When I read the recent HP article regarding the Southwest Michigan Symphony Orchestra and the Reeds, I couldn’t help but be puzzled by the statement given by some of the SMSO leadership, and it made me curious as to what was behind it. What I learned was surprising.

Firstly, it seemed odd to me that the SMSO’s response sounded so defensive, and at times, flatly unbelievable. Despite a lack of hard evidence that SMSO Conductor Robin Fountain wants to get younger players in the orchestra by removing older players, his simultaneously giving Musical Warning Termination Letters (MWTL) to every member of the orchestra over the age of 65 seemed suspect straight away. 

Moving older players out would be a lot easier if Fountain had had his way early on in his tenure with the SMSO. I learned that during a union negotiation period, Fountain once proposed a mandatory retirement age of 67 for players, using the Berlin Philharmonic as a model. U.S. orchestras don’t operate that way and Fountain was flatly refused, so the MWTL process has remained his only tool to move older players out.

Then I wondered, what were the actual allegations? Fountain’s letter to Cellist Susan Dietrich-Reed alleged that she was “playing in the wrong part of the bow as the rest of her section, at times.” Other critiques: “inconsistent intonation (pitch), at times” and “difficulty with fast technical passages, at times.” Having worked with a variety of SMSO players and players from other regional symphonies in the recording studio, I could make those critiques about most players, depending on exactly when I chose to focus exclusively on them.

Do these “offenses” affect the music? Aside from difficulty executing fast passages “at times,” usually not. In fact, when I record live strings in the studio, I regularly choose takes with some intonation variances over a “perfectly pitched” take because having a little intonation variance actually makes a section sound incredibly full and thick, particularly in low strings.

It seems unlikely to me that there are any real issues with the Reeds’ playing. I’ve been working with them regularly over the last nine years, both live and in the recording studio. I’ve had no issues with their musical abilities, and I have no plans to stop hiring them. Speaking as another one of the Reeds’ employers, Fountain’s reprimand doesn’t add up to me.

This isn’t the Reeds’ first time being at odds with Robin Fountain, however. Not mentioned in The HP article was the fact that during Fountain’s time at the SMSO, both Reeds had been leaders in several union committees, which ensure that SMSO musicians’ voices are represented, balancing Fountain’s direction over the SMSO organization.

Serving these committees have placed the Reeds at the opposite side of the table from Fountain many times and have led to some tense conversations. So much so that Fountain has even eschewed the professionalism of acknowledging the Reeds’ hello/goodbyes in rehearsals for a while now. Once during a particularly contentious meeting, Dietrich-Reed had to warn Fountain to respect her personal space, according to her. Maybe that’s why he’s been chilly toward the Reeds? Hard to say.

In this observer’s opinion, the problems between the Reeds and Fountain basically boil down to one thing: They’ve always been in the way of Fountain’s autonomy – first as two strong union affiliates standing up for the other orchestra musicians, and now, among other sexagenarians, as occupants of long-earned seats that Fountain wants to use as he sees fit. Knowing Fountain’s point of view on mandatory retirement, the Reeds saw the writing on the wall after receiving their MWTLs and decided to resign and bypass further conflict with the conductor.

Looking again at The HP article, SMSO board President Norma Tirado-Kellenberger’s response to the Reeds’ allegations was simply insulting. She implied that the Reeds were part of the symphony due to a “who’s who” privilege of sorts instead of their merit. Trying to turn the Reeds’ decades-long cultivation of our community’s musical soil into a negative was a disgraceful spin on her part and only hurt the SMSO’s brand. Tirado-Kellenberger failed to adhere to a basic PR maxim: Never “punch down.”

She even went as far as to say that “there may be some musicians who have been in the orchestra long enough that they didn’t have to go through (a blind audition) process – some who may not have made it ...” Uh, excuse me? Let’s just say that if this statement to the press were Tirado-Kellenberger’s blind audition as a spokesperson for the SMSO, she shouldn’t have made it. Corporate dark arts like sniping and innuendo don’t look good on a community arts organization. The SMSO’s press statement shined a spotlight on the absence of a PR/marketing person capable of communicating professionally for their brand, and they need one right away.

The age discrimination allegation is just another black eye for SMSO leadership this year after its fundraiser debacle in May. The SMSO’s Dancing With The Stars 2018 event featured celebrity judge Danielle Colby Cushman (”American Pickers”), who was asked to judge, as an acquaintance of Tirado-Kellenberger. Colby Cushman is also well known for her work as a burlesque dancer and founder of the troupe, Burlesque Le Moustache.

At the end of the night while contest votes were being tabulated, Colby Cushman “filled time” with a multi-song burlesque routine that bloomed to her eventual stripping down to pasties and a G-string. It’s been rumored that some donors were lost that night, along with the potential innocence of some children, who were shuffled out as quickly as their parents could manage it.

In the resulting brouhaha that followed, Tirado-Kellenberger submitted her resignation, but was eventually coaxed back by the board. Upon reinstatement, Tirado-Kellenberger issued an awkward apology letter to SMSO supporters, but the damage had already been done.

This colorful anecdote further illustrates that the real story behind the age discrimination claims is an overall leadership problem at the SMSO. This spring, it was poor leadership judgment that allowed a professional burlesque dancer to take the floor at a fundraiser without specifying some boundaries. Fountain’s focus on moving older musicians out ala Berlin, and other leadership issues were to blame for the Reeds’ resignation. They’d finally had enough. And now this summer, more poor leadership judgment mucked up what should’ve otherwise been a simple press statement.

The SMSO’s belittling and attacking beloved musicians in their 60s has turned off ticket buyers, particularly because a large number of them are also in their 60s or older. Some people have told me they’ll not attend future SMSO events, and at least one long-time season subscriber has inquired about a refund.

It’s a shame that the actual music makers that the audiences buy concert tickets to see – ORCHESTRA MEMBERS – don’t get to send out Leadership Warning Termination Letters. But since Dietrich-Reed had also been officially “written up” by Fountain for non-musical offenses like “chewing gum in rehearsal,” “talking to a guest artist,” and “commenting about a sound issue to the sound crew,” it’s unlikely we’ll hear from orchestra members anytime soon. Fountain would probably write them up for talking to the press!

Dave Carlock is a 31-year veteran of the entertainment business as a Grammy winning recording engineer and producer, touring musician and songwriter. With other artists, he now makes records and music videos at his production studio at Orchards Mall.