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October 20, 2014

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David Itkin: Las Vegas Philharmonic’s conduct is ‘unprecedented’

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Leila Navidi

David Itkin, shown conducting the Las Vegas Philharmonic.

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Music Director David Itkin addresses the audience before the Las Vegas Philharmonic's pops concert in March. Itkin has appealed for help from audiences during performances, and even made calls to subscribers asking them to renew.

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Las Vegas Philharmonic conductor David Itkin.

Whether directing an orchestra or imparting a point-of-view, David Itkin specializes in precision.

Composed, cautious and conciliatory during a recent phone interview from his home city of Dallas, the outgoing music director of the Las Vegas Philharmonic Orchestra said he wanted to finish the full term of his final contract, which was to end with the 2013 season.

Itkin also said he was not granted the same measure of artistic control over the philharmonic that conductors at other symphonies are afforded, explained that his decision to remain in Dallas rather than move to Las Vegas was endorsed and authorized by the L.V. Phil Board of Directors, and calmly said that his earlier-than-expected ouster was executed even as he expressed his wishes to orchestra officials to complete the final year of his contract.

“The idea that when a music director chooses not to renew (his) contract and says that the reaction is, ‘Don’t ever come back for your last season,’ is unprecedented in our business,” said Itkin, who still is the conductor of the Abilene (Texas) Philharmonic Orchestra and also is professor of music and director of orchestral studies at the University of North Texas College of Music. “Unprecedented and personally insulting. There was no reason from an administrative or artistic or any other reason for that to have been the outcome. That was never my intended outcome.”

Itkin spoke publicly for the first time two weeks ago about his hard landing from the Las Vegas Philharmonic, an orchestra he’d helmed since being appointed in July 2007 (he has since applied for the open music director position with the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony in North Dakota).

Given opportunity to address Itkin’s comments specifically, L.V. Philharmonic President and CEO Jeri Crawford essentially washed her hands of the issue, saying the philharmonic and she are focused on the future as the orchestra settles into its new home at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts. The L.V. Phil has sold out its first two performances at the 2,050-seat Reynolds Hall.

A series of guest conductors will lead the orchestra in the 2012-2013 season, beginning with a Masterworks Series performance directed by Andrew Gans. The symphony and he will be joined by guest pianist Navah Perlman, violinist Philippe Quint and cellist Zuill Bailey in a program showcasing Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano and the Mussorgsky/Ravel “Pictures From an Exhibition.”

Any of the guest conductors participating will be considered replacements for Itkin and be in place for the 2013-2014 season, and Crawford said that by August, the orchestra had fielded about 300 applications for the open position. But no one connected to the L.V. Phil anticipated that the upcoming season would be a transition period until May 29, when Itkin initiated the string of events leading to his early departure.

On that morning, Itkin informed L.V. Phil officials and musicians that he would not seek renewal of his current contract with the philharmonic, which was set to expire June 30. In an email blast to members of the L.V. Phil board and copied to the L.V. Phil’s Players Committee, he stated he planned to leave the orchestra and cited artistic differences and a lack of institutional transparency as his reasons for opting out of one of the city’s preeminent arts organizations.

Within a week, the philharmonic’s 17-member Board of Trustees voted unanimously (15-0, with two members absent) to grant Itkin’s wish to end his term at the end of next season. In August, Crawford went a step farther, confirming the organization had forged a settlement with Itkin that immediately released the conductor from any further formal involvement with the orchestra.

“We did a buyout,” Crawford said at the time. “All I can say is everybody’s happy.”

But Itkin doesn’t sound so happy with that outcome.

“When I said I didn’t want to renew my contract, I was very clear about the fact that I had every intention of not just fully but enthusiastically and joyfully finishing out my term, which is this coming season, but I’m not,” Itkin said. “I have never said anything differently. I said it over and over again when I was approached on the telephone, by our leadership. But for reasons that, I think, in my opinion, have nothing whatever to do with the artistic health of the organization, the board was extremely insistent that I make some settlement with them and not conduct with them this year.”

Itkin said the L.V. Phil even flew two board members to Dallas to hasten the negotiations leading to his contract settlement.

The insistence of the L.V. Phil’s board to end Itkin’s term at once rather than keep him on the conductor’s perch for another year can be explained by the organization’s response to his email. As Crawford said the day after she received the missive, “After we read that email, there was the question: ‘Is the person who feels this way about the philharmonic the person we want to move forward with?’”

Asked to explain what he meant by his claims of artistic differences with the L.V. Phil board, and his charge that the orchestra’s administration lacked institutional transparency, Itkin parsed his answer.

“Those are two questions,” he said, saying that a couple of years ago, the L.V. Phil and he butted heads over a program that was supported by the philharmonic’s administrators but not favored by its director. He was eventually overruled. “The relationship between executive director, board and music director is, in my experience in Las Vegas, nothing like a normal industry standard. What I mean by that is there has been in my time there a considerable mixing into artistic matters from the leadership end in a way that wouldn’t be tolerated in any other institution.”

Itkin said he wasn’t going to specify the project he cites as an example of that “mixing” but said, “Let’s just say that something was proposed to me, which is perfectly normal and fine because ideas can come from anywhere. And I considered it and said that I very strongly feel that this is not a project for us. The next thing I knew, that project was in the brochure.

“Basically, I was completely gone around, and that is not how the relationship between artistic leadership and administrative leadership works in our industry.”

Itkin demurred when asked to elaborate on his charge that the philharmonic lacks institutional transparency, which is a potentially more serious accusation than his statements about artistic disagreements, as it speaks to how the organization conducts its business.

“I think I have to leave that as it was,” he said. “I will not elaborate because it is getting into territory that is potentially very dangerous and would require specificity that would be inappropriate. I’m going to have to leave it at that. I stand by the remark that I have concerns about institutional transparency, but that’s really as far as I’m going to proceed.”

At the time Itkin sent notification to the L.V. Phil that he was planning to leave at the end of his contract, Crawford described the news as a “total surprise to everyone.”

Itkin says the L.V. Phil board should not have been taken off-guard by his concerns.

“I’ve expressed these very concerns over and over again in many meetings over five years,” Itkin said. “It may appear from the outside looking in that I suddenly was expressing these concerns and then resigning suddenly, when that just couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve expressed my concerns about many things, about how we operate; I’ve expressed a variety of concerns about how the institution functions, and they are well-documented.

“The musicians are well aware of them. The board is well aware of them. It was not sudden, as it might have appeared from the outside.”

Itkin says he told the board in the last meeting he attended in the spring, and the final meeting before he leveled his announcement, that the move was not linked to any personal issues he was confronting (Itkin was working through marital problems at the time he told the philharmonic he would not seek a new contract).

“I very specifically told the board that despite some issues in my personal and family life, which are particularly complicated for me right now, they were handled and in no way would have any effect on my relationship with the philharmonic,” he said. “It was so ironic that it was said, ‘I think it’s for personal reasons,’ when I very specifically, just a few weeks before that, said in a board meeting that my family complications of the current moment absolutely had no negative effect on my relationship there. So I find that hard to fathom.”

Though his original contract called for him to relocate from Dallas to Las Vegas, Itkin never made that move. L.V. Phil officials have since said they hope the next director will at least spend more time in the city than Itkin did, though moving to the city is not at the moment a prerequisite for the next conductor.

Itkin pointed to what he characterized as the L.V. Phil’s uncertain financial viability at the time he was appointed as something that played into his decision to stay in Dallas.

“My very first contract was a two-year contract, and it was written in such a way that my first year would be sort of a transition year,” Itkin said. “(Moving to Vegas) turned out not to be possible, and I came to the board and explained why that was not possible, and they voted unanimously to agree with me that it was not necessarily appropriate to hold me to that tenet of the contract because of the financial state of the institution at that time, which was very precarious. If it wasn’t, they would not have voted to allow it. Anybody who wants to take me on with my assessment of what went on at that time only has to look at the facts.

“The facts are the institution’s financial situation and governance situation and administrative situation were very different than what was represented to me when I signed my contract.”

Itkin contends that the philharmonic would have had ample opportunity to enact a comprehensive search for a new director if he had fulfilled the remainder of his contract.

“There was no need to start the search for a replacement this year,” he said. “The reason a music director gives a year’s notice is so they can have an organized, calm process of recruiting candidates for the position.”

Itkin stressed that, “Obviously, I’m going to miss my colleagues in Las Vegas, and I’m sure they know that. I certainly hope that they do.” He was asked if the L.V. Phil’s decision to push for an early buyout of his contract was a retaliatory move in response to the email he sent in late May.

“I don’t have an answer to that question,” he said. “I think that any person can look at the facts and draw any conclusion they wish.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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