The nonprofit Friends of the DaPonte String Quartet has fired the four musicians in the 30-year-old ensemble and is changing its name and mission to diversify its programming, a move that left the group stunned and angered.
Members of the well known and prolific classical music group received letters in the mail this week notifying them that their paid positions had been eliminated. The friends group, which was formed to support concerts and programming of the quartet and handle finances, will soon go by the name Chamber Music Maine and plans to broaden its musical offerings with a wider group of musicians.
“It does feel a little strange to receive walking papers from an institute I founded,” said Myles Jordan, a cellist who lives in the Lincoln County town of Alna and who has been part of the quartet since its inception.
The other musicians that make up the quartet are violinists Ferninard “Dino” Liva (also a founding member) and Lydia Forbes and violist Kirsten Monke. The letters they received were dated May 10 and signed by Erica Ball, executive director of the Friends of the DaPonte String Quartet.
“The Board of the Friends of the DaPonte String Quartet has evaluated its mission and role in supporting the performing arts and has reached the conclusion that it is in the best interest of the organization to move in a different direction,” Ball wrote. “The organization will no longer serve as a full-time employer of performing artists. As a result of this decision, I regret to inform you that your position as a salaried musician will be eliminated as of May 10, 2022.”
Jordan said each musician had been receiving a salary of $40,000 and was offered $10,000 in severity.
Ball on Friday declined to answer questions about specific discussions that led to the board’s decision.
“Nonprofits regularly evaluate their programming with regard to carrying out charitable purpose,” she said. “What the board did was take action to change the compensation model for performers, which will help us accomplish the goal of providing more diverse chamber music.”
But the board did more than that. Ball, who has held the position since December, also said that the Friends of DaPonte String Quartet has filed paperwork with the state to change its name to Chamber Music Maine to better reflect its new direction.
Board president Thomas Davis said although the quartet’s musicians have viewed the decision as a termination, he and other board members don’t see it that way. He said the organization is still willing to work with the quartet, but they would be paid for performance rather than given a guaranteed salary.
“I know they are unhappy, but I’m optimistic we’ll work with them in the future,” Davis said.
Jordan said he doesn’t know if the quartet would consider working with the newly formed group because there is so much animus. The quartet originally formed in 1991 in Philadelphia, but its members moved to Maine full time a few years later. It has had several different lineups over the years, but the current foursome has been intact for more than a decade.
“This is our livelihood, and it’s the livelihood we’ve built stone by stone, ourselves, over 30 years,” he said.
Although the letter was a surprise, Jordan said he and the others saw this coming.
“This has been two years in the making, and it’s been perpetrated with great skill and discipline, and in complete secrecy,” he said.
Jordan said he believes the decision was made because board members had been trying to exert more control over the musicians – specifically, what music they should play at their many shows. No more Beethoven or Schubert, Jordan said the quartet members were told.
“They said our music is insufficiently diverse in its representation of women and people of color,” he said. “It’s true that most of what we perform is the music of European dead white men, but that’s what we’re trained to do.”
The quartet performs contemporary music, too, and has been commissioned to produce work as well. In addition to playing concerts throughout Maine, the group tours across the country and has produced multiple albums.
Ball, who is a composer and lives in Portland, declined to respond to Jordan’s claims but did agree that the current board is looking for more flexibility and diversity in its programming.
Davis said the same and added that the pandemic offered the board a chance to reflect on its mission going forward. Once its name change is official, Chamber Music Maine will announce more details about its programming plans.
“The natural outcome of our decision is that we will include more musicians than what we currently do,” he said. “I see that as a win for the community.”
Not everyone agrees.
Les Fossel, who has served on the board for 25 years and was president for a decade, said he was saddened by the decision. Fossel said he’s not taking sides in the dispute. He said he neither was willing to compromise.
“I think over time, small irritations that, when things are going well you ignore, can turn into bigger problems,” he said. “Both sides, I think, were just as adamant about their position, and there was no way forward.
“But the state of Maine is poorer for it. I’m proud of my involvement with the quartet over the years. And I think neither the quartet nor the friends group, whatever the new name is, will thrive. They need each other.”
The quartet has a dedicated following. It was named best music group in Maine by the readers of Down East Magazine in its 2014 Readers Choice poll.
Jordan said the musicians are exploring their options legally because they believe the board may have violated the nonprofit’s bylaws leading up to the recent decision.
“We own the (nonprofit). It’s ours,” he said. “They have simply taken it over, stolen the assets and treated us contemptibly.”
The friends group, meanwhile, has a well-known lawyer, Ari Solotoff, who was executive director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra before he switched careers. Solotoff worked in the entertainment law division at Portland firm Bernstein Shur but now leads his own practice, specializing in helping composers, songwriters, filmmakers and other creative people avoid the legal pitfalls of the music and entertainment businesses.
What happens next is unsettled.
The concerts coordinated by the friends group for this year have been canceled. Jordan said the group is working to preserve other shows amid a cloud of uncertainty.
The musicians, meanwhile, continue to practice, with the exception of Liva, who is recovering from open-heart surgery. Jordan said he did not know if his longtime bandmate would be able to return or not, but he was hopeful. And if he couldn’t, Jordan said they would consider looking for another.
“We had no plans to retire or hang it up,” he said. “Some of our best work is still ahead.”
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