Vallejo Symphony musician Kathleen Comalli Dillon blasted the orchestra’s board of directors in a seething letter Tuesday, on the heels of conductor David Ramadanoff’s pending ouster.
Ramadanoff’s 33rd year — starting with one of three seasonal concerts Sept. 21 — will be his last after the board decided it wanted to head in a different direction.
“I won’t play in the Vallejo Symphony without David’s brilliant and selfless leadership and talent,” Dillon said. “I will leave and so will many, if not most, of the fine players.”
According to board president Suzie Peterson, changes with the symphony were made based on three surveys. Dillon wondered in her letter why the VSO wasn’t informed of the surveys and “if you’re using them as a pretext for firing David, where are they?”
Comalli Dillon said she plays with the orchestra “because of the mastery and excellence David brings to his work, the ease with which he navigates impossible lack of rehearsal time and drastic budgetary limitations, the deep respect he demonstrates for the orchestra, and his extraordinary rapport with Vallejo Symphony audiences.”
As the VSO’s first violin and concertmaster in her 20th season here, Comalli Dillon went on to say that getting someone without Ramadanoff’s experience “would be like letting a toddler fly a plane.”
The letter was necessary, Comalli Dillon said Tuesday, “because the board has made a unilateral, terrible choice that could destroy the orchestra, and has not been transparent or truthful about it in their public statements.”
In an emailed letter to the Times-Herald, the symphony board defended its decision via publicist Tim Zumwalt:
“Much has been said about Vallejo Symphony Orchestra’s change in artistic direction. The VSO board has a fiduciary responsibility to keep VSO fiscally viable. Rather than face closing our doors, we took the difficult decision to revitalize the orchestra by bringing in new artistic leadership. We went through great lengths to make the music director (Ramadanoff) understand and accept the situation, offering several guarantees and courtesies, all of which he accepted. We made so many concessions that it impeded our ability to tell our own side of things, which we are trying to do now.”
The VSO letter continued that the VSO has been losing support since 1999 and that “a steady decline in public interest has resulted in budget cuts to the orchestra — fewer players, rehearsals, performances. This season we have barely sold 90 season subscriptions. If we were to continue down the same road, with the same artistic direction, how could we have lasted?”
The VSO letter acknowledged that Ramadanoff “is a much beloved figure in the community. To honor his long legacy, we will appoint him as Conductor Emeritus at the end of 2014-15, his final season. We know change is hard and uncertain, but the board is united in believing that this change is in the best long-term interest of VSO. We did not undertake this decision lightly, and we’re looking forward with excitement to putting VSO back on track and remaking ourselves as a modern orchestra that Vallejo can be proud of.”
Comalli Dillon believes “maybe more than half” of the symphony will depart following Ramadanoff’s last concert April 12.
Bassoonist Karla Ekholm said Ramadanoff “is the only reason I play in Vallejo. David Ramadanoff is the Vallejo Symphony. I can’t imagine there would be any reason for me to remain once he leaves.”
Ekholm said she is “shocked by the situation” with Ramadanoff.
“It is rare to find professionalism such as his at any level of orchestra in the Bay Area and he is the reason that I drive over two bridges and fight rush hour traffic out of San Francisco so I can lose money,” Ekholm said, adding that pay in Vallejo “is half what it should be. But the musical rewards more than compensate for the insufficient monetary compensation. It is because Ramadanoff is so well respected that he gets as fine a wind and brass section as you could hope for.”
Predicting a mass exodus sans Ramadanoff, “it will just be a poorly paid orchestra that will likely no longer be able to essay the difficult repertoire David miraculously pulls off,” Ekoholm said.
Sahib-Amar Khalsa, a violist with the VSO 25 years, said Ramadanoff “has made the VSO what it is today. He is the Vallejo Symphony’s greatest asset. Yet it seems that she is now being blamed for lack of attendance and decrease in subscriptions.”
Khalsa said she’s remained with the VSO for so long because of Ramadanoff’s leadership, “not only as a great conductor but as a human being. He treats his musicians with nothing but respect, courtesy and grace.”
When Ramadanoff departs, “I find it hard to imagine myself continuing,” Khalsa said.
Zumwalt said that the board expected some disappointed musicians.
“Some of these people have worked with David for 30 years. Its understandable,” Zumwalt said. “Yet, we got some encouraging messages from longtime players, as well, plus offers to help the search, even some help with finding conducting candidates.”
Zumwalt added that a new contract was worked out with Ramadanoff.
“He signed it, and we gave him several concessions including naming him our first Conductor Emeritus,” Zumwalt said, acknowledging that in the symphony’s 82 years, Ramadanoff is the longest tenured of seven conductors. Next longest is his immediate predecessor, Dr. George Wargo, who led the group from 1960-1982.
The VSO is taking applications until Oct. 15, said Zumwalt. Reviews and interviews will be conducted until January and narrowed to a final three, who will prepare an “audition program” for the 2015-16 season.
A “permanent” conductor will be selected for the 2017-2018 season.