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Orchestra upset by conductor turnover

Strategic changes focus on holistic approach, students say former conductor led with fear

After a hectic start to the semester for the orchestra, student musicians were relieved when learning of the departure of former orchestra conductor Brandon Keith Brown just days before the ensemble's first performance. But the music department shake-ups started when former orchestra conductor and senior lecturer in music Paul Phillips announced in May he would take a year-long absence for the 2017-18 academic year.

Though Phillips has since joined the faculty at Stanford University as director of orchestral studies, he has yet to formally leave the University, his workplace of 28 years.

In June, just weeks after Phillips announced his departure, the University hired Keith Brown to fill the year-long vacancy.

Keith Brown did not respond to multiple requests from The Herald for comment.

“If we hire someone as a visitor, it is very rare that we let them go in the middle of the year. It would have to be a really clear indication that they are not doing their job for us to let them go,” McLaughlin said.

With short-term faculty hires, the Dean of the Faculty lets “the department make those one-year appointments pretty much on their own,” McLaughlin said. The department making the hire must submit a request and a candidate’s curriculum vitae to McLaughlin’s office. If the candidate’s credentials are appropriate for the position, the Dean of Faculty is only involved to approve the hire.

Due to the temporary nature of his position, Keith Brown was hired without extensive involvement from the University’s administration, McLaughlin said. Faculty heads in the music department declined to comment on the specific nature of Keith Brown’s hiring.

During his short time as orchestra conductor, students voiced concerns regarding Keith Brown’s leadership.

Natasha Richmond ’20, a violinist who played in the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra prior to coming to the University, described a culture of fear that developed in the orchestra that does not exist among professional orchestras.

Irene Tang ’19, the principal player in the violin section, said Keith Brown would regularly belittle her leadership as the orchestra’s concertmaster and “correct me in front of everyone else.”

Two students in the orchestra at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst cited similar experiences under Keith Brown’s leadership to those expressed by Brown students. Keith Brown was at UMass-Amherst as assistant professor of music and dance from September 2013 to May 2015, confirmed Kelly Pleasant, supervisor of human resources at UMass-Amherst. UMass-Amherst declined to comment on the specific nature of Keith Brown’s departure.

One of the UMass-Amherst students, who chose to remain anonymous for fear of professional repercussions, said Keith Brown mocked his accent in front of the orchestra. The second student, who also chose remain anonymous for fear of retaliation in the department, said Keith Brown gave the orchestra one six-minute break during a two- and-a-half hour rehearsal.

Orchestra President Katie Rademacher ’19 and Vice President Evan Browning ’18 sat in on Skype interviews, alongside five or six faculty members from the music department, with the four final candidates applying for the conducting position. Rademacher and Browning  said  that no questions involving Keith Brown’s  time at UMass-Amherst were brought up during the interviews.

“That’s where the disorganization and time crunch of this search really failed us,” Browning said.

Of all the candidates interviewed in the final round, Keith Brown was ranked the highest. “He looked really great on paper, and he interviewed really well,” Browning said.

As the University awaits to hear Phillips final decision of whether he will return to the University, Daniel Harp, teaching associate in music, will serve as the conductor of the orchestra.

But Phillips’ return is unlikely as he has committed to leading a new music ensemble at Stanford beginning next year, and is now an associate professor of music there, he said.  “At Brown University, that was not a rank that was open to conductors. We were in the lecturer ranks, which has some important differences and distinctions.”

“If he decides not to come back, he’ll be replaced,” McLaughlin said. “We were just putting in place a one-year arrangement with the visiting conductor.”

The music department is putting together a search for a full-time orchestra conductor in case Phillips decides to not return, said Joseph Meisel, deputy provost and interim chair of the music department. “This will certainly be a full search with a full kind of vetting that that implies,” he said.

Richmond felt that the hiring of Keith Brown and the problems that subsequently followed were a “symptom of a bad music program,” she said.

But leadership in the music department are looking to reevaluate the position of orchestra director as part of its strategic plan, McLaughlin said.

The strategic plan comes as a result of reviews conducted by the music department and the administration in the last few years, McLaughlin said. Retirements in the department and evolving interests in the field of music also contributed to the restructuring process, he added.

The restructuring will be led by Meisel. The strategic initiative has been underway for four or five weeks, he said. The structural changes will explore both undergraduate- and graduate-level curricula that feature a common core for all students, McLaughlin said.

Along with the attention to the academic side of the department, the orchestra “is a very important part of what the music department does,” McLaughlin said. “It’s one of the reasons why we are spending a lot of time and effort on the arts at Brown.”

Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article said that Keith Brown left the University one day before the concert. In fact, his departure occurred days prior. The Herald regrets the error. 


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