UPDATED: New response from the BCP board
When Robert Kiersz, a thirty-year member of the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, is asked about former Music Director Doreen Rao, he doesn’t hesitate to express his admiration. “Doreen is extraordinary,” he says. “The talent she brings, the knowledge, the background, and just her personality––she’s so giving, such an excellent teacher.”
It’s high praise for the woman who was terminated from her post as music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus on January 18—without, the chorus says, any explanation from the board of directors.
In 2008 Rao was invited to take the position on a three-year contract. The former head of the conduction department at the University of Toronto, Rao has published extensively on choral arts and has recorded four Grammy-winning performances. She had planned to move to Buffalo permanently to continue her work with the BPC.
Several months ago, members of the chorus became concerned about the level of support for Rao from the board of directors. John Fleischman, assistant conductor in the BPC and director of the Buffalo Niagara Youth Chorus, explains, “The first indication was that they only renewed her contract for one year and asked her to take a pay cut. All of this past fall, she kept asking if they could negotiate a long-term contract and they just never responded.” Concerned members formed a Self-Appointed Committee For Dialogue on Governance and sent repeated emails to the board requesting that negotiations begin for a five-year contract securing Rao in the position. Tenor section principal and former board member Paul Kight, a member of the committee, explains, “The agreement had been that negotiations had to go on by the 15th of January in order to extend her contract, which was ending in June, and that wasn’t happening so we took further action, sending emails to all the members.” Still there were no negotiations. “We’ve been trying to get some dialogue moving and just absolutely no response,” adds Fleischmann.
But what happened next was even more shocking. Rao explains that a board meeting was called during the winter break, and her flight back to Buffalo from Chicago was cancelled twice due to bad weather. “In an effort to be prompt for what I thought was the beginning of contract negotiations, I rented a car and drove to Buffalo in very bad weather,” Rao recalls. “I met with board members and they asked me if I would resign. They gave me forty-five minutes to sign a paper, and said if I signed it they would not release any details. I didn’t know what details there were to release. I didn’t sign it because I was in complete shock and I simply left the room. The rest is history.” Rao says she still does not know the reason for the board’s decision. “Next thing I knew, the board had put out a press release. It was more than a surprise. It was utterly shocking. I have searched my soul and I honestly do not understand.”
Asked the reason for Rao’s termination, board vice president Andrea Copley responds, “She wasn’t terminated; the board had voted not to renew her contract and she was given an opportunity to resign. She no longer has duties here.” Copley adds that the BPC “will have a national search going on” for a new director; “the chorus is always dedicated to moving forward—we’ve been making wonderful music for seventy-five years and fully expect that to continue.”
Kiersz says the chorus’s potential was unlimited with Rao at the helm. “We did Carmina Burana in this last autumn; I’ve been in six or seven productions of that and this time I got whole new insights into that piece. I think that was clearly the best performance I’ve done with the chorus––and people leapt to their feet. ” Kight adds, “Doreen brought the chorus to higher heights than it had ever been, and it clearly can go much higher. And she has an amazing relationship with JoAnn [Falletta, director of the BPO]; she respects her musicianship and called on her to help decide on repertoire.” Many chorus members have commented on Rao’s relationship with Falleta and the level of collaboration between the BPO and BPC since she became director. “We were on the verge of being ranked among the great national choruses,” says Kiersz; “it could’ve been an extraordinary collaboration between this orchestra and this chorus. Falletta was enthusiastic about working with Doreen––we could’ve been doing wonderful things.”
Rao says her desire to move to Buffalo resulted from her wonderful relationship with the chorus––and her growing love of the city. “When I came to Buffalo it was a really big change for me because I was a full-time academic and I commuted back and forth from Toronto to Buffalo,” she recalls. “But then I fell in love with the chorus and Buffalo. It was such a great place to live and the quality of life here was just terrific. I had hoped to make Buffalo my home.”
Two of Rao’s notable initiatives during her tenure at the BPC made waves towards increasing the chorus’s relevance and community outreach. Fleischman says that was one of Rao’s greatest strengths: “I think one of the reasons the program has improved so much is because of the programs Doreen created, getting us out into the public, doing community things, exploring other venues, doing repertoire that we wouldn’t normally get to do with the BPO.” First, she tackled member diversity. “It seemed to me that a community that was so socially and racially diverse as Buffalo should be reflected in the membership, and I initiated an effort to diversify,” she explains. “We have now a much higher percentage of African-American singers and we have a much more multi-generational chorus with lots of wonderful, wonderful singers who are experienced and have been in the chorus for thirty- or forty-plus years along with a growing number of young people that are coming from universities and starting out.” Rao says she would “hate to think” her termination had anything to do with this effort, adding, “What I value about being in Buffalo is the wonderful diversity of this community.”
She also instituted a program of educational outreach—drawing criticism from some members. “There was some concern among the board members that educational outreach was not part of our mandate,” she recalls. “But music education is our future—it’s what musicians do!” Rao’s program, however, exposed young people to the BPC and was well-received by students, educators, and many chorus members, a fact about which Fleischman can speak from personal experience as director of the Buffalo Niagara Youth Chorus. “She’s invited my kids to sing with the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and they’ve learned an enormous amount from her,” he says, adding that the students are “just shocked” about Rao’s termination: “Even their parents at our last meeting asked me what was going on and I said, ‘I have no clue.’”
Of course, no one benefited from Rao’s passion for education more than the chorus members themselves. Kiersz says that the rehearsals were “like a weekly seminar for me. You can’t imagine what I’ve learned. I watch Doreen teach and I’m learning and the time goes by in a way it never has before, and we’re making beautiful music. This has been an extraordinary thing for me personally, and the chorus results speak for themselves.”
So why was Rao let go? The press release from the BPC board of directors explained that the reasons were confidential but “not financial”; chorus members say it’s a complete mystery.
Fleischmann says, “The board has been acting not in the interest of the chorus for some time and we have tried to get them to sit down and discuss the problems they were seeing. There have been no problems artistically or musically, certainly not financially, but we knew, however, that there was a small group on the board that was not happy with Doreen and we didn’t know why. We still don’t.”
A meeting shortly after Rao’s termination was announced was intended as a question-and-answer session for the chorus, but members say they weren’t left with many answers. Kiersz explains, “They told us it was a personnel issue that was confidential and that is all they could say. This is a not-for-profit organization, but you can’t tell the membership why you just fired the director? If the BPO was unhappy, if Falleta was unhappy, we didn’t know anything about that. All they’ve done was compliment us this semester.”
Kiersz points out that Rao’s tenure was “not without some controversy along the way; certain factions on the board don’t like change, didn’t want to see us educating young people, didn’t want us to get involved in diversity and bring gospel choirs in to perform with us. They didn’t want adventures in programming; they just wanted the status quo.”
Kight explains, “Last spring we wrote up a petition in support of Doreen because there were a few really vocal dissenters who don’t like her for whatever reason. I don’t know; perhaps because she’s not afraid to speak her mind. I also think—and I can’t believe I’m saying this, in the twenty-first century—maybe it has to do with the fact that she’s female and she’s not getting as much respect as the men who have directed before her.” Kight says he and fellow members observed some of the board’s singing members in rehearsals grumbling audibly about Rao, “so it was actually attacks from the board during rehearsals.” He says certain members seemed to be “uncomfortable with how fast the chorus was improving, going too far, getting too good; they were afraid they were getting left out and they wouldn’t be in the group.” He says the dissent of a few members has lost the chorus an incredible opportunity: “It was all positive, it was all exciting, and it’s all been ripped away from us.”
Rao says she still doesn’t understand the board’s decision. “This is the board that hired me,” she points out. “My resume and qualifications were very clear from the beginning. They wanted to hire somebody that would take them to the next level; they wanted someone with a reputation that could conduct and teach and that’s what I thought I was doing.” Though many of the chorus members are furious—they’ve begun a petition to call for the board’s resignation—and Rao is stunned, she is encouraged by the outpouring of support she’s experienced:
“Crisis, they say, is the opportunity for transformation,” she says. “I hope this experience might benefit hardworking people everywhere, particularly in the arts, because the strength that has been shown in response to my termination and the wonderful goodwill that I have felt from the community, donors, members themselves—I’ve never seen anything like it. Look at the example we have in the BPO. Under Falletta’s leadership it’s world class. I think the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus could be world class as well.”
Julia Burke writes features and food coverage for Buffalo Spree, writes on beer for Great Lakes Brewing News and New York Cork Report, and is assistant editor for publications at the Center for Inquiry.
After this article posted, board vice president Andrea Copley of the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus contacted Spree with the following response:
The board of this organization is a working board and the majority is made up of members of the chorus—this is according to our bylaws. These singing members handle concert preparation, marketing, development, and all the logistics. It is truly a working board. It’s not us (the board) and them (the chorus).
One misstatement [from the article] is that the board chose to give Doreen a one-year contract, but that was at her request. The pay cut was because we were running a deficit for the third year and we felt that it was fiscally sound to cut expenditures. When we voted not to renew her contract, we wanted to meet with her and we did; during that meeting, she left the room. We wanted to meet with her again, but that evening (Saturday) the committee sent out a release to the membership that we were not renewing her contract.
Because of that, we waited until Monday to issue the press release that we were not renewing. The committee had publicized it before we felt we were finished negotiating with Rao.
Some suggestions in the article approach libel—such as Rao’s suggestion about diversity. We have always been an inclusive, embracing organization, and we have had educational outreach since the early 90s, including with high schools, whose choruses have been included on the programs. In addition, our board has a majority of women on it, including a judge, lawyer, nurse, teacher, and many other professional working women. The suggestion that this is a gender problem is ludicrous.
Our advisors have told us that when it is a personal matter, it is best to keep it confidential. It troubles me that people can say things that have no basis. We are moving forward with our wonderful chorus that loves working together and making beautiful music.
A press release from the BPC Take Back Our Chorus committee, composed of over forty chorus members concerned with Rao’s forced departure, announced on February 10 that Rao had released the BPC board of directors from confidentiality regarding the reasons for her termination. Rao wrote in a letter to the board, “Letters to the media suggest you are maintaining confidentiality to somehow protect me. While I appreciate your concern for my reputation, I think the damage has already been done. You do not have to maintain confidentiality on my behalf.” Rao later told committee representatives, “If I were worried about my reputation more than the truth, I would have signed their offer to resign…. I am more interested in the truth than what this board leadership thinks they can do to further hurt my reputation.” When asked to comment on this development, Board Vice President Andrea Copley responded that the board was “presently checking on what would be our best course of action” and could not comment further. -Julia Burke
From the Board of the Directors of the BPChorus,
We appreciate that Dr. Rao's February 9 email to the board gives the appearance that the board can now issue a public statement regarding the reasons her contract was not renewed, but the fact remains that she has hired an attorney, and that attorney has threatened baseless litigation against the BPChorus. Mainly for that reason, we have been counseled not to detail the reasons for nonrenewal. Rest assured, however, that our counsel has discussed those reasons with Dr. Rao's attorney, and has also explained to him the evidence and statements supporting the board's decision. Again, the reasons for the board's actions are overwhelming in favor of what it did. Claims to the contrary weeks later are not supported by the clear and unequivocal evidence the board has.
Please also remember that Dr. Rao was not "fired," abruptly or otherwise; she forced the board to vote upon a five-year renewal, and the board very properly voted in the negative. The board also paid her through the remainder of her contract term and relieved her of her
duties to conduct the Chorus at concerts and rehearsals. Given the acrimony we already face, it is reasonable to believe that the situation
would be even worse if Dr. Rao were presently conducting the Chorus while awaiting the expiration of her contract in June.