Maestro says Port Angeles ouster stirred personal money squeeze
Adam Stern conducts the Port Angeles Symphony in this 2012 photo.
By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News
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He remains bewildered three months after the symphony let him go and then withdrew a severance offer.
“Bewildered, confused and hurt” is how Stern, who lives in Seattle, described himself Friday.
“My wife and I were barely able to pay July rent, and we still haven't paid for August,” he said.
“I have not a clue about what will happen in September.”
Stern, wife Kamila and his two children, ages 18 and 20, live in a two-bedroom house in the University District. He declined to say how much he pays, saying it was a personal detail.
Stern “absolutely” feels like he was fired, he said.
Stern, a 1990 Grammy award winner for Classical Producer of the Year, was music director of the volunteer Port Angeles Symphony for nine years, beginning in spring 2005, and is the music director for the Seattle Philharmonic.
On May 20, the Port Angeles Symphony's board of directors voted not to renew his three-year contract, which expired June 30.
“Three weeks before that, they had been talking with me about my concerts for the next season,” Stern said.
Many orchestra patrons had already bought their season tickets for 2014-15, which begins in September, he said.
Stern's goal had been to make the symphony “a world-class orchestra. And we wanted a community orchestra,” board Treasurer Chuck Whitney told the Peninsula Daily News on May 22.
Stern said Friday that “world-class” and “community” orchestras were not mutually exclusive.
“Why can't you have both?” he asked.
Whitney stressed Saturday that world-class orchestras consist of paid musicians, not volunteers.
“[Stern] wanted them to play like a professional orchestra, that's the nuts and bolts, and we are not and we don't have the means to do so.”
Stern said his Port Angeles Symphony salary was about three-fifths of his income, which includes teaching.
Stern has had jobs since the termination of his contract, Whitney insisted Saturday.
“We are suffering the consequences of him not being here,” he added, noting that Stern's absence “has created a huge amount of work.”
Guest conductors will audition to replace Stern by directing seven concerts this coming season, beginning with a 7 p.m. Sept. 26 pops concert at the Vern Burton Community Center, 308 E. Fourth St.
On June 14, Stern was offered a termination-of-employment agreement that would have paid him two months' salary — $6,500, or $5,105 after deductions.
In a letter to board President Mary Ann Unger a few days after being offered the severance package, Stern proposed six months of severance, saying he had little chance of obtaining a conducting or teaching job in the fall, when commitments have already been made.
“I am hoping we can come to terms with which everyone can be comfortable,” he said in the letter.
The blunt response from Stephen Moriarty of the Platt Irwin Law Firm of Port Angeles:
“PASO herby notifies you that they are withdrawing their offer to pay a severance of $6,500, less Social Security and federal withholding taxes,” Moriarty wrote.
“As of July 1, 2014, you are no longer employed by PASO.”
Unger said Stern should have contacted Moriarty following receipt of his letter.
“I did expect that he would make contact and ask if the terms could be negotiated,” she said, calling the offer “a good-faith effort.”
She said she would have reacted differently had she been in Stern's shoes.
“I would have called back and said, 'I would appreciate it if we could talk about this further.'”
Moriarty's letter was “the equivalent of a slammed door,” Stern said.
“I expected perhaps some middle ground, that if they were not prepared to meet my terms, perhaps they would have said, 'You want six [months], how about four, or something.'”
Moriarty's letter “nailed the coffin shut,” Stern added.
“It didn't seem like there was anything to discuss, and I didn't want to come begging.”
Whitney said the severance package was not part of Stern's contract.
“We offered to continue payment for a period of time until the school year started and his other income would begin, and he rejected that, and that was at some significant loss to the orchestra,” Whitney said.
Stern said that when he was hired, he urged board members to approach him if they were dissatisfied with his job performance.
“I said, 'I've seen this so many times. Let's not let things fester.'”
But that's exactly what may have happened, he suggested.
Stern said an incident at a Feb. 1 concert, the day before the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl, riled up local residents including board members.
After members of the orchestra finished their last piece, some of them held up signs with the number 12, signifying solidarity with the team's fans, known iconically as the “12th Man.”
“I considered that an affront to the music we played,” Stern said.
“I don't care how cute it is,” he said of the 12th Man gesture.
But he “probably handled it too temperamentally,” Stern admitted.
“Then I took flak from a few board members.”
Stern said he was “censured” at a board meeting and accepted responsibility for his reaction.
“I thought that was the end of it,” he said.
Whitney said the 12th Man incident did not factor into the board's decision.
Stern said a friend of his in the orchestra also speculated that “a lot of people in the orchestra and the community are upset by the fact that you married a woman who was very much younger than you, and they want to get back at you.”
Stern, 58, married Kamila, 25, a professional soprano, in March 2013.
Whitney said that had nothing to do with the board's decision, either.
Rather, it was his relationship with the orchestra, which Whitney said he personally discussed with Stern “in great detail.”
“The things that were discussed with Adam regarding difficulties with the players were not heeded whatsoever,” Whitney said.
Stern insisted more should have been done before he was forced to leave.
Board members should have been more direct with him before severing a relationship that had lasted more than a decade, he said.
“It becomes more and more obvious that this action was contemplated for a long time,” Stern said.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5060, or at email@example.com.
Last modified: September 03. 2014 12:12AM