Las Vegas Sun

May 20, 2019

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Musicians say they’ve lost confidence in board president

Las Vegas Philharmonic officials blamed the bad economy Thursday for its budget problems and announced possible program cuts.

But critics blame board President Barbara Woollen for the orchestra’s financial problems. Some musicians, staff and board members contend Woollen, who took over as president July 1, is autocratic and secretive, and micromanages the nonprofit organization. They say board squabbles have driven away longtime donors.

The orchestra’s musicians signed a petition late this summer asking for her immediate removal as president.

The problems have been going on for several months, but those involved with the 10-year-old orchestra have been reluctant to discuss details, saying public airing of the issues could harm the orchestra during a tough time.

Every musician in the orchestra — more than 70 — signed a “vote of non-confidence” in Woollen.

Woollen would only take written questions through a public relations firm hired by the Philharmonic in recent months. She responded in writing Friday afternoon.

When asked about the petition, Woollen said:

“An orchestra member notified me of an alleged petition signed by orchestra members that has still not been verified or validated. Then, a board member made a motion to recall my position as president, which went to the full board of trustees for decision. For a second time, I was confirmed to remain in office by a majority vote of confidence from my fellow trustees. After I learned of the orchestra’s concerns, I addressed the issues at hand in front of the entire orchestra, asking for their confidence. The reaction from the orchestra was very favorable and supportive of my role as president.”

Sharon Street-Caldwell, a viola player and chairwoman of the orchestra committee, said she handed the signed petition to Woollen at a board meeting with other board members present.

The orchestra, which has a $1.7 million annual budget, has a deficit of almost $200,000, sources say. The orchestra lost corporate sponsorships for its Fourth of July concert. The musicians contract expires when the season ends this spring, and negotiations are to begin shortly.

Orchestra officials said Thursday they are considering canceling the January concerts for students, which cost more than $75,000.

Woollen discussed the deficit at a board meeting last month. Conductor David Itkin suggested those making the most money should make concessions and reduced his salary by 10 percent. He is director of orchestral studies at the University of North Texas and heads the Arkansas Symphony, Abilene Philharmonic and University of North Texas Symphony.

Associate conductor Dick McGee gave up his annual salary of about $10,000, continuing to work for free. McGee has a full-time job as chairman of the Department of Fine Arts at the College of Southern Nevada.

To offset the deficit, Woollen has tried to raise money within the board, offering to pony up $30,000 if the rest of the board would give at least $60,000.

Woollen, who spent $1.6 million of her own money on an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor in 2006, joined the board this year and said she has contributed “over six figures to the Las Vegas Philharmonic through monetary donations and concert sponsorships.”

Some of the frustration from critics is aimed at the hiring of Peter Aaronson as executive director in August. Aaronson is paid $125,000 a year.

He was passed over by the search committee in charge of bringing in an executive director to replace Phillip Koslow, who is now director of development. The announcement for the position said the job would pay $75,000-plus. Woollen lobbied for Aaronson to get the job and to have the salary raised for him, sources say. Woollen said Aaronson was elected unanimously by the board with full disclosure of his salary.

All parties said they are working to resolve the problems.

Itkin has said he is committed to do whatever it takes to make this orchestra work. Several musicians, who spoke to the Sun anonymously, said they will do what they can to keep the orchestra from folding.

“The problems are very ironic because the orchestra has never sounded better than it does now,” McGee said. “Itkin has done a great job preparing the orchestra for every performance. Once you look at where the orchestra is musically and where it is organizationally, it is obvious that we need to work on organizing the board and the front office.”

McGee became the center of controversy this summer when he presented his own pops program at the same time as the Philharmonic was launching its pops series. Several sources within the organization said Woollen called this a conflict of interest and was extremely upset.

Musicians have said that they want the board operate with more transparency.

“The musicians of this organization are absolutely committed to this organization and to the community and the Smith Center and will not let the orchestra fail,” Street-Caldwell said.

“We need a large infusion of money, but there also needs to be a revitalization of the board,” McGee said. “Many board members are very frustrated. Some are distancing themselves from the board and this is the first time that I’ve seen this in 10 years. There have been policy decisions made over the last six months that have been unpopular and counterproductive with other board members.”

Woollen defended her position.

“I was asked to become a board member by a former trustee who recognized the organization’s need for a profound leader,” Woollen said in her statement. “My strong leadership skills, extensive business background and community involvement have proven to be of great benefit to the Las Vegas Philharmonic organization. The ailments that exist within our organization are the result of many years of ineffective leadership, which, as president, and with time, I plan to overcome.

“I want to do what is in the best interest of the Las Vegas Philharmonic as a whole. This has always been my intention. If I lack the confidence of the musicians and my fellow trustees, then I cannot act in the best interest of the organization. Time will tell.”

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