In the bowels of Walk Festival Hall, there’s a room called “the hole.” It’s full of hiking gear, bicycles, kayaks, camping gear, car seats and instrument accessories; the things Kristen Linfante said “all of the festival musicians and families store there each year.”
“It is an absolute presumption that we will return,” she said.
In the past month, Linfante, the principal violist in the Apollo’s Fire Baroque orchestra and a 23-season veteran of the Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra, received word from festival management that she would not be invited back for the 2020 season. Bassoonist Juan de Gomar, a 19-season festival veteran, and violinist Jennifer Ross, who has played with the festival for 38 seasons, received the same notification.
When she and Ross pressed the festival for the reason for their “disinvitation” (she did not know if De Gomar had contacted management), Linfante said Jeff Counts, the festival’s general manager read them a written statement over the phone that cited “comportment” and “disruptive behavior.” And that was it.
“There was not very much dialogue,” Linfante said. “We both pressed him for an explanation as to what that meant exactly and he told both of us that he did not have an answer to that question.”
When reached for comment, the festival’s President and CEO Andrew Palmer Todd he said he couldn’t “comment on specifics.”
Since the musicians received word of their disinvitation, the issue has ballooned.
The Grand Teton Music Festival Players’ Committee, an elected body that represents orchestra musicians, sent out a press release tying the action taken against de Gomar, Ross and Linfante to a series of town hall meetings in 2019. At those meetings, the three musicians shared “grave concerns” about the festival’s artistic direction.
Chief among them was the idea that the festival is shifting from a “performing organization” focused on the festival orchestra to a “presenting organization” focused on one-night-only performances from high-profile musicians like Michael Feinstein, Norah Jones and Kristin Chenoweth, all of whom appeared in the 2019 “GTMF Presents” series.
Referring to de Gomar, Ross and Linfante, Martin Andersen, a 27-season violist speaking on behalf of the Players’ Committee, said “we don’t know why these three folks were chosen.”
Linfante confirmed that “comportment” and “disruptive behavior” were the only explanations given to her and Ross, though Anderson and the Players’ Committee suspect other motives were at play.
“This has to do with these and other musicians’ advocacy on behalf of colleagues,” said Andersen, referring to the musicians’ vocal presence at the town hall meetings and elsewhere.
Todd denied that accusation.
“The claims [the Players’ Committee] has made publicly are not the reason,” he said, though he declined to elaborate further.
A petition calling for the musicians’ reinstatement has been circulating online, gathering over 1,600 signatures, 239 of which are from festival players, in just under a week. Many musicians have also sent letters to Todd and the festival staff stating their discontent with the decision.
The Players’ Committee said about 100 such letters had been sent to the festival, claiming the authors — musicians with the orchestra — would not return until de Gomar, Ross and Linfante were reinstated.
Todd said that’s a sentiment that’s been commonly expressed in the 80 or so letters he’d received as of press time.
He also said he’s working with the board to figure out the “right path forward.”
A News&Guide request to review the letters was declined.
Orchestra musicians are independent contractors according to the 2019 General Musician Terms, a document that details some aspects of the musicians’ relationship with the festival.
While that may be legally the case, Andersen, Linfante and other musicians said the relationship between musicians and the festival is more complex than the paperwork.
According to Andersen, Ling Tung, the festival’s original music director who served from 1968 to 1997, hand selected musicians to come to the festival in its early years. He remained “very loyal to them,” Andersen said, which in practice meant that the musicians expected to come back year after year unless artistic disputes interfered.
That tradition more or less continued until the present, Andersen said, aside from a spat with the subsequent director, Eiji Oue, who “summarily fired some musicians without grounds” shortly after taking the reins.
As a result, the Players’ Committee was formed. A process for remediating artistic issues and dismissing musicians for artistic reasons was also instituted.
That process is described in the terms document, which is attached to this article online at JHNewsAndGuide.com.
“At that period, there had to be a process by which players, on artistic grounds, could be reviewed and, if necessary, terminated,” Andersen said. “There had to be some modicum of a process. It couldn’t be done without notice.”
Andersen recalled a few musicians being let go for “artistic reasons” in his time at the festival. He was not aware of musicians being terminated for “comportment” or “disruptive behavior.”
While Donald Runnicles, the festival’s music director, has “full artistic purview with the orchestra,” Todd said festival management and the CEO are responsible for resolving “administrative” issues, which could include behavior. The process for such action involves the board’s 10-person executive committee.
Andersen and Linfante said removals of this nature — they referred to it as a “firing”; Todd said the musicians were “not invited” back — were new.
Roger Oyster, who has played trombone in the festival for 30 years, said that was unsettling.
“I can’t remember anything like this,” he said.
Linfante agreed, raising concerns with musicians being referred to as independent contractors.
“That is what is so shocking and concerning to us,” she said. “There has been a major, major shift, at least in the eyes of Andrew Todd, about what the musicians mean to the festival.”
An issue of representation
Tension over the festival’s perceived direction started to pop up in 2018 when Andersen said musicians received “evidence” the board and management were trying to move the festival in a new direction.
Musicians raised their concerns in a town hall-style meeting that year, and again in another series of meetings in 2019.
In those meetings, Linfante was “our main spokesperson,” Andersen said. She, de Gomar, and Ross had all served in festival leadership over the years. Linfante and de Gomar sat on the Players’ Committee, for which Linfante remains the chair. Ross sat on the festival board until 2019, when Linfante took her place. The violist resigned last week after not being invited for the 2020 season.
Oyster, who also plays in the Kansas City Symphony, said he and the majority of festival musicians who come from professional orchestras are “used to having a committee that represents our interests to management.”
He and Linfante said the relationship between the committee and management has been rocky in recent years.
“Andrew Todd has told us that he does not recognize the Players’ Committee … as an entity that represents the musicians,” Linfante said. “It’s very difficult because that has always been our vehicle for communication.”
Todd declined to comment directly on the committee, but offered his opinion on the official process for communicating with the festival.
“The official conduit to get feedback from the musicians is the two musicians who are on the festival board,” Todd said.
He also said the festival is “committed” to having “multiple channels” for musicians to communicate with management, whether through the board, committee or town hall meetings like those in 2019.
Though Todd denied the decision to disinvite musicians was related to their prior advocacy, Oyster saw a connection between the action that was taken and the musicians’ leadership roles.
He also found the musicians’ dismissal on the grounds of poor behavior disingenuous, describing de Gomar, Linfante and Ross as “tremendously dedicated musicians and tremendously professional people.”
“The suggestion that they have issues with professional comportment and would be capable of disruptive behavior — I find that rather hard to believe,” Oyster said.
With a reinstatement petition circling online and many of the orchestras’ 230 or so musicians refusing to return unless de Gomar, Linfante and Ross are re-invited, Todd said the festival board is holding a meeting next week.
The board, which Todd said requested “further information on the situation” — the 10-person executive committee consulted in the decision only represents a part of the 20-plus member board — will deliberate on the process used to disinvite the three musicians. It will also discuss appropriate paths forward, though Todd declined to comment further on what they may be.
Disagreeing with the central complaint that spurred the ongoing snafu, he added that there’s been “no change to the artistic direction of the festival.”
In response to past complaints of overscheduling, Todd said the festival now only requires musicians to perform for the weekend performances and “Patriotic Pops,” giving them time to enjoy the Tetons. Musician concerns about the scheduling of the chamber music series still do exist — some say control of the series has increasingly landed in management’s lap, rather than under the orchestra’s purview as it has in years past — as do concerns about travel reimbursements and housing.
The core issue, though, remains the dismissal of de Gomar, Linfante and Ross.
The Players’ Committee is demanding the they be reinstated and the process of their disinvitation explained.
Until then, some musicians like Oyster are not planning to return.
“I would love to go back to my second home, but I will only do so if these people are reinstated,” Oyster said. “There are people I know who, when they leave the festival, they start counting the days until they get back — and it’s not just because it’s in a beautiful place. It’s because it’s the place that it is.” ￼