There’s always more to a story.
And then there are the readers such as Henry Katz who demand more.
He sent an email after my Thursday column about the departure of Alexander Mickelthwate, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s long-serving musical director, on the heels of the WSO’s 70th anniversary season.
Too-long serving in the WSO board’s opinion, which the organization cited — in more diplomatic language — for not renewing the maestro’s position beyond a 12th season.
It’s just the way things come and go for conductors on the symphony scene; his time was up, was the message. But I had the feeling there was more to it, and asked board chairman Terry Sargeant how the orchestra felt about Mickelthwate. He declined to answer on the grounds of "confidentiality." He instructed the musicians they shouldn’t say anything either.
That leads us to the Katz email.
"Not only am I saddened by Alexander Mickelthwate’s departure, but even more so, I am disgusted with the cavalier attitude displayed by Mr. Sargeant in claiming ‘confidentiality’ in the matter of the maestro’s dismissal. The WSO is a gem that belongs to the citizens of Winnipeg — it is not the private domain of Mr. Sargeant and his board," Katz wrote. "As a decades-long subscriber and financial supporter of the WSO, I believe that I, and others in the same position, are entitled to know why the maestro’s contract was not renewed."
He wasn’t the only reader who wanted to know more. What follows is more background music on what led Mickelthwate to sign with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic recently. It comes from a well-placed WSO source who asked not to be identified, but is an admirer of the soon-to-be 47-year-old maestro.
The source pointed first to what Sargeant didn’t want to discuss: a core of dissatisfied musicians from the orchestra who got the board’s ear. The musicians wanted change, the source said — someone and something fresh and new musically.
There may have been more to it than that. I know of some WSO musicians who didn’t want Mickelthwate when he was hired and have never respected him musically. In any event, this core — this "rot," as the source referred to it — was essentially the same group who complained about Bramwell Tovey before he left after 12 seasons with the WSO to join the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in 2000. That made it easy for an element on the board who felt it was time for Mickelthwate to go after serving 12 years — particularly since he had agreed to do so while signing his last contract for the 2017-18 season.
That end date wasn’t publicly proclaimed. At least, not until after he signed with Oklahoma City.
Leaving probably wasn’t Mickelthwate’s preference. Not judging by how much Mickelthwate loves living and working in Winnipeg, and how he acknowledged after news broke about his departure that he and his young family never wanted to move. The source said the board could have extended his time here again; that there was a group of board members — many of them drawn to serve because they are fans of Mickelthwate — that pulled together to try find another solution. Maybe a short extension for Mickelthwate to find another orchestra, if a long one wasn’t going to happen.
"There was deep conversation," the source said. "There were all sorts of opinions."
Which brings us back to the central question.
Apparently, there was another key part to what led to Mickelthwate’s contract not being renewed or extended. Perhaps the central one.
"It all really boiled down to improper governance," said the source, who had another word for it, too.
"There was some sloppiness that triggered this entire thing... that jeopardized the proper kind of governance for an effective vote procedure."
The source said the WSO already has an initial short list of candidates, all of whom are undoubtedly technically acceptable. In time, one may become the next darling with the audience. The problem is there may be no maestro good enough for all of the musicians and, in time, "the rot" may prevail again. And the next musical director will be told "time is up," if, of course, that person hasn’t already decided to leave.
That could be the way it happens because the source also believes Mickelthwate’s departure is happening at a time when his vitality and vision is so vital; because the WSO as an institution is without a long-term vision. Something that’s suggested by letting Mickelthwate go.
Still, there are lessons the WSO, its board, management and some of its musicians should learn from what happened.
Board governance improvements being one, by the sounds of it. And how it manages the transition when the next musical director’s time is up.
Management will still try to make it appear all is wonderful with "your Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra" as it celebrates its 70th season, and much of the audience will buy it. But the organization’s mishandling of the Mickelthwate departure has turned what could have been a true tribute to Mickelthwate into a long, awkward goodbye for the man who is, and still should be, the face of the WSO.
So how could the transition been handled better?
Well, how about taking Tovey and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra as a shining example. Yes, our former maestro is still leading the VSO, and has been for nearly 17 years. But come the end of the 2018, Tovey will be stepping down, which the Vancouver Sun reported way back in 2013, when he signed his last contract. The article went on to say this: "The decision to step down at the end of the symphony’s 99th season was Tovey’s, made with considerable thought towards making the best possible transition for conductor, orchestra and community."
There you have it. An open, honest, classy and, I dare say, dignified way to do things. Words that appear to be unknown to our discordant, dysfunctional and disappointing Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.