UPDATE 2/3/09. Here's the latest from the Peoria Journal Star on the symphony situation.
PEORIA -- Here's a letter being mailed on 1/26/09 to the Peoria Symphony Board of Directors. It cannot be faxed, because the fax number doesn't respond, and there is no e-mail contact on the symphony website.
Orchestra director Commanday received a spontaneous standing ovation the moment he walked onto the stage at the beginning of the Jan. 24 concert. He thanked the audience by placing his hand on his heart.
UPDATE 1/27/09: See comments below!
OPEN LETTER TO THE PEORIA SYMPHONY BOARD
We are shocked and saddened to see that the board apparently has fired David Commanday from his position with the symphony after this season.
Aside from the cruelty of dismissing Commanday in this severe economic recession after his years of loyal service, you are in danger of jeopardizing the survival of Peoria’s strongest cultural institution, the symphony.
Plans for the symphony as presented in the Peoria Journal Star stories sound half-baked, and remind us of similar pronouncements concerning the opera and ballet, now gone, and the Amateur Musical Club, also gone.
First comes the reorganization, then the institution disappears in a flurry of excuses.
Look at these passages from a 1994 Peoria Journal Star story:
The theater series now has 1,600 season ticket-holders; the musical club, 400. Though the names of those two veteran groups appear on promotional materials, the Civic Center itself chooses and produces the events and takes the financial risk.
The pattern could be continuing with other groups. The Civic Center also has co-sponsored events with the Peoria Civic Opera and Peoria Ballet, taking or sharing the financial risk but using the names of these groups and their base of ticket-holders to promote shows.
Is this what is in store for the symphony? Letting the Civic Center take over? Then it will disappear as the other groups have done.
(The theater series, now controlled by the Civic Center, has had a good season this year, after several years of plays so bad or so old that we sold our season tickets to others rather than give up our choice seats. Theater seat locations are not the same as symphony seats, however)
You have a first rate orchestra director in Commanday, who has upped the quality of the symphony, brought in world-class soloists, and reached out to the community in a variety of ways to secure new symphony patrons.
In fact the idea of appealing to younger audiences is nonsense. Many national surveys have found that arts audiences are older, as this group has the time, money and maturity to appreciate the events.
To dismiss Commanday is folly.
No doubt you noted the spontaneous standing ovation from the audience at the Jan. 24 concert, as Commanday walked out onto the stage. Audiences like him.
We heard the argument that he makes too much money, some $90,000 a year. That’s not much in today’s economy. Some teachers, police and firefighters make more, and likely most of the board also makes that much or more. Why shouldn’t an artist of his talent and stature be paid a middle-class living wage? (You pay the minimum wage, you get what you pay for!)
Who will replace the work that he does? Board members? Newly minted musicians? The Civic Center staff? What a joke that would be. (We have also heard that several principal players in the symphony plan to resign over this situation.)
And why would season ticket holders renew their subscriptions, based on some ad-hoc thrown-together season? We will not renew, and we are not alone. Many people we know agree with us. Commanday’s fate was the talk of a neighborhood brunch on Jan. 24. You likely will lose hundreds of season ticket holders from this action.
The public has an interest in and stake in this symphony – which has received thousands of dollars in public taxpayer grant funds.
It’s not your toy, board members!
In addition, do you recall the move that the Boeing Company made not long ago, from Seattle to Chicago? That was because of the arts offerings, its executives stated.
Can Peoria’s educated audiences be far behind? Why should Caterpillar executives, or first rate medical people, stay in a town with second rate arts offerings, when Chicago is nearby with its first class organizations?
You are playing with the livelihood of thousands of people in the Peoria area when you allow the symphony to be degraded.
Renew Commanday’s contract now. No need to find a way to save face – just say you reconsidered based on audience reactions. Then get out of his way and let the symphony continue to perform as usual.
Elaine and George Hopkins -30-
COMMENT, posted 10:35 p.m. 1/25/09:
Bravo!! I can only hope that the citizens of Peoria find the means to heed your wise words.
My wife Judith and I played many performances for Opera Illinois. It was a joy to play opera for the many appreciative Peoria audiences. What a terrible loss for the citizens of Peoria that this fine opera company is no longer functioning.
I have performed in symphony orchestras for over forty years under the direction of conductors such as Maurice Abravanel, Aaron Copland, Dennis Russell Davies, Leonard Slatkin, Leopold Stokowski, Michael Tilson Thomas to name a few. As a bassoonist in a major German opera house for five years, I performed with the finest opera conductors in Europe. David Commanday ranks right at the top of this list. It is tragic that the leaders of the Peoria Symphony seem unaware of what a treasure they have in this wonderful conductor. Maestro Commanday has my gratitude for uplifting my musical spirits over the past ten years.
Michael H. Dicker
Peoria Symphony Orchestra
Professor of Bassoon
School of Music
Illinois State University -30-
COMMENT, posted 1/26/09: As great fans of PSO since the days of jovial Bill Wilsen knocking over scenery, it is wicked and sad to demolish the PSO by lopping off its head.
Peoria has always been a great music town, from its riverfront jazz and blues to uptown's eclectic jam nights. Don't take away the fine golden voice in the Civic Center.
A Fine Kettle Of Fish -30-
COMMENT, posted 1/27/09: It is alarming to learn that the Peoria Symphony Orchestra may soon be leaderless. Whatever the reason the PSO Board of Directors may have for not renewing David Commanday's contract, remaining without a music director or principal conductor would be a serious mistake.
It may be surmised that the board is trying to make up for a budgetary shortfall and cut corners by eliminating Commanday's salary, but having observed the PSO from a professional point of view since 1993, Commanday's most significant contribution to the PSO was to raise the level of quality of the players and achieve a unified sound.
It may be time for Commanday to move on professionally, but without a music director or principal conductor, the quality of the players will slowly decline and certainly not improve.
Programming will also suffer if there is not one individual who intimately knows the abilities of the players who is responsible for choosing repertoire. That person does not need be resident in Peoria (there are many good conductors throughout the nation who would be excellent replacements for Commanday), but he or she does need to have overall artistic control to ensure the ongoing growth of the PSO.
The advantage of a resident music director is that it is easier for that individual to raise money on a regular basis. Guest conductors are usually helpful to inject new ideas, flavor and style, but you know the old story of how the camel came to be invented - a committee was trying to build a horse.
Most classical arts organizations are going through the same paroxysms of panic brought on by fiscal difficulties and loss of audience, so the first thing they try to do is eliminate costly salaries and to tweak their programming to make it more "relevant" to modern audiences, forgetting that the quality of the music is the real reason for the existence of the organization. If it is excellent, they will come.
It is also worth pointing out that the single greatest obstacle to quality performing arts in Peoria is the lack of an affordable venue of suitable quality. Oh, well... One more reason not to live in Peoria.
(former General Director, Opera Illinois)
311 W. Fisher Ave.
Greensboro, NC 27401