor to the Lincoln Theater, but no call back. Letourneau says he has "never heard from or had any contact with" Shoenbrun. We also tried to reach him several times, but unsuccessfully. Letourneau was formerly a specialist in festivals and events at IMG in New York and has been the director of Festival Del Sol since 2006. He is also member-at-large on the board of the Lincoln Theater.

Off the record, some musicians say they’re uneasy about his lack of knowledge of orchestras.  According to his online biography, Letourneau still plays the violin and lectures regularly on the business of music at places like Juilliard and Yale.

He’s also a vintner in New York, but lately he’s been invisible.

Schoenbrun says he had several conversations last summer with Justin Ashforth, then executive director of the Lincoln Theater. “We talked briefly about what we expected to happen. He said he was not interested in a hybrid orchestra and wanted all professionals.”

Schoenbrun added that he hasn’t been able to reach Ashforth and realizes he needs “to push the matter.” He was careful to say that there’s been no clamoring from musicians for an agreement, and that when it comes to a price, it’s just a matter of covering pension obligations: “We’re not interested in being punitive.”

The Inside Word

"What’s going on with Symphony Napa Valley?" we asked Bruce Chrisp the other day. He’s a trombonist who often plays with the symphony.

“I’m wondering the same thing,” he said.

“Who’s the conductor?”

“I don’t know who it is. Every time I play it’s a different person. They’re not really filling us in on anything,”

There are at least 70 members of Symphony Napa Valley. Musicians are paid as contractors and customarily make $100 per service; principals, $125. They are not a union band. As an aside, local union 292, which handled North Bay venues was absorbed by Local Union 6 in San Francisco.

“What about the Lincoln Theater? How do you like that?”

“It’s definitely improved,” said Chrisp, “It’s a lot nicer, but frankly the acoustics are still not great, the stage is small, and the parking situation is not good.”

We reached Patricia Moskowite, the general manager of the Lincoln Theater, who responded in an email: “Sounds like someone you’ve been talking to is living in the past and projecting fear and doubt that is unwarranted. But honestly, I don’t know what there would be to even know about what’s going on. There isn’t anything going on, other than us putting on symphony concerts and sustaining classical arts in the Valley."

“I am, bottom line, in charge of all aspects of the symphony and the theater” she explained. “There are no negotiations or problems that I am aware of with any musicians or union representatives and you are welcome to direct anyone who says otherwise to me directly.” As for Symphony Napa Valley, “it’s doing great, and musicians all know what they are to be paid and they get paid the day of the performance each and every time, which they all seem very happy about.

“I can also personally assure you that all performances will go forward as scheduled. We’ve had our first concert of the season already, on Oct. 4, and are very much looking forward to the Gala on the 21st of this month.”

She added that Michael Guttman, an acclaimed Belgian violinist and conductor, will lead the concert. He took the position of music director for the Lincoln Theater in November 2014.

Regarding Justin Ashforth, the former Lincoln Theater, executive director, Moskowite noted, "I am not aware of any conversations Justin may have had [with union representatives] but if there were, they were not on behalf of mine, nor our board's request. He was on staff here for a very short time, but he has not been with the theater for some months now. As I have said, please feel free to put anyone you would like in direct touch with me and I will happy to clear up any misunderstandings.”

A Very Delicate Balance

Symphony Napa Valley has had its tribulations in the last three years. Frankly, it never took the place of the Napa Valley Symphony, which was the hope of many in the valley. Now some insiders are pessimistic for the near term — which stands in contrast to public reaction to the revitalized and increasingly popular symphonies in Sacramento and Santa Rosa.

Beyond union problems, there was a failed plan to develop a fellowship program, which was to include 10 year-round fellows who would perform in the Symphony as well as teach at local colleges. A small number of young musicians did relocate to Napa to begin the program, but then the effort stalled. “The fellowship program was apparently not well-organized,” Michel Taddei told us. He is a sometime member of Symphony Napa Valley and director of artistic administration at the Crowden Music Center. “The musicians who came found themselves not benefiting from promised opportunities.”

The failure of the fellowship program was part of a much larger problem, and a whole other story. Suffice it to say one reason the symphony has suffered is because its sponsor, the Lincoln Theater, is suffering, which in turn reflects problems with its sponsor, and sole funder, IMG. In short, IMG has tried to establish a new business model based on acquiring a host of new venues, which would enable their clients to have more work at a lower cost to the venues. For various reasons, the plan hasn’t worked.

One effect of this chain reaction has been a lack of institutional knowledge among Lincoln Theater administrators on how to run a symphony orchestra. Issues such as not relying on a single donor; the art of pricing and selling subscription tickets; understanding the significance of corporate donors; and finally, understanding the needs of musicians.

A common view among several people we spoke to is that “there is huge potential for a successful symphony in Napa Valley, but it’s just not being realized.”

Rhapsodies in Blue

The musicians’ worries over Symphony Napa Valley are part of a larger worry of course.

“It’s definitely getting harder,” a musician told us, asking not to be named. “So many orchestras are struggling, offering less work, and of course, it’s rare that an orchestra keeps up with cost-of-living increases.”

The musician added that little things like parking have become ever become ever greater obstacles, and to make matters worse for "freeway musicians," San Francisco and San Jose orchestras have eliminated parking downtown.

It’s all a delicate balance. Musicians can’t complain for fear of being replaced. But some are fed up and say that unless there’s some kind of contract they’re not going to play for Symphony Napa Valley.

California Symphony canceled an outdoor concert at the last minute not long ago and yet paid the musicians. “Which allows allows us to make a living,” said Chrisp. "Symphony Napa Valley doesn’t seem to understand that.”

“If they come to us at the last moment,” said one union musician who asked not to be named, “and I have something else scheduled, then that’s their tough luck."

The concert program for Nov. 21 includes Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, arias from La Traviata, songs from West Side Story and others, and features soprano Marnie Breckenridge, tenor Christopher Bengochea, and pianist Eric Himy.

The Symphony Napa Valley web page had disappeared when we first tried to reach Moscowite, but now it’s reappeared. You can find it under the Lincoln Theater site. Interestingly, someone seems to have bought the old domain name for the Napa Valley Symphony: That site is devoted to betting on European soccer games and is written in Thai.

Since we spoke to Chrisp initially, he has decided to play with the San Diego Symphony this weekend. “They offered a firm commitment,” he said, and left it at that.

Mark MacNamara, a writer and journalist based in Asheville, North Carolina, has written for such publications as NautilusSalonThe Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Vanity Fair. From time to time, his pieces in San Francisco Classical Voice also appear in ArtsJournal.com.  Noteworthy examples include a piece about Philip Glass’s dream to build a cultural center on the Pacific Coast; a profile of sound composer Pamela Z and an essay on the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. MacNamara recently won several awards in the 2018 Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards presented by the San Francisco Press Club.  His website is macnamband.com.