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Musical Chairs

Utah Symphony patrons & musicians struggle to accept the demotion of longtime concertmaster Ralph Matson.



Tension is building as Thierry Fischer's baton deftly draws his orchestra into Mahler's Symphony No. 1. But the musical tension is nothing compared to the human drama being played out behind the scenes.

As the concertmaster—the official title of the first-chair violinist—Ralph Matson, comes on stage, orchestra members begin to applaud and tap their feet in a pronounced show of support for the man they have long revered and who many now feel was ill-treated.

While it's customary for an audience to applaud politely when the concertmaster appears, this is an unusual time for the Utah Symphony, and the orchestra is not reacting in its customary way. As the symphony embarks on its 75th anniversary season, looking back at the legacy of Maurice Abravanel and re-envisioning the orchestra for the next generation, it is simultaneously energized and enervated.

Moving the art form forward has some difficult implications for the orchestra, and Matson's apparent demotion from his almost 30-year run as concertmaster is the most visible consequence.

Maestro Fischer would not talk about the change. "We don't comment about this. I love him and respect him immensely. Ralph is a sweetie."

Since Fischer took the baton in 2009, 34 orchestra members, representing about a third of the symphony, have been replaced. He says he understood it as a mandate from the symphony board and orchestra members themselves.

Fischer's efforts to cull the herd are described on the maestro's own website at "The rebuilding and retooling process [of the Utah Symphony] began almost immediately [upon being hired]," Nicholas Beard, a contributor for, wrote. "Within 36 months, there were 30 new players in the orchestra. Most of the changes came about through natural attrition, but it is a testament to Fischer's grace and good judgment that the turnover went smoothly."

Former Utah Symphony conductor Joseph Silverstein would take issue with that. "The deed was done without proper preparation," he says of Matson's demotion. Utah symphony maestro from 1983-98, Silverstein was also Matson's violin teacher at Yale University.


Silverstein says that Matson recently told him he would not fight the demotion, although he has cause. "In the case of a principal player, a move back, and to take away a titled position, there must be evidence of continued displeasure with their performance," Silverstein says, referring to the need for documentation or a paper trail. Matson, however, has had nothing but rave reviews from both audiences and orchestra administration.

"Ralph doesn't want to go to the mat with the music director," Silverstein says. "It would be an extremely divisive thing for the orchestra and their relationship."

Circumstances such as these have caused problems in the world of classical music before. A similar personnel issue all but destroyed the relationship between legendary conductor Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which he led for 29 years. Ozawa did not renew the contract of the first trumpet within a few months of his getting tenure, and the player won his case in arbitration. That began a long period of discord that ultimately led to Ozawa's departure. "He never recovered," Silverstein says. "You don't want an orchestra on stage with palpable hostility to the music director."

The upheavals within the Utah Symphony, however, have been publicly subdued, and the orchestra continues to play well, perhaps better than ever.

So why all the fuss over the concertmaster position? The Washington Post explained why the position is so important in an article titled "The Modern Orchestra Concertmaster: First Among Equals," noting, "The choice of a first violinist is the most important appointment that any orchestra's music director can make, for the position requires not only superb playing ability and broad musicianship, but also grace under pressure, the optimism of a cheerleader and the finesse of an ambassador."

And so the removal of someone in such a position—especially someone so beloved—creates a negative buzz in the community.

Ricklen Nobis, former longtime Utah Symphony keyboardist, believes the symphony has become a cult of personality under Fischer. The same could be said for the symphony under Abravanel, Nobis said, but "he had a great respect for the musicians in the community, and had an inclusive personality." While it's the music director's prerogative to come in and clean house, Nobis says, Fischer "has been less than graceful."

Gerald Elias, former Utah Symphony associate concertmaster and now a Boston Symphony violinist and a mystery writer, puts it a little more delicately: Fischer, he says, "might have done a better job at recognizing the contribution those people gave. They were real pioneers to create a first-class orchestra when [Salt Lake City] was just a tiny town."

Hobson's Choice
The changes may well have started with Erich Graf, who spent 35 years with the symphony, 17 as president of the American Federation of Musicians Local 104, and who, as the orchestra's principal flutist, was ousted amid secrecy.

"In 2009, I was given a 'Hobson's Choice' about remaining in the orchestra by a European flutist/conductor who assumed the Utah Symphony's helm," Graf wrote in his recently published memoir, Erich Graf: Musician, Flutist, Advocate. "[Fischer] targeted me on his second day as music director. As a result, Local 104's attorney, Joseph Hatch, negotiated a multi-year settlement for me. The last concerts I played with the orchestra were in 2011."

In an interview with City Weekly, Graf says his experience with Fischer was "very, very brief," and that he had played with him only during Fischer's two audition weeks. Fischer was only in Utah a few days during his first season, but in the first week of his second season, he called Graf in to the office.

"He told me my sound didn't work in the orchestra and that I was not qualified as principal flutist, and barely qualified to play in my own section," Graf says. "I was to keep my mouth shut, or things could get very bad for me."

Graf was not to speak of his compensation package for three years, a period which ended in August last year. In a September 2011 letter to the symphony, attorney Hatch wrote: "The Salt Lake Tribune article, discussing personnel turnover at the Symphony, reported that Erich Graf was on a 'leave of absence' and that all musicians who had left the Utah Symphony had left voluntarily. Erich believes that both these statements are factually wrong and violate the [Personal Service Employment Agreement]."

The letter goes on to state: "He believes he was forced to alter his musical career because of the strong desire of Maestro Fischer. In fact, Fischer's private comments to other musicians demonstrate the fact that it was Fischer's desire to force Erich out of the Symphony."

But acting CEO Pat Richards says Fischer was hired based on a vision expressed by the musicians. "I think personally what was so compelling and inspirational was that the musicians said we want somebody who can make us better, we want to be part of the best orchestra we can be."

How that is accomplished is solely Fischer's purview. But some think he has a scorched-earth policy that has gone too far with Matson's replacement. Neither Matson nor his violinist wife, Barbara Scowcroft, would comment for this story

"He has certain high standards [for] musicians," says Melia Tourangeau, who hired Fischer and who was CEO from 2008 until leaving this year to serve as Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra CEO. "He felt it was time for somebody—for the next generation to take over. It seems like this massive turnover, but it's quite natural."

"I don't believe in revolution—especially in an artistic organization," Fischer is quoted as saying in his website article. "But I do believe in consistently aiming for excellence, and that has guided all of my decisions."

While providing the symphony fresh energy, the new hires certainly benefit from the experience of the older members. They "could not do anything without the two-thirds of the orchestra who have been there—some were appointed by Abravanel," Fischer said in an interview with City Weekly. "And people don't realize that Abravanel appointed even more young musicians [than I have]."


Legacies Live on
Of course, Abravanel was hired in 1946 by the Utah State Symphony Orchestra, a struggling entity that played out of the LDS Tabernacle, and at times, couldn't even pay its conductor. Over his 32-year tenure, he built the group into a world-renowned organization, which obtained its own venue in 1979, right after Abravanel retired. Upon his death in 1993, Symphony Hall was renamed Abravanel Hall.

Varujan Kojian conducted after Abravanel retired, from 1979-83. He not only brought vibrancy but a scandal to Utah, with various reports alleging a dalliance between Kojian and a Mormon missionary in 1982. A native of Beirut, Lebanon, he died at 57 while serving as director of the Santa Barbara Symphony, just 10 years after leaving Utah.

Then came Joseph Silverstein, an accomplished and versatile American violinist. He left an enduring legacy in Utah in 1998. Audience members and musicians remember him as a kind man who was highly talented. "He was first a human being, and then a musician," said one longtime patron. "He wouldn't put anyone on the street."

Prior to Fischer's arrival, Keith Lockhart commanded the Utah Symphony baton. Lockart split his time between Utah and the Boston Pops Orchestra between 1998 and 2009. Despite his having led the orchestra for the opening of the 2002 Olympic Games, Lockhart seldom talked about Utah in interviews.

"Music directors really do create an orchestra in their own image," says Elias. "When Keith Lockhart was here, both the repertoire and the sound of the orchestra had a lot of splash. The sound was bright and open but somewhat amorphous and unrefined. Thierry Fischer, on the other hand, is an exercise in precision. Everything is carefully calibrated, balanced, and clarified."

Sea Change
Fischer's personality and management style may simply be a reflection of a sea change for the orchestra. It is no longer the small-town community orchestra that hired Frances Darger, then a 17-year-old violinist who preceded Abravanel (and endured after him) to play pops at the University of Utah Stadium. According to a Deseret News report, her first concert included the "Salute to the Men in the Armed Forces."

In 2012, after 69 years, with what started as a part-time community orchestra, she retired. Some wonder why Darger couldn't have had just one more year—to make it 70. While she left with grace and amid accolades, some orchestra members were stunned.

"It used to be that if you wanted to die on the job, you died on the job," said one, who requested anonymity, referring to the tradition started by Abravanel. Several orchestra members interviewed were concerned about their careers and sought anonymity for this story.

"The Utah Symphony has been transitioning for some time as to what its own identity is," says Elias. "It's important to remember that the Utah Symphony was created as a community orchestra in the Depression. For decades, even with Maurice Abravanel, it maintained that community feel even while attaining high artistic achievement."

The seminal orchestra was created under the Roosevelt's New Deal program from the 1940s, the Works Progress Administration. Under the direction of early conductors such as Hans Henriot and Werner Janssen, it played five concerts a year with 52 part-time musicians. Now, there are 85 full-time professional musicians who perform more than 175 concerts each season.

"It always had this community feel to it. A lot of local musicians were hired to play in it, and it was like, 'OK, guys, let's put on a concert!'" Elias says.

That quality remained so even under the previous conductors, Silverstein and Lockhart.

"In more recent decades," Elias says, "as the orchestra expanded, national auditions were required to fill vacancies, and the personnel in the orchestra has increasingly come from outside Utah—even outside the U.S. And with that change in demographics, the orchestra has become more 'professional,' and I don't use that term either in a positive or negative sense. That's just what it has become."

By the time Fischer arrived in 2009, a lot of musicians were near the end of their careers. "The orchestra is playing on a very high level now," says Elias, who chose to leave in 2011, at the age of 59. "Being a music director is a lonely place, and there are a lot of difficult decisions."

Silverstein was the kind of music director who played with the hand he was dealt. "It would have been wrenching to see people put out to pasture," Elias says. "As it turned out, players were replaced through attrition and death, and they were often replaced by people infinitely superior.

"But bad morale is more injurious than the playing of one member of the violin section," he says.

Big Shoes to Fill
In June, the only mention of Matson's change of status came in the form of a statement on the Utah Symphony website: "Thierry Fischer, Music Director of the Utah Symphony has initiated a search for a new concertmaster of the Utah Symphony. Auditions for the position began in February 2015 and are ongoing. Auditions for the Utah Symphony are conducted by the Music Director and the Musician's Audition Committee. After a new concertmaster has been selected, the Utah Symphony's current concertmaster, Ralph Matson, will continue with the orchestra in the position of associate concertmaster."


It's quite a comedown for a man who has been recognized as one of the best. Matson has been concertmaster since 1985, and was approaching his 30th year in 2015. In a Deseret News story from 2014, Matson's wife characterized him as a "violin geek."

"My hobby is the violin," Matson told the D-News. "If I were not doing this for a living, I would still be doing it. I think about it every day—the idea of having this obsession and making a living doing that is fantastic." And no, he doesn't take summers off. Since 1996, he's been at the Grand Teton Music Festival where he serves as concertmaster of the festival orchestra.

Detroit-native Matson first got a music scholarship from Oberlin College, and then received a bachelor of arts degree from Yale College and a master's degree from the Yale School of Music. He had stints in the Minnesota and Cleveland orchestras, but found home in Utah.

His solos, now missing as a string of concertmaster hopefuls appear and audition, were always joyfully received. As the season progresses, the foot-stomping will wane, and the orchestra will go on with Matson in a second chair.

Sue Wallace, a longtime symphony supporter, says it's hard to see some of her "old friends" relieved of duty on stage. "And it's not very transparent. The replacement of Ralph Matson—we're still not sure what's going on, but auditions are going on."

There are big shoes to fill. So much so, a guerrilla campaign is being mounted behind the scenes: One former symphony member created Facebook posts offering "Free Ralph" T-shirts, "Just pay attention to the message on the T-shirt" the post reads. "Very bad things are happening in Utah."

The symphony has now hired Kathryn Eberle as associate concertmaster. She is a bright, young woman who was in the running for concertmaster but did not get the job. A committee of orchestra musicians conducts "blind" auditions, in which the candidate is behind a wall or screen. When a candidate makes the cut, his or her name is sent on to the music director, who makes the ultimate hire.

At this point, whoever gets the job will have a tough time. "It's very unfortunate," Silverstein says. "It will cast a very unfortunate light on the person brought in to replace him—for that person to create a productive relationship with the violin section."

Budgetary Low Notes
Utah has always been uniquely welcoming to music. In what must have been a heroic effort, the Mormons carted musical instruments in almost every company crossing the Great Plains—mostly bass violins, clarinets, flutes and trombones, according to the The Works Progress Administration Guide to Utah: The Beehive State. And Brigham Young encouraged a musical culture embodied by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Salt Lake Theater Orchestra.

This is not to say that the going has been easy. In the not-too-distant past, the symphony struggled with relevance and was in danger of extinction. In 1993, a resounding defeat of an art tax sent a clear message that the symphony was seen as an elitist organization, focused on the rich and powerful.

Ultimately, the Zoo, Arts & Parks (ZAP) tax passed, but the slump in symphony attendance continued. To tighten operations in an era of many competing entertainment options, in 2002, the symphony merged with Utah Opera, and Don Andrews, chief executive at the symphony, resigned under pressure.

At that time, there were only two symphonies in the country buying into this hybrid model, which became the subject of a Harvard Business School case study, according to arts blogger Andrew Taylor. And it took years for the two cultures to become comfortable with one another.

But, the Tribune reported in 2005 that spending still increased, even while performance revenue from ticket sales and fees declined. By 2005, the symphony was still begging for donor dollars to make up deficits—$1.7 million in 2002-03 and $1.6 million for 2003-04, according to then-CEO Ann Ewers. An audit showed that income had suffered after the merger. "Performance revenue from ticket sales and fees from Utah Symphony & Opera's [2004] season was $3.7 million—lower than the $4.2 million earned by Utah Symphony alone in the year leading up to the merger," the Trib reported.

In 2008-09, then-CEO Tourangeau took a 10 percent pay cut while cutting operating expenses by $1 million. That meant pay cuts for musicians, administrators and staff, the Trib reported.

A 2011 audit showed that in the previous three years, "the organization has reported deficits in the Operating Fund of approximately $3,283,000 on a cumulative basis. These factors raise substantial doubt about the organization's ability to continue as a going concern."

But for the economic downturn, the merger might have helped with operating costs. USUO relied heavily on donors to shore up its bottom line. Also, a staff hiring freeze, salary and benefits cuts came in response to a $950,000 deficit at the end of the 2010-11 season.

This past May, the symphony and opera ratified a new three-year contract. The deal for the 87 musicians includes an average 3.5 percent increase in base salary in each of the next three seasons, according to a USUO press release. That was good news for the musicians, who had taken contract concessions collectively totaling $3.8 million in over the past seven years. In fiscal year 2014, the music director earned $515,875, while the base salary for the musicians is $67,872, putting the USUO 19th among the top 20 U.S. orchestras.


Tourangeau believes the key to solvency is "finding that core of relevancy in the community, demonstrating relevancy as an institution. We are curators of an art form that is also a living, breathing art form, and we must stay true to the mission and our core competencies."

But Silverstein thinks the relevancy is still there. "People who are burying classical music are not getting out from their desks," he says. "Audiences are getting older—but the United States is getting older."

Accessibility is the key. Silverstein thinks weekday and Sunday afternoon performances should be considered, as well as reduced prices. "Yes, bring in people who haven't been there before. But if you believe in the product—that it's performed beautifully and in the persuasive quality of that product—then you will bring people to the hall if it is accessible in time, location and price."

Of course, all this financial upheaval takes a toll on orchestra members, too. Morale has ebbed and flowed with the fiscal tides, and often it has been the orchestra's conductor who maintains the collective psyche.

The deficits appear to be gone now and the budget balanced. And the symphony is definitely headed in a new direction.

Arts: Humanity's Currency
The Utah Symphony orchestra members continue to rise to the musical challenge, and some would argue that the symphony's direction is where it needs to be. David Porter, for example, a violinist who's in his 20th season with the orchestra, calls this an exciting "period of growth and artistic exploration."

For one thing, there is a new recording. In fall 2014, Fischer conducted the symphony for its first recording—of Mahler Symphony No.1—now on sale on the USUO website. The symphony is also collaborating with other arts organizations—the Utah Opera, Ballet West, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Madeleine Choir School and the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Each will share the stage with the symphony.

One of the most welcome initiatives is one resurrected from the Abravanel days: the symphony's return to school auditoriums. Utah Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, remembers how seeing symphony as a schoolboy transformed him. In fact, he wrote on Facebook about how he was moved to tears as he recently sat in the auditorium of Bryant Middle School. "A child next to me asked, 'Senator, are you all right?'" he wrote in his post.

"I nodded, embarrassed (and without tissue)," Dabakis wrote. "Full Utah Symphony at Bryant Middle School. A Title One school with 23 languages. Flashback 50 years: Little Jimmy sitting ... with my school—mesmerized. Transformed. It was unthinkable to go to the symphony for our poor family. But there I sat so long ago, 'Peter and the Wolf' playing, and I remember the haunting oboe sound—so clearly, from five decades ago! This morning, I looked into the children's faces and felt the power of the music reverberate through my soul. ... OMG, we need arts in our schools—arts are the currency of humanity!"

Renee Huang, public relations director for the symphony, says the school visits are important, providing symphony members with the image of the community. "We have an educational department that brings the symphony to schools. Our mandate is to get to all schools in a three-to-five-year rotation. That's more than 155,000 students every year," she says.

In spring 2016, the orchestra will travel to Carnegie Hall. "On the program will be works by Haydn, Bartók and Richard Strauss," writes veteran music critic Edward Reichel on his blog. He noted the symphony would also give its New York City premiere of Andrew Norman's Concerto for Percussion, which had its world premiere at Abravanel Hall on Nov. 6-7.

The orchestra has commissioned other new works, too. One by 34-year-old Nico Muhly will be unveiled in December. This could be a stretch for Utah: Muhly's opera Two Boys, which premiered in 2011, was based on a true story of the online relationship of two male teens, one of whom killed the other, Muhly told the Advocate, an LGBT-interest magazine.

A Return to Pure Classical Roots
Of course, Fischer has his fans and supporters, and they know where he is taking the Utah Symphony. There are clues even in his choice of music.

In 2014, the Swiss-born flutist made his Boston Symphony Orchestra debut—almost by accident. The scheduled conductor, Rafael Frühbeck, suddenly had died, and Fischer took over the program of Brahms and Carl Nielsen. He had just done an entire year of the symphonies of Nielsen in Utah, so, naturally, he pretty much killed it.

In an October 2014 interview with the Boston Musical Intelligencer, Fischer talked about the Utah Symphony season. "We've performed complete symphony cycles by Beethoven and Mendelssohn, and last season a cycle of Carl Nielsen's complete symphonies, which, except for the first symphony, were composed in the 20th century.

"This season," the article continued, "we began a two-year Mahler symphony cycle. In 2010, we started, symbolically, to perform the complete Haydn symphonies, playing them in order, one per season. This is symbolic in that it is a return to our pure classical roots. We will have performed the first nine symphonies by 2019."

All this forward thinking is possible because, according to the Utah Symphony website, Fischer's contract has been renewed through 2019.

"Fischer came from a chamber orchestra background and has worked with a period orchestra," says violinist Porter. "His approach is very much in that vein, taking into account historic practice and playing it."

Fischer maintains a globe-trotting schedule although he calls Utah his home now, and speaks endearingly of Utah. "I am totally refreshed in Utah. ... I love it. And I played in Deer Valley last year, and will do that next year. In the winter season, I have a lot of activities in Europe. But I love Utah so much, I feel totally inspired and that's it."

What's the Vision?
To the public, Fischer has an understated flair, a foreign charm heightened by his obvious talent. Some orchestra members, however, claim to see another side. Perhaps because he is from another country, the concept of union protocols and procedures escape him. "He didn't understand why he couldn't do certain things," one musician says, referring to Fischer's frustration at making staffing changes. "I've seen him go absolutely berserk."


Another musician thinks Fischer has taken his mandate to return the symphony to the Abravanel-era a little too seriously. "He has gotten caught on the word 'restore' like Joseph Smith restored the true gospel," he said.

This season has been demanding for all the musicians—playing the Mahler and Beethoven symphonies within weeks of each other, all while keeping an eye on Carnegie Hall. And because of the challenge, the loss of Concertmaster Matson has been magnified.

"These days, there are a lot of musicians in the prima donna category," Elias says. "But Ralph has been on stage for everything all the time. He rarely missed a concert and set an example for the entire orchestra. His work ethic, the quality of playing, the type of person he is—all that accounts for all that foot-stomping."

Both Elias and Matson studied violin under Silverstein at Yale, and were roommates in college. "Clearly, the public is scratching its head over it, and the maestro should respond to it," says Elias. "What happened to Ralph is a travesty."

Utah Symphony violinist Porter says attracting new talent is what goes into becoming a top-tier orchestra. And financial stability will help attract the best people. Yet, if Matson were as popular and accomplished as his peers claim he is, isn't he already one of the best?

"There's a lot of self-interest at stake," says one orchestra member. "What we do has such humanity to it, but we have all the flaws. I'm not sure anybody quite knows what the vision is," the musician says.

"It is the role of the symphony not just to play the great hits from past generations, but to propel the art form forward," says symphony public relations director Huang.

Acting CEO Richards says the administration and board are wordsmithing a vision now. "We want to be recognized nationally as a leader in artistic excellence and serving our community. We aspire to be a destination for artists, an inspiration for audiences and a beloved cultural treasure for our entire state. That's our big, hairy, audacious goal."

The symphony is on its way toward that goal, but not without major bumps. "Though I wasn't in the room when some of the senior members of the orchestra were invited to retire over the past five years," says Elias. " 'Grace and good judgment' and the 'turnover went smoothly' are in the eye of the beholder." CW