The maestro and the mystery

The first that many Asheville Symphony Orchestra supporters heard about Music Director/Conductor Robert Hart Baker‘s departure was when it made the front page of the Jan. 17 Asheville Citizen-Times. Baker, said the article, would leave at the end of the 2003-04 season. That might seem like an awful lot of notice to give someone in any profession, but the classical-music world sometimes moves at near-glacial speed. The reaction to the news, however, was anything but sluggish.

Many of the symphony’s patrons and fans, a loose-knit community of classical-music lovers, were shocked. After all, Baker had been the face of the symphony since 1981, and many seemed to feel that the current season was among the ASO’s best ever. He’d even been a hero to some, bouncing back from a life-threatening case of acute pancreatitis in April of 2000 to conduct with unmatched vigor. And this winter, he’d served as grand marshal of Asheville’s Christmas Parade, a great civic honor. Now, however, he was out — the board had decided not to renew his contract — and no reason was given.

As the days passed and no details were forthcoming, the frustration of many patrons only increased. Both Baker and the ASO’s board of directors, however, are bound by a contractual agreement not to discuss the nature of the split. And neither Baker nor board Chairman W. Herbert Smith would consent to be interviewed on the record, citing that agreement.

The uncomfortable situation has left many symphony supporters and musicians asking the same still-unanswerable question: Why?

Ex-board member speaks out

“I don’t think there was ever a why,” said former Symphony Board member Michelle Rippon, who left the board for health reasons in the midst of the discussions that led to Baker’s departure. “That was part of my problem [with the board’s decision]; I don’t think there was ever a reason given.”

Some believe that Baker’s severe illness two years ago, and the symphony board’s immediate need for a substitute, may have sparked the discussions on replacing the longtime musical director. Rippon, however, suspects that’s not the whole story.

“Certainly during the period of time that he was out, [the board] had to scurry around and get guest conductors, and some people probably did consider the possibility that he would not be able to return,” she said.

“But,” she continued, “I think it had a lot to do with personalities. That’s one of the problems with somebody that has been with the symphony as long as Baker has — you make a lot of loyal, loyal friends, but along the way you tend to make enemies.”

And though Rippon no longer serves on the board, she’s concerned about the impact of the move on the symphony’s future.

“I think that if you are going to do something like this, you need to have a plan beforehand, and you need to allow yourselves several years to go through a search process and do it right,” she said. “I don’t think they have a plan. I hope, for the sake of the symphony, that it works out, but I’m not optimistic about it right now.”

Rippon, however, is now free to enjoy the music unsullied by the politics, and she’s doing just that.

“So far, I think it’s been a wonderful season. Every year we get better and better; it makes this even more perplexing.”

“What director will we have?”

On first learning that Baker was leaving, Associate Principal Bassist Vance Reese says he “thought there was more to it.” Like the rest of the orchestra, Reese was told about Baker’s departure less than a week before the public announcement (management held two informational meetings, Jan. 11 and 13). Reese, for one, felt uneasy about the split.

“When it was announced at that meeting that they had mutually agreed to part ways, something didn’t feel right,” he said. “Under terms of the contract, they weren’t allowed to talk about it, even to the musicians. At the meeting, I said to them, ‘It feels like mommy and daddy are getting a divorce, [but they] aren’t allowed to talk with the children as to why they are doing that.”

Reese, too, is concerned that the symphony may not yet have a plan for replacing Baker, and for many musicians and ASO supporters, the most pressing question seems to be, “What director will we have?”

As an orchestra member, Reese is also dismayed about the way the board went about making its decision. “I’m very disappointed,” he said. “One of the tremendous injustices that has happened is that the musicians were not consulted at all as a body.”

Who’s to judge?

“The public and the musicians are usually a pretty poor judge for knowing what makes the best conductor for a symphony,” proclaimed Jack McAuliffe, vice president of the American Symphony Orchestra League, of which the Asheville Symphony is a member. “They might be popular, but they might also be a tyrant, or vice versa.”

And though he said he wasn’t familiar with the Asheville situation, McAuliffe was willing to talk about the kinds of public reactions that commonly arise when a conductor is replaced. It’s not unusul, he noted, for emotions to run high in the wake of such a decision, though he conceded that Baker’s case is unusual, given that most conductors spend no more than a few years in a given community.

“Obviously, it varies from symphony to symphony,” said McAuliffe, “but anything from five to seven years is a fairly long term, and anything over 15 years is considered to be an unusually long tenure.

“Usually [when a conductor is replaced] it’s not a surprise,” he added, “even when they’re on a year-to-year contract.”

Supporters fear financial impact

“I don’t know who I’m supporting anymore,” griped local realtor Sandy Smith, a longtime patron of the symphony. In her work, she often used the orchestra as a selling point to people thinking of relocating.

“In meeting new people coming to town,” said Smith, “one of the things we tout is what a fine talent we have in our maestro. I do not feel the same confidence and pride knowing that he’s not going to be here, and not knowing what’s going on. As long as he is not part of the symphony, in my opinion, we don’t have a symphony.”

Others in the symphony community have also lamented the loss of Baker, who’s been the fund-raising face of the ASO for more than two decades. Losing Baker (and his musical credentials), some say, could deal the orchestra a serious financial blow.

Another supporter, Ron Lambe, expressed a more general concern about Baker’s departure and the confusion it has left in its wake.

“It’s not clear what the board’s action is about,” said Lambe, “and they have not been very forthcoming. … A lot of people are surprised and mystified by the reasoning behind it.”

Lambe credits Baker with bringing the ASO to new heights. “I think he’s been very instrumental in improving the symphony. It has become a very professional orchestra, and it’s been his drive that has done that. The orchestra has never sounded better, so there is no reason for him to leave. I think it’s going to be a loss for Asheville, but I wish both him … and the orchestra well.”

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