Seeking Change? The Vallejo Symphony Firing Squad

Mark MacNamara on September 23, 2014
David Ramadanoff

In August, the board of the Vallejo Symphony announced the firing of its much revered Music Director and Conductor, David Ramadanoff. He has been the orchestra’s pilot for 31 years and has attracted a large number of A-list musicians to what is essentially a ‘freeway philharmonic’ or, as one musician put it, “a rag-tag group in which, at its best, the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.”

Inevitably, a change on the podium attracts controversy, which then subsides. But nothing is subsiding in Vallejo. “It’s a personal insult to me,” Kathleen Comalli Dillon told us last week. She’s been the orchestra’s concertmaster for 20 years. “The depth of ignorance shown by this board is appalling. I can’t describe it.”

“It’s just not right,” added Bruce Chrisp, 48, a trombonist with the symphony for more than 25 years. “I’ve never seen anything like this in all my years. I will tell you this, we’re a professional orchestra with an amateur board and if David is not reinstated — I think I speak for many others — then we may simply disband and restructure.”

For its part, the symphony board remains resolute. Tim Zumwalt, a board member who also handles the symphony’s publicity, told us, “There’s plenty of musicians. We’re not worried about that. We know who the subs are and there are a lot of good people out there looking for work. If the musicians are mad we’re sorry to hear that, but if they want to leave then there’s not much we can do; we just have to say, ‘we can’t keep you here.’ ”

A Community Out of Tune

The facts in the case are these: The 83-year-old Vallejo Symphony performs in a town struck nearly dead by a series of calamities. First, the Mare Island Naval Shipyard closed in 1996, which led to a period with 30 percent unemployment. In 2008, the Great Recession decimated property values. “My house went to one-eighth of its value,” Bruce Crisp told us. He’s one of five musicians who live in Vallejo. “I couldn’t get a reasonable mortgage modification and finally just had to walk away. That hit really hard.”

That same year the city filed for bankruptcy, in large measure because of city salaries and pensions. A policewoman or fireman can retire at 50 and keep 90 percent of his or her annual salary. The average annual pension is more than $100,000. The city emerged from bankruptcy in 2011, but may return next year, despite a new one percent sale tax. Services have declined; three of nine fire stations have closed. The police force is down by 40 percent. Burglaries are up. In 2006, there were seven homicides; in 2013 there were 24.

As for the Symphony, its decline began with the closing of Mare Island. Up to that point the members included 10 first violins, 10 seconds, eight violas, eight cellists, and five or six basses, plus full brass and percussion. Then one stand was removed from each of the upper string sections. Basses were reduced to four. The percussion and keyboard were used much less frequently. Programs were chosen that included fewer parts for lower brass.

The annual schedule had included five concerts plus a Fourth of July pops concert. But in the ensuing years the schedule was cut to five concerts and one of those was a chamber concert. And then the number of rehearsals was cut to reduce the number of “services” musicians could be paid for. In 2011, the situation was so bad that in mid-season the symphony stopped performing. In addition, the board also shrank.

As it stands now there will be five concerts this year; two are chamber concerts. Each will include two rehearsals. And so three services at $60 each, plus $15 in gas money. In sum, $75 per service, compared with say, the Marin Symphony or the Silicon Valley Symphony, which pay more than $130 per service.

The symphony’s annual budget is about $100,000. It costs between $35,000 and $40,000 to put on one concert. On a good night, perhaps 350 to 400 people attend a concert.

The Face of a Troubled Orchestra

We called the head of the Symphony board, Suzie Peterson, to find out why the maestro was put out. (He will step down at the end of this season.) Peterson, a former high school teacher and a choral group conductor, spoke briefly, saying that the orchestra had been losing its audience and the board felt changes were in order. She then gave up the phone, leaving all other questions to Tim Zumwalt, the publicist and the one you might think of as the face of the symphony. He’s a retired reading language arts specialist and played sousaphone in his high school marching band. 

Zumwalt, ever guileless and cheerful, explained the situation.

“David has had a very long tenure. And frankly what we saw was a lot of repetition, and the audience saw it, too. There’s also a lot of apathy in this community and our goal is to spend the next two years bringing the audience back. You have to remember this is show business and when you’re not selling tickets you have to change the show. Don’t get me wrong: We think David is a fantastic conductor, but you can’t have the same meal every day, and like I say it’s show business so we’re looking for someone with fresh ideas. In the last 10 years you can’t tell one concert from another and the audience just says it best: ʻWe’re not paying for this.’ Now, if we had 200 subscribers, just 200 subscribers, none of this would be happening. Two years ago we had 200. In 1999, we had 521 subscribers.”

Asked about the Symphony’s endowment, Zumwalt replied, “We’re not sure. There are bequests coming in.” There was an awkward pause. “Well, it’s just about nothing. The truth is we don’t have one; the cash just flows in the front door and out the back.”

Although poverty stricken, the Symphony association has moved to new offices in the Arts district in Vallejo, “It’s really nice,” said Zumwalt. “and the rent is only a few dollars more.”

“Running for Symphony”

As for the next act, 17 applicants have stepped forward so far, including a principal substitute for the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, a UC professor, and a high school teacher.

“The ideal candidate?” said Zumwalt, “We’re looking at a high level. We’d like to find someone well established, someone with at least five years experience conducting, maybe with international experience. We’re particularly interested in strong local candidates.” He paused then added, “we also want someone good at marketing, someone who can help revitalize things, who can do a lot of handshaking, because, if you think about it, we’re ‘running for symphony’! It’s just like a political campaign; only people vote with their wallets.”

The Symphony plan is to choose three finalists, who will be asked to create their own program, conduct it, and then attend some meetings with donors. The finalists will also be subject to orchestra surveys. Which, as an aside is a particularly sore spot with musicians.

“Most orchestras have surveys done every year,” Dillon, the concertmaster, told us. “Not here. This board has never asked us for our sense of the conductor or what this orchestra is about. Never, and that’s very strange. We’re the ones with experience, we’re the ones who know David best, but they don’t talk to us at all. They have a code of silence.”

“Sure,” says Zumwalt, with a chuckle. “If this orchestra did 10 performances a year it would make sense to get surveys. But we don’t.”

He changed the subject and went on to explain that donors were supportive of the board’s decision, that the board was doing all it could to keep the orchestra going.

Whether Zumwalt felt more like savior or saved wasn’t clear.

Searching for a Way Forward

The decision to fire Ramadanoff came last May at a board meeting at which it was “extremely unanimous” as Zumwalt put it — although musicians claim the conductor had at least one vote in his favor. “This wasn’t a meeting where people just raised their hands. We asked a lot of questions. Is this a necessary decision? Should we be doing this or not? What if we don’t do it, what will happen to us?”

Zumwalt listed the possibilities, adding that the city had no arts center, that some of the venues are substandard, that the audience is nearly 90 percent seniors, and a long-time donor, Target, recently dropped out, after 10 years. On the plus side, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has offered a modest grant, albeit based on the expertise and promise of David Ramadanoff.

In July, the board asked the conductor to come in for a talk. “He was really taken by surprise,” remembers Zumwalt. “We all saw in his eyes that this was not what he expected.” Zumwalt added that the Symphony had granted a lot of concessions, including the title of conductor emeritus, which was a first. “It’s an honorarium,” said Zumwalt. “In some organizations someone with that title might work on various projects but we decided that the new conductor will be the new sheriff in town and that person should have complete control.”

Dillon, the concertmaster, and a medical writer and “knowledgeist” in her other life, has a droll way about her. In summing up the situation, she offered this analogy: “Let’s say you have a relationship built up over 15 or 20 years with your partner and one day some outside agency comes in and says, ‘Sorry, this isn’t working so you guys are now going to break up, but we’re going to give you somebody else who was in a relationship once for five years. Okay?ʼ Okay, well good luck with that.”

Maestro Work

David Ramadanoff studied music theory and conducting at the Cleveland Institute of Music and took a D.M.A. in orchestra conducting from Juilliard. Highlights of his career include Associate Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony (six years); Music Director of the San Francisco Conservatory (four years), director of the Sinfonia Chamber Orchestra in Los Altos Hills, California (35 years); his position in Vallejo (31 years) and his pride and joy, serving as director of the Young People’s Symphony Orchestra in Berkeley (26 years).

Vallejo Symphony musicians seem to agree that he’s the reason the Symphony works and stays together, and they explain his success by his willingness to reach out to audiences as well as musicians. Harry Chomsky, a violinist with several local orchestras, including the Vallejo Symphony, and a software developer by day (he’s also the son of Noam Chomsky) offered this anecdote about working with the maestro. He began by noting that rehearsal time has been so reduced that the conductor has very little time to explain his approach to a piece of music.

“After making sure we know the music well enough to perform it successfully, he typically goes back over certain passages and adjusts balance, articulation, or style in ways that may seem almost arbitrary at the time. Then, as the performance is about to start, he speaks to the audience … to explain what he thinks the piece is about ... These lectures are incredibly enlightening. They also fill in the gaps in our understanding ... Suddenly, his various technical suggestions fit together into a coherent, emotional vision of the music. I think that this trick of timing … has enabled us to produce performances that rise above the level anybody thought possible even hours earlier.”

Is Great Music Enough?

We reached the conductor himself. Asked whether he might take up his old baton again, if the board changed its mind, he didn’t know. “It’s all such a mess,” he said.

The board is operating under the assumption that having a different face in front of the orchestra will excite new interest and sell more tickets. My argument is that we’re producing really excellent concerts and the reason we are is because there are A-list players willing to be paid less than what they can make elsewhere, specifically to play with me. We have all developed a very good working relationship and the product is superb. If there’s a problem it’s with the marketing, which is primitive at best. It’s also true that the board is stressed and overworked. They feel their back is against the wall and they don’t know what else to do.

The bottom line, he said, “I don’t think they understand the value of the relationship that the musicians and I share.”

He went on to say that at the 46th annual meeting of the Association of California Symphony Orchestras (ACSO), which was held in August in Sonoma, he chaired the Conductor’s Forum. The topic on everyone’s mind was how the real work of conductors and musicians is providing “transcendent experiences.”

“The symphony,” said Ramadanoff, “should be a place where people come to get a spiritual uplift. Where they can share a completely positive experience. One should remember that this music is a source of great emotional health — through its sheer beauty, through the way it explores triumph through struggle, and through a kind of moral force that permeates both heart and mind.”

The saddest part in the struggle to keep local symphonies going these days is that high mindedness is too often not enough. For the Vallejo Symphony Association the bottom line is the need for a certain amount of money from subscribers, board members, donors, and ticket buyers, along with a commitment to a real marketing campaign — whether or not you keep Maestro Ramadanoff, with all of his experience and wisdom. You would think that in the midst of so much calamity in recent years Vallejo would want a symphony, would do whatever it could to have one, but sometimes the fact is that there’s just no place for a symphony in a particular town.

[Editor's note: A few factual errors were corrected on Sept. 26]

Did you enjoy the article?

Sign up to our weekly newsletter to receive the latest articles every Tuesday