Symphony takes deposed director back

w-symphony1-c.jpg

The Dakota Valley Symphony, under the direction of Stephen Ramsey, performed this spring at the Burnsville Performing Arts Center.

New slate of board members reverses opposing faction's firing

by John Gessner
Thisweek Newspapers

The musical director and conductor of the Dakota Valley Symphony was reinstated July 22 by a new board of directors after being fired a month earlier.

DVS board members told Stephen Ramsey on June 22 they had voted two days earlier against renewing his contract for the 2009-10 season.


But at the nonprofit’s annual meeting on July 22, the six-member board was removed by a majority vote of rank-and-file members, as allowed by DVS bylaws, new President Doug Maloney said.

A newly installed 10-member board then voted to reinstate Ramsey pending renegotiation of his contract, said Maloney, the orchestra’s second clarinetist.

The revolt tore open a rift over Ramsey and the direction of the volunteer orchestral and choral group, which Ramsey founded 23 years ago.

A splinter musical organization could emerge, said ex-President Jennifer Ragborg, one of the deposed board members.

“I guess we’ll wait and see. There are a lot of musicians who would love to play, but they’re not welcome in the ‘Steve Ramsey Band,’ ”
Ragborg said.

“There were enough musicians that left over the years because of personal conflicts with him,” she said. “A lot of them have said, ‘We’d love to come back, but we just can’t work with Steve.’ ”

But Ramsey, also music director of the Austin Symphony Orchestra, has plenty of DVS backers. Maloney said the 30-plus members at the annual meeting were almost all pro-Ramsey, and he had another 13 proxy votes in hand behind the new slate of pro-Ramsey board candidates.

Though Ramsey did clash with some musicians over the years, “What transpired on the 22nd would be some indication he’s more than capable of doing the opposite, of retaining people and having them be very strong supporters of his,” Maloney said.

Ramsey said the old board had increasingly shut him out of discussions over key decisions, including venues for the concert season that opens in September.

Ramsey said he spoke out against “nondemocratic decision made by a few people on the board” to stage more concerts at the Burnsville Performing Arts Center.

The DVS, which has performed mostly at the Lakeville Area Arts Center in recent years, held its maiden concerts at the Burnsville venue in March and April.

“There was conflict because Steve was telling people we couldn’t afford” the Performing Arts Center’s rental fee, Ragborg said. “But he was just saying that. Because he was afraid if we paid the PAC, we couldn’t pay him.”

Ramsey said he didn’t speak against the PAC because of cost, even though rent is cheaper in Lakeville.

“We were going to move to the Burnsville PAC without examining other possibilities,” said Ramsey, who said “a few people on the board of directors” were behind the push.

“The rent’s a little higher than anything we ever would have paid, but maybe we could have found ways — maybe we will find ways — to take care of those issues, and an audience will be inspired to attend our performances there.”{mospagebreak}

Ragborg said attendance at concerts in Lakeville has been declining, and “very few people from Burnsville will drive to Lakeville, but people from Lakeville will drive to Burnsville.”

“Truth be told, we couldn’t afford Lakeville either,” she said. “We’ve got to get seats in the seats. … At some point you can’t afford anything if you can’t sell tickets or change your whole strategy.”

A survey of DVS musicians showed a preference for the Burnsville venue, whose superior facilities have prompted some to “stand prouder and play better,” she said.

Ragborg also claims Ramsey didn’t foster collaborations with other musical groups and greater community outreach — both priorities of the deposed board.

“Our vision was to help the symphony grow,” she said. “It was still being run like a little enterprise. To be high quality, to compete with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, we’ve got to be as good or better.”

But the old board did a poor job of communicating its plans, Maloney said, noting that many of the musicians found out about Ramsey’s firing in a Thisweek Newspaper article.

“We ultimately had to somewhat force the board to have an informational meeting with us,” Maloney said. That July 8 meeting revealed only a draft schedule for the 2009-10 concert season, with no venues contracted, he said.

Ramsey typically would have had that work done by now, Maloney said.

Orchestra members also wanted to know who their conductor would be, “and there wasn’t a plan in place,” Maloney said.

“The rank and file’s primary concern was we didn’t have an orchestra,” he said. “I had an orchestra member refer to me as the head member in revolt. And that would not be untrue. I was the organizer of the resistance, shall we say. I was the one driving all the e-mails to all the members to try and get information to them so that they knew what was and wasn’t happening, and do my best to keep them factual.”

Maloney is also an admitted Ramsey partisan.

“This is his creation,” Maloney said. “He is the founding father. He has a lot of blood, sweat and tears in the organization.”

Ramsey, whose annual DVS salary is around $20,000 and who continues to direct DVS summer pops concerts under a separate contract, said he’s worked on being less abrasive.

“I hope that everyone has seen a tremendous growth in that area,” he said. “There was a time in my life I had no patience at all for anyone who didn’t share my exact vision. I have grown to understand that there are many visions, and that DVS means many things to many people. If I’m a little difficult to work with, I apologize to anybody who I’ve offended.”

John Gessner is at burnsville.thisweek@ecm-inc.com.

This entry was posted in Sun Thisweek. Bookmark the permalink.