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Karen Lynne Deal: Illinois Symphony leader conducting through a storm

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 20, 2009 - Karen Lynne Deal is pacing the altar of St. Agnes Church in Springfield, Ill., measuring the space to the pews, gauging the strength of the floor, moving around musicians' stands. It's 2 o'clock in the afternoon on Wednesday, Oct. 14, more than five hours before the Illinois Chamber Orchestra is to rehearse for a Friday night Eine Kleine Mozart performance. Deal is assessing how this flat, confined space, normally occupied by a priest and servers, can best be adapted into a concert hall.

"We have to find a way to fit the musicians (30 to 32) in and around all of these things," says Deal, a very long orange scarf dangling from her neck down a dark sweater and dark jeans. "And we have to determine if the platform has the capacity to hold the weight of the very heavy, very large piano that's coming in."

This is part of the behind-the-scenes grunt work that comes with being music director/conductor of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra, which Deal has led for nine years since arriving from the Nashville Symphony in Nashville, Tenn.

Deal says she did not know how long she might lead the ISO when she came to Springfield riding a wave of favorable publicity.

"(Ten years) is not so much anymore if you look around. There are orchestras that have had conductors for 20 years. It all depends on the community, the conductor, the age of the conductor. But I don't think there is any advantage to having a new conductor every three to five years. It's expensive; the search process takes two years these days."

Some in the Springfield community - in and out of the orchestra - are surprised (some likely even disappointed) that Deal has held onto the baton for this long. She is working on a new, two-year contract (it's significant that it's not three years, customary for the industry) that keeps her in central Illinois through 2012.

Flat Patch

Her tenure has been bumpy, blemished by last year's unflattering 72-2 "no confidence" vote by some of the musicians, the current unionization vote by musicians and unflattering press coverage, particularly in the local weekly newspaper, Illinois Times. Deal has declined to talk to that publication.

At the mention of the slings and slights, Deal exhibits a stiff, if not outright defiant, upper lip.

"I can say that 95 percent of what has been written (particularly in the Illinois Times) has been one-dimensional and fabricated," she says. Citing her signing of a confidentiality agreement, she says much of the controversy stems from "personnel issues." This is a reference to the '08 firing of a former employee.

Deal describes that firing "as a blip that had to occur for us to move to a position of health."

"That one incident," she says, "seemingly made people question themselves, question their judgment. People read that the musicians, that the orchestra doesn't like me any more. Well, I have had over half of the orchestra members come to me to tell me they did not participate in that thing (the no-confidence vote) and are embarrassed by the whole thing, by the vote (number) that got tossed around. Some people were asked to participate who don't know me, who have never even played for me.

"I had an interviewer today ask me how I can stand up in front of the orchestra after that kind of press. But it's not the musicians I worry about because you probably can poll musicians in every orchestra around the world and 95 percent of them would say they don't like their conductor. It's supposed to be that way, almost."

Negative votes and the specter of unionization notwithstanding, Deal is buoyant these days, in large measure due to the symphony board's hiring of executive director Trevor Orthmann, formerly executive director of the symphony in Camden, N.J.

Speaking for the musicians

When he was a 10-year-old boy growing up in Mount Vernon, Ill., Mark Moore saw his first tuba. "It was new and shiny. I crawled up inside it and made some noise in it. I thought, I'll give this a try."

Forty-seven years later, Moore and the tuba remain partners. He has been a member of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra since 1991. By day, he is associate professor of tuba and euphonium and chair of the brass division at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and has taught music at the university level for 33 years.

Moore is spokesman for the orchestra musicians and, as such, is point man for the frustration some of his colleagues feel about music director Karen Lynne Deal.

Part of that frustration motivated some musicians to vote on whether or not to join the American Federation of Musicians. Ballots are due to be counted this week. (A total of 109 musicians were sent ballots, with the vote for unionization requiring a 50 percent majority plus one vote)

The potential unionization follows a "no confidence" vote in spring '08. Of the 74 musicians who voted, only two at the time said they were confident in Deal. Moore says he was offended that some on the board called that survey "invalid" and have suggested the orchestra did not have the right to unionize. "It bothered me that they tried to denigrate it, if that's the right word," he says.

From her standpoint, Deal says, "We already obey union work rules. That's been my background, something we already do."

Her only apprehension about the musicians unionizing, she says, is that younger, freelance musicians will not be able to afford union dues and might lose the flexibility to break their contracts if they receive a better paying job.

Moore became the musicians' spokesman, he says, "Because I am not from Bloomington or Springfield" - the two cities where the ISO plays and where sentiment about Deal runs higher.

He takes the high road to emphasize that his disenchantment with Deal is not personal.

"Speaking for the orchestra, some of the main concerns are the management of the orchestra. It is not about pay."

Moore says the orchestra in recent years has been "very much a rudderless ship."

"Management will tell you it's not that way. But there are random acts of management, how people get hired, how people get dismissed. People are hired without audition. People just get hired."

A serious concern among some musicians is what Moore calls "economy of rehearsal."

"It's the management of rehearsal time; we're working on a major symphony and we get to play it only once."

Kamen Petkov, formerly a violinist with the ISO and orchestra personnel manager, is less diplomatic. Then again, he was fired by Deal in 2008.

"She has to change her preparation style. That's very important," says Petkov, now personnel manager for the Peoria Symphony Orchestra. My job "was to make sure there is an orchestra on the stage. That means you have to deal with different personalities. One of the jobs was to seat the musicians. I knew who was tenured, who hates whom, who was married or divorced to that person, things the conductor doesn't know."

Pekov charges that Deal "wanted to show me how to do my job."

"At the end of last year, as orchestra manager, things got tense. Basically what happened is that I started to speak my mind. About wasting money. Every dollar counts. I asked, why did we waste money on the harpist? We could have gone without the harpist.

"Musicians were hired while I was gone. Records were not kept, people were double-booked."

Petkov and Moore say they are concerned about the future of the ISO.

"To the audience, it will be the same," says Petkov. "But to have an organization grow and to make a nice public appearance, you have to have a good orchestra, and good musicians are hard to convince to come to play. ... Programming has not been that creative. Instrumentation has been reduced to save money.

"Getting rid of the (symphony) chorus was the biggest mistake - ever."

Deal says "chorus director (Richard Rossi) resigned, despite everything we tried to do. And the chorus refused to work with anybody but him."

Moore, in contrast to Petkov, is at peace with the ISO's music. "I think she picks very good literature. I am happy with the repertoire."

The music being played though, according to Moore, "is not as good as it should be. People make mistakes. If a conductor starts making mistakes, everyone in the orchestra starts getting cautious for fear of making another mistake."

Moore says any political or management considerations with the orchestra pale to his life's work: playing the music.

"My philosophy is that it's my job to do anything they (conductors) want, to sit in the back and go with any tempo they want, any dynamics they want, any way they want to go, to make music as well as I can. I have played for any number of music directors. I played for Leonard Slatkin when he was associate conductor (in St. Louis in '74). I have played for people who would not know what the meter was."

Moore and Petkov agree on what they see as Deal's strengths. "She has a wonderful rapport with the community," says Moore. "That is her strength, and it is important.

"She reaches out to the African-American audience. She is good with young audiences and pops concerts. She is good at that type of music. And she likes to entertain. (But sometimes) she picks a piece without knowing it."

Moore says the most valuable music lesson he has learned was one taught by previous ISO conductor Ken Kiesler was "play what the composer wrote.'

"That is what I teach my students. You try to convey the emotions the composer wants to convey. This orchestra is very proud. All are very serious. No one does this to get by. You can get by at other places. Some people have turned down higher pay to play here. We just played Shostokovich's 10th, and we played it powerfully and I am proud of it. It's good work; very well done.

Moore says he enjoys coming to Springfield from Champaign. "It's a long drive. I arrive tired, but when I leave I am exhilarated."

"He and I had our first meeting today. He is the first professional, trained-in the-orchestra executive we have had. Having a counterpart with the music director position is essential, and I have never had that."

Deal's critics - and even most of them applaud her public relations skills and championing of music to young people - concede that she has been asked to do much more than merely conduct.

With Orthmann aboard, she said, "I won't be building websites, I won't be putting together program books, and I won't be doing budgets. I won't be designing flyers and writing press releases. I won't be in the middle of personnel situations that don't involve me."

The past three to four years, Deal says, "have been very tiring and very stressful. In order to maintain the standards of the music, it meant not eating, not sleeping, never taking a break. I was caught up in too many battles that weren't mine to fight. I wasn't taking vacations. I wasn't visiting family."

Four Rehearsals. Period.

One recurring criticism of Deal is that the orchestra has suffered from insufficient or ill-managed rehearsal time. She disputes that vigorously.

"I don't control how many rehearsals we have. That's in the budget. We have four rehearsals. People (orchestra members) who have university jobs have a totally different job. If they need another rehearsal, they just call for it."

Deal describes the balancing act that requires coordinating experienced musicians, such as the brass, of whom there are relatively few, with the often inexperienced musicians, such as the strings, who can be numerous. The symphony draww from a pool that is basically half freelance, independent musicians and half university-affiliated musicians.

"When we're tying to hire players," Deal said, "quite often those players will commit to playing with us and then, at the last minute, get a better financial offer. So then they'll say, 'I want to be excused from what I signed my signature to play.' Right now they can do that, but if they vote to unionize, the union will control that in its negotiations with management."

"Often times we're still trying to find six, seven or 10 strings players two days before a rehearsal, which is three days before a concert. So, you have the front half of the orchestra, many of whom have never played with us and perhaps haven't gotten the music until they sit down that night. And in the back of the orchestra, you have your winds, the brass, most of whom are steady players who have had their music for two weeks, who have played together and are responsible just for their parts. It's the conductor's job to put all of that together in 48 hours."

Orthmann's presence, Deal says, will allow her to focus on, "the music, the music, the music."

Music Can Unify

She's still beaming about last February's concert during the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial. "We had the orchestra, and so I reached out into the community to all of the churches to put together a city-wide chorus. We had over 500 singers from those churches and choruses show up. High schools, too, high school bands."

It re-enforced Deal's philosophy "that music has the ability to unify. To make a difference. I believe that. And I therefore believe that my responsibility is to serve the music, not the other way around. To be an instrument - not like a physical instrument - but to be a bridge between people and music."

Deal's conducting style can be gregarious - at times, even irreverent. She has worn bib overalls while conducting the pops concert at the Illinois State Fair.

"I am the type of person who feeds off eye contact with the musicians," she says of her approach. "Music is an emotional thing. So when you feel like there are other people on the stage with you who are feeling that thing that's happening among everybody ... that beauty, that sorrow, that longing, whatever happens to be going on in the music at the moment. When you sense that from others, it adds goosebumps to any that you already have. And when that happens, that can transfer out into the audience."

Deal is not among the doomsayers who believe the classical music audience is aging into near extinction.

"Look at a newspaper from 50 years ago and you read the same thing. The perception is that it's a dying art form and that fewer and fewer people are listening to classical music and participating in classical music. The reality is that more people are listening now that ever before. Note my words. Listening to classical music. Because the technology now allows us to carry it around in our cars, in our pocketbooks, in our cell phones, on our iPods, on every little device you can walk around with. When I look out at our audiences, I see 5-year-olds, 12-year-olds, 20- and 60-year olds."

The central Illinois audience (the ISO also performs in Bloomington) tends to prefer the big traditional pieces and composers they know: Beethoven, Mozart, Handel's "Messiah" Deal says. She is careful, though, to weave into her programs newer pieces, and some orchestra observers say her forte is in pops.

"You don't have to like it all to grow from it, to learn from it. ... I am really the only person responsible for the whole shebang. Because if the staff part doesn't work, then tickets don't get sold. And if the media isn't done right and the programming notes aren't right and there's no one to play for, then there's no money for us to play.

"If the musicians don't come prepared, or if 10 out of 60 don't come prepared, that 10 can screw the whole thing up. I'm going to have to work that out to get those 10 players on board with everybody else. Or it's going to fail. That might displease the other 60, but that's the way it is."

The Face of the Orchestra

Deal is emphatic that the conductor, for better or worse, is the face of the orchestra.

"The board is responsible for certain things, but it's not their behind that's up there on the stage out in front of everybody else, having to look a certain way, act a certain way, live a certain way. I am exposed all of the time. Board members aren't. The mantle is on me. And I take that very seriously."

Firestorms with musicians and prickly press aside, it's the music that gets Deal most animated. The Lincoln Bicentennial moment concert remains an indelible memory.

"I was honored with creating a background of all different ages, all different races, black and white holding hands singing 'We Shall Overcome.'

"The spirit and attitude in the convention hall that night was so precious and so sacred that people won't quickly forget their participation.

"I want to be able to do more events like that on a regular basis, where we come together and where we value one another. The same old thing doesn't work."

Mentioning a newfound freedom to speak her mind once turning 50, Deal says while she is not sure where her future lies, part of it is likely to include spending some time in Mexico ("I love the beaches") or the Bahamas. In addition to her two dogs, she is passionate about snorkeling.

The conducting business, always volatile, has gotten only more competitive, she says. For any other job (and she says she has interviewed for a couple during her ISO tenure), she likely would face 300 to 400 competitors. "We have music and conductors being pumped out by the thousands."

So, can Karen Lynne Deal imagine a professional life that might not involve music?

"I think it would break my heart in two," she says. "But I just try to prepare for that possibility."

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