Friends of the DaPonte String Quartet fire musicians and change missions

DaPonte String Quartet member Myles Jordan makes a remark as fellow members Kirsten Monke and Lydia Forbes enjoy the moment during practice at Merrymeeting Arts in Freeport on Friday. The musicians this week received letters from DaPonte’s management group terminating them with immediate effect. “It’s a bit strange to receive walking materials from an institute that I founded,” Jordan said. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

The nonprofit Friends of the DaPonte String Quartet has fired all four musicians from the 30-year-old ensemble and is changing its name and mission to diversify its lineup, a move that left the group stunned and angry.

Members of the well-known and prolific classical music group received letters in the post this week telling them that their paid positions had been cut. The group of friends, which was formed to support the quartet’s concerts and programming and manage finances, will soon be called Chamber Music Maine and plan to expand their musical offerings with a larger group of musicians.

“It seems a little strange to me to receive marching papers from an institute that I founded,” said Myles Jordan, a cellist who lives in the town of Alna, Lincoln County, and is part of of the quartet since its creation.

Other musicians who make up the quartet are violinists Ferninard “Dino” Liva (also a founding member) and Lydia Forbes and violist Kirsten Monke. The letters they received were dated May 10 and signed by Erica Ball, executive director of the Friends of the DaPonte String Quartet.

“The Friends of the DaPonte String Quartet Board of Directors has assessed its mission and role in supporting the performing arts and has come to the conclusion that it is in the best interest of the organization to go in a different direction,” Ball wrote. “The organization will no longer serve as a full-time employer for performing artists. Following this decision, I regret to inform you that your position as salaried musician will be abolished as of May 10, 2022.

Jordan said each musician received a salary of $40,000 and was offered $10,000 in severance pay.

Ball on Friday declined to answer questions about the specific discussions that led to the board’s decision.

“Nonprofit organizations regularly evaluate their programming with respect to achieving charitable goals, she said. “What the board has done is take steps to change the compensation model for performers, which will help us achieve the goal of providing more diverse chamber music.”

But the board did more than that. Ball, who has held the position since December, also said the Friends of DaPonte String Quartet has filed paperwork with the state to change its name to Chamber Music Maine to better reflect its new leadership.

Board chairman Thomas Davis said that while the quartet’s musicians viewed the decision as a termination, he and other board members don’t see it that way. He said the organization is still willing to work with the foursome, but they would be paid on performance rather than receiving a guaranteed salary.

“I know they’re upset, but I’m optimistic we’ll work with them in the future,” Davis said.

Jordan said he doesn’t know if the quartet would consider working with the newly formed group because there is so much animosity. The quartet originally formed in 1991 in Philadelphia, but its members moved full-time to Maine a few years later. It has had several different line-ups over the years, but the current quartet has been intact for over a decade.

“It’s our livelihood, and it’s the livelihood we’ve built stone by stone, ourselves, for 30 years,” he said.

Although the letter came as a surprise, Jordan said he and the others saw it coming.

“It went on for two years, and it was carried out with great skill and discipline, and in great secrecy,” he said.

Jordan said he thinks the decision was made because board members tried to exert more control over the musicians, especially what music they should play at their many shows. No more Beethoven or Schubert, Jordan told the quartet members.

“They said our music wasn’t diverse enough in its representation of women and people of color,” he said. “It’s true that most of what we perform is the music of European dead white men, but that’s what we’re trained in.”

The quartet also performs contemporary music and has also been commissioned to produce works. In addition to performing concerts throughout Maine, the band tours across the country and has produced several albums.

Ball, who is a songwriter and lives in Portland, declined to respond to Jordan’s claims, but agreed that the current board is looking for more flexibility and diversity in its programming.

Davis said the same and added that the pandemic offered the board a chance to reflect on its mission going forward. Once its name change is official, Chamber Music Maine will announce more details about its programming plans.

“The natural result of our decision is that we will include more musicians than we currently do,” he said. “I see this as a win for the community.”

Not everyone agrees.

Les Fossel, who served on the board for 25 years and served as president for a decade, said he was saddened by the decision. Fossel said he was not taking sides in the dispute. He said neither was willing to compromise.

“I think over time, little irritations that when things are going well you ignore them can turn into bigger problems,” he said. “I think both sides were equally adamant about their position and there was no way forward.

“But the state of Maine is poorer for it. I am proud of my involvement with the quartet over the years. And I think neither the quartet nor the group of friends, whatever the new name, will prosper. They need each other.

The quartet has a dedicated suite. It was named Maine’s Top Band by Down East Magazine readers in its 2014 Readers Choice poll.

Jordan said the musicians were exploring their options legally because they believe the board may have violated the nonprofit’s bylaws leading to the recent decision.

“We own the (non-profit). It’s up to us,” he said. “They just took it over, stole the assets and treated us with contempt.”

The group of friends, meanwhile, has a well-known lawyer, Ari Solotoff, who was the executive director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra before changing careers. Solotoff worked in the entertainment law division of Portland firm Bernstein Shur, but now runs his own practice, specializing in helping composers, songwriters, filmmakers and other creators avoid the legal pitfalls of music companies and entertainment.

What happens next is uncertain.

The concerts coordinated by the group of friends for this year have been cancelled. Jordan said the group is struggling to preserve other shows amid a cloud of uncertainty.

The musicians, meanwhile, continue to train, with the exception of Liva, who is recovering from open-heart surgery. Jordan said he didn’t know if his longtime companion would be able to return or not, but he was hopeful. And if he couldn’t, Jordan said they would consider looking for another one.

“We had no intention of retiring or hanging up,” he said. “Some of our best work is yet to come.”

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Corina C. Butler