As Eugene Symphony musicians tune up for their season opening concert on Sept. 26, a sour note behind the scenes has led to some singers — as well as the long-time chorus manager — quitting the amateur chorus that sometimes performs with the orchestra.
In the midst of the controversy, the symphony’s top manager announced he is taking a sabbatical. Executive Director Scott Freck told musicians in an email on Sept. 12 he was taking “some time for professional development and creative reinvigoration” beginning Oct. 21.
Freck has been restructuring the symphony’s administrative team since May. The symphony rehired its former communications and marketing director Lindsey McCarthy, who had been working most recently for the utility Lane Electric, as the new associate executive director — combining two previous roles of development and marketing in one position.
Freck says he wanted to reconfigure some administrative jobs to better communicate with the symphony’s patrons. He hopes that the new structure will lead to better engagement and success for the symphony in the future.
“To me it reflected an internal decision rather than an external one,” Freck says.
In July, following the administrative shift, Freck sent an email to Chorus Manager Amy Adams, announcing that the chorus singers would no longer be paid the $75 stipend they had long received for each performance. Everyone had received the stipend regardless of the number of singers in the performance, which ranges between 75 and 135 depending on the musical piece.
Instead, the singers were invited to audition for a core group, whose 16 singers — four from each section — are to be paid $250 per concert. Those who do not make the cut can still sing as unpaid volunteers.
Adams resigned. She has been the chorus manager as well as a participant in the Eugene Symphony for 23 years.
She could recall only two exceptions to this practice. Once in the 1990s each member of the chorus received a slightly larger stipend, and once in 2013, the chorus was asked to sing as volunteers for one time only.
“Other than that, all these years, every concert has provided an honorarium,” Adams says. “It’s really kind of an institutional expectation of being a part of the symphony chorus.”
Freck says the decision to pay only the core group was based on the practice at other symphony choruses around the country.
“The decision was made for equal parts artistic and financial reasons,” Freck says. “If the financial part is less expensive, the symphony will be able to do more than one big performance a year.”
For chorus tenor Dean Walker, taking away the honorarium felt personal. When Walker joined the symphony chorus, he was new to choral singing. It took him a few years to feel like he belonged, but the sudden adjustment caught him off guard.
“It just blindsided me. I was just not expecting that at all,” Walker says.
Walker has chosen not to continue performing with the chorus — not because of the money, he says, but because of the division between the core singers and the volunteers.
“To me, it was a message of that was my value,” he says. “I wasn’t a member of the chorus. I was a filler.”
Freck and a few board members met with chorus singers on Sept. 23 to discuss the changes. Singer Marc Shapiro says about 75 to 100 people attended the meeting. It was clear that “the deal was done,” Shapiro says, and nothing would be changed.
During his upcoming sabbatical, Freck plans to take a course in strategic management from George Washington University and also plans to visit symphonies in other cities to draw inspiration.
“I think it’s gonna benefit me and the symphony in the long haul,” Freck says.
As a “general comment” on the changes taking place within the symphony’s organization, Freck says that evolution is necessary, but also healthy.
He also denies rumors that cutting the stipend for chorus members indicates any financial trouble at the symphony, a nonprofit with a $2.8 million annual budget. “The operating structure may fluctuate a little bit, but we have been financially stable,” Freck says. “We carry no debt.”
Eugene Symphony performs Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony 7:30 pm Thursday, Sept. 26, at the Hult Center. Tickets $43-$70 at HultCenter.org.