Breaking Up Is Hard (And Expensive) To Do
The collapse of the Audubon Quartet raises more questions than it answers.
by Drew McManus
December 19, 2005
The ugly side of classical music’s business has been in the news quite a bit this past year, such as the coverage related to labor problems in St. Louis and Baltimore. However, there’s one example of how small ensembles, such as a quartet or trio, are beginning to realize there’s much more to making music than making music.
The Audubon Quartet saga started when the members began to quarrel over money and control. They past the point of no return in February 21, 2000 when three of the members presented their first violinist with a formal “Notice Of Termination”.
According to a Court of Common Pleas ruling in October 12, 2001 three members of the quartet terminated their first violinist accusing him of “back channeling”. In particular, the three members say their first violinist promised the services of the quartet, free of charge, in order to secure donations to pay for a $900,000 violin without consulting or notifying them.
However, the judge determined evidence and testimony demonstrated that, as an official officer of the corporation under which the quartet was established, the first violinist was acting in accordance with the quartet’s 501(c)(3) status. The fact that the first violinist acted without informing the other members of the quartet was “minor” in light of transgressions by the other three quartet members. The Legal Analysis and Conclusions portion of the Opinion and Adjudication document reads as follows,
I find the treatment [including termination] of [the first violinist] to be oppressive, which warrants remedial action by me. I find [the remaining member’s] action to be oppressive since it was done in such preemptory fashion, without notice to [the first violinist], without an opportunity to participate therein, or even be heard on the subject, and purportedly for his "back channeling". While it apparently irritated [the quartet’s cellist], it was designed to benefit the Quartet generally, and never materialized in any event. Whatever transgressions [the first violinist] may have committed, they are minor compared to [the cellist’s] effort in December, 1999 to register as a trademark the name "Audubon Quartet" without notice to [the first violinist], and with himself alone as the holder thereof…
Also, noteworthy is [the quartet’s cellists] judgment that [the first violinist’s] offering the Quartet’s service free, to any philanthropist who would pay $900,000 Bergonzi, "damaged" the Quartet. I find this an incredible statement. How could a purported 501(c)(3) corporation be damaged by this reciprocation to a benefactor of such largesse? I further credit [the first violinist] when he says that in his quest for a Stradivarius [the quartet’s violist] exclaimed she would be willing to play anywhere in the world for such benefactor…
I am satisfied that the facts in this case show selfish motive and breach of fiduciary duty by the 3 players in control. The circumstances of [the first violinist’s] ouster, the lack of notice and opportunity to be heard, and the purported indignation over the Bergonzi matter all lead me to conclude that the majority have oppressed and indeed, did "squeeze out" [the first violinist]. Further, [the cellist’s] reaction was excessive and not warranted, particularly given the fact that he, himself, in December, 1999 began steps to appropriate the name to himself alone.
So there you have it; the twin transgressions of money and power. The problems related to power began when one member attempted to trademark the quartet’s name in his name alone, without informing the member they later terminated. The problems of money started when three members were distressed over the first violinist’s attempts to secure $900,000 for a Bergonzi violin without their prior knowledge.
Although the issues related to power and control are psychological in nature, the issue of money can be traced back to another problem in the business; specifically, the artificially inflated cost of rare string instruments. This isn’t the first time a performing arts organization has found themselves in trouble over the perceived value and extreme cost of rare string instruments.
In a previous article here, at my other column, and even on a radio appearance, I chronicled the resulting calamity endured by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra for attempting to purchase a number of rare string instruments; the value of which were grossly, and artificially, overvalued. To this day, the organization is still suffering under the weight of that misguided decision (the NJSO recently cut back their number of masterworks performances for this season due, in part, to the staggering amount of resources they must direct to their instrument loan repayment).
Now, it appears that in an attempt to afford the outrageous expense of a rare string instrument, the Bergonzi violin, the Audubon quartet has fallen victim to the same quandary. The actions of one member to secure $900,000 in philanthropic support contributed to erode an already tenuous business partnership.
In a sickeningly ironic twist, in order to pay for the $611,000 judgment against them, the quartet’s cellist and violist have been ordered by a bankruptcy court to surrender their instruments (including bows) as part of liquidating their bankrupt estate. The two musicians have until December 23rd, 2005 to turn over their instruments (five days from the publication of this article).
Greed, avarice, spite, and an unhealthy lust for power and control conspired with an ignorance of the law to create a tragedy of operatic proportions.
In an interview with the New York Times, the Audubon quartet’s first violinist was quoted as saying,
"We have created this mess totally, beautifully, by our own talent."
Although I wouldn’t disagree with that statement I would also add that the artificially inflated value of rare string instruments is just as much to blame. Much like the world of illicit drug use, it takes two to tango: one to buy, but another to sell.
The world of classical music is on shaky enough ground as it is without a few profit-mongers coming in to take advantage of well meaning philanthropic support which keeps the business hobbling along. In order to prevent similar tragedies from taking place, musicians (especially those in small ensembles) need to learn about the laws which govern their activities before they become successful and musicians of this caliber will need to shun the use of over inflated instruments until the market undergoes a self correction and prices come down to a legitimate level.
Postscript: You can find a list court documents and transcripts at http://hometown.aol.com/renardym/; a webpage maintained by Michael Renardy, a professor at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
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