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Published: Sun, Mar 27, 2005
Some are still upset at the way Isaiah Jackson's release was handled.
YOUNGSTOWN Ticket holders, donors, board members and industry experts say the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra will survive despite controversy surrounding the release of music director Isaiah Jackson.
Though some say Jackson lifted the orchestra during his nine years as director, confusion has superseded accomplishment since the Symphony Society made it appear nine days ago as if Jackson had made the decision to not renew his contract.
It remains unclear why he was let go, who initiated the departure and why the board never discussed his contract with him.
In interviews with The Vindicator, symphony-goers expressed a range of emotions from support to criticism to puzzlement.
Nancy Stillwagon says the board's decision to not renew the contract was "justified."
"Symphony directors run a race that ends," said Stillwagon, a symphony donor and former board member. "I just feel it's time for Isaiah to go."
Season-ticket holder Joy Elder isn't so sure.
"I don't understand what happened," Elder said. "Why the symphony board didn't discuss his contract with him, or if they did, why he's saying what he did, is suspicious.
"They're not telling us the whole story that's the problem."
Season-ticket holder Glorianne Leck said she felt the symphony manipulated the announcement through its press release by implying Jackson had resigned, which he denied.
"Symphonies are struggling across the country, and the Youngstown symphony is managing," Leck said. "With him being lost, I think we are going to risk the whole future of the Youngstown symphony. I can't image we can get anyone of his stature to hold the symphony together."
Jackson, 60, is credited with improving the symphony's quality, performance and visibility. He is the seventh music director in its 79-year history.
In its statement, the Symphony Society said Jackson "would not be renewing his contract as music director of the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra following the expiration of his contract June 30, 2006."
Symphony officials said Jackson had previously hinted at possibly leaving after the 2005-06 season. They also indicated he had taken the initiative in ending his employment, feeling it was time to move on.
Jackson, when contacted by The Vindicator, said that he was shocked by the announcement, that he wanted to stay and was never given an explanation about why he was let go.
After learning of Jackson's comments, symphony board President Richard Keyse issued another statement, which reiterated that the symphony had reached an agreement with Jackson that his contract would not be renewed.
"We had hoped to present this as Isaiah Jackson's decision, but from the comments you have given us, it is obvious he is making a different choice," the statement said. "We do not believe it is appropriate for us to comment further."
Who to believe?
"I think it could have been handled better on both sides," said Mary Alice Schaff, a symphony donor and season-ticket holder.
Schaff said Jackson has done a "great job." Based on Jackson's comments and those of symphony officials, she said, "there seems to be some gaps in the information" regarding his departure.
"But I don't think this will hurt the future of the orchestra," she said.
Board member and symphony donor Marilyn Wagmiller agreed.
"I don't think it will hurt recruiting the length of Isaiah's tenure was the industry standard," Wagmiller said. "Another director will not look askance at that."
Edward W. Powers Auditorium, the music hall owned by the symphony, plus the addition under construction, the Eleanor Beecher Flad Pavilion, will help to recruit a new director, Wagmiller said. The $4.2 million addition is expected to open in 2006.
Wagmiller said she felt it was time for Jackson to move on.
"I think Isaiah brought wonderful talents to the symphony and the Valley," she said. "I think he's fulfilled his goals here, and I think his needs and our needs changed."
Wagmiller declined to elaborate on what those needs are.
Jackson joined the symphony as music director designate in the 1995-96 season. He was named director the following season, replacing David Effron, who had been director for nine years.
Jackson's tenure mirrors the average eight to 10 years a music director remains with an orchestra, symphony officials said.
'One of the best'
Elder said the symphony board must have had its reasons for not renewing Jackson's contract, and she realizes some orchestra members felt he was too demanding.
"But to be a good orchestra, you must have a strong master," she said.
Elder described Jackson "as the best, or one of the best" directors in the symphony's history. She praised his interaction with concert audiences and his educational efforts in the community.
Finding someone of his abilities will be difficult, she said.
Leck agrees, saying possible fallout from how the announcement of Jackson's departure was handled could be two-fold: Local support for the symphony could wane, and prospective director candidates may question the integrity of the symphony organization.
Those repercussions already have been felt, as Youngstown officials say they are considering withholding either a $40,000 or $50,000 contribution to the symphony because of the controversy over Jackson's departure.
"I'm appalled they would let him go, because I think his leaving is going to throw us back to the problems we solved to become such a fine orchestra," Leck said.
"When Isaiah arrived, he went outside the community to get some really strong musicians. He improved the string section. They're a wonderful presence now. He put the brass in their place. The brass section should not dominate classical music."
While Leck and Elder say the differing accounts surrounding Jackson's exodus could hurt efforts to recruit a new director, Stillwagon is confident the Youngstown job will attract top-quality candidates.
Stillwagon also believes support among orchestra donors will remain strong.
"Isaiah did a good job. He upgraded the orchestra considerably, but he did not endear himself to a lot of the orchestra members," Stillwagon said.
She said a new director "might bring new energy to the orchestra. The classical concerts have more closely resembled the pop concerts."
Search for a director
A committee composed of board, orchestra and community members will be formed to begin the search for Jackson's replacement. Patricia Syak, executive director of the symphony, said the committee probably will recommend four to six finalists. Each will be invited to conduct the orchestra during the 2006-07 season. A director probably would be selected by the symphony board in spring 2007.
Carl Topilow, music director of the Cleveland Pops Orchestra and a frequent guest conductor with the Youngstown symphony, said the Youngstown director's job is attractive because the community supports the symphony and the orchestra and its musicians have an excellent reputation.
Topilow, 58, said he has never worked with Jackson, but when he served as guest conductor, the orchestra was "extremely professional and well-prepared."
"In some respects, I'm surprised because of Isaiah's longevity and the fine job he's done there," Topilow said of the symphony board's decision to not renew Jackson's contract. "It's a funny business. One never knows."
Topilow said he would not rule out interest in the Youngstown job. "I'd have to see my time commitments. I just don't know at this time," he said.
In a survey conducted last August, the American Symphony Orchestra League found 37 orchestras conducting searches for directors, said Michael Lawrence, the league's program director for artistic services. The director opening in Reading, Pa., whose symphony's budget is less than Youngstown's, attracted 280 applicants, he said.
"It's always a competitive market," Lawrence said. "I would think the Youngstown job would be very attractive for a conductor. It's an orchestra that's known out there and has a good reputation. I would think they would find a conductor that's right for them."
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