Las Vegas Sun

September 24, 2021

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Board chief of strapped orchestra quits in anger

Three colleagues follow, including spouse; executive director fired

Click to enlarge photo

Barbara and Bruce Woollen, married former board members of the Las Vegas Philharmonic, at an event for the Las Vegas Sun Camp Fund on Sept. 23, 2004.

Click to enlarge photo

Geri Crawford, seated in her home, in a Sun file photo.

The Las Vegas Philharmonic’s controversial board president, Barbara Woollen, has stepped down amid leadership conflicts and financial problems within the organization.

Woollen submitted her resignation to the board last week in a fiery e-mail that criticized the board, conductor David Itkin and associate conductor Dick McGee.

After her resignation, the Philharmonic board fired Executive Director Peter Aaronson, who was hired at Woollen’s urging during her brief tenure.

Three other board members also stepped down — Bruce Woollen (Barbara’s husband), Shea Gordon and Cristine Lefkowitz.

Philharmonic Vice President Jeri Crawford, longtime board member and supporter of the musical arts, will serve as presiding officer for now.

Board members and musicians declined to comment on Woollen or her letter, but officials said the 10-year-old orchestra is now in a position to move forward. Itkin said he would comment only after an official announcement.

Right now the orchestra wants to concentrate on completing the season, Crawford said.

“It’s like a renewal of our direction,” she said. “Our focus is to continue to present the excellence of music. We know we’re going to the next level, to being a world class philharmonic that can move into the Smith Center.”

Sharon Street-Caldwell, viola player and chairwoman of the orchestra committee, said the musicians are excited about the changes: “We’re looking forward to the next half of the season. If anything, it’s brought us closer together. We’re all working for a common goal, which is the success of the Phil.”

The Sun first reported on the problems this month. The orchestra has a $1.7 million annual budget and a couple of months ago was looking at a deficit of almost $200,000, sources say. It lost corporate sponsorships for its Fourth of July concert and funding by individual donors who have cut their contributions because of the economy.

The orchestra was faced with possibly canceling its January youth concerts, which cost nearly $90,000 to present. Corporate and individual donors stepped forward to save the youth concerts, as did the Las Vegas Philharmonic Guild, which raised $30,000. The orchestra is also resurrecting its Muse program, which reaches out to younger audiences through a membership program that offers preconcert receptions and after-concert parties.

To help with the deficit, music director Itkin cut his pay by 10 percent. Associate conductor McGee turned back the entire salary (about $10,000) for his part-time position and is working for free.

Sources say Aaronson, who was paid $125,000 a year, did not cut his salary. Woollen had offered to donate $30,000 to the orchestra if other board members came forward with another $60,000.

Musicians had already expressed concern about what some called the autocratic rule of Woollen, who became president July 1, and were worried about contract negotiations when the current contract expires.

Every musician in the orchestra — more than 70 — signed a “vote of non-confidence” in Woollen in September. The petition also asked for Woollen’s immediate removal as president. The Sun has received a copy of the petition.

A board member made a motion to recall Woollen as president, but the board voted to keep her.

When contacted about the petition, Woollen responded to the Sun with an e-mail issued through a public relations firm. She said an orchestra member “notified” her “of an alleged petition signed by orchestra members that has still not been verified or validated.” Woollen said the orchestra was “very favorable and supportive of my role as president.”

Street-Caldwell, however, said she personally handed the petition to Woollen. Musicians and certain staff and board members said they were concerned about the lack of transparency between Woollen and Aaronson while they were running the orchestra.

The Sun obtained a copy of Woollen’s resignation letter in which she wrote, “I took on the impossible responsibility of leading this organization because I believed I could make a difference and stayed long beyond reasonably expected because I had made the commitment to do so.”

Woollen then criticized conductor Itkin, who had planned to move to Las Vegas to lead the orchestra, but took a job in Dallas and moved there instead. She also referred to McGee, saying he “went on to pursue his own need to conduct, by starting a competing organization which directly conflicted with the goals of the LVP.” McGee formed the Nevada Pops organization this year at about the time the Las Vegas Philharmonic started a pops series.

In the letter Woollen also wrote: “When the inmates are running the asylum, when sound business practices are disregarded in lieu of Trustees and employees’ egos, personal pursuits and vindictive behavior, when the board room emulates the sounds of a misaligned garbage disposal, devoid of common decency and respect, it is truly time for me, and others of sound judgment, to take our time, tireless efforts and overly generous monetary contributions elsewhere.” She plans to return to private business, she added.

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