An Unharmonious Ending
Two months ago, Karen Romeo wandered the aisles of New York City's famed Carnegie Hall. It was a big event, but she didn't expect to get emotional. She'd been a professional violinist and had seen her share of world-class stages. The day, she figured, would be more for the kids.
There were almost 100 of them on stage that afternoon, rehearsing before an empty auditorium, preparing for a youth-ensemble concert in the evening. Most of the kids came from Flint, Michigan, but about fourteen were from a school in Boulder that Romeo had founded in 1990. It had been her idea to start a community school of the arts in a town that had never heard of one. That idea became the Boulder Arts Academy, and thanks to Romeo's hard work, it had grown tremendously in ten years: The school had started out with 25 students, most of whom took violin lessons with her, but now 850 kids were taking classes in music, ballet, theater and even the visual arts.
Romeo had become a respected figure in the world of community schools, consulting on the start-up of such institutions in West Virginia, Ohio and Texas. In 1998 she had taken a group of kids to Italy, to visit and perform in Rome, Venice and Florence. Last November, the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts held its annual conference in Boulder, the first time the conference had ever been held in a Rocky Mountain state. Romeo and her school basked in the national spotlight.
Now she and her students were inside the most illustrious concert venue in the world. "I couldn't believe the excitement coming from the kids," she remembers. "The anticipation was simply incredible." That evening they played to a large and appreciative crowd.
So the day turned out to be emotional anyway, but not just because Romeo was proud of her kids. She also knew that this would be the last such trip she would ever take with them. In February Romeo had resigned as director of the Boulder Arts Academy. Her bosses say they are shocked she left so suddenly, almost of the blue. She says they shouldn't be, since they were the ones who forced her out.
Although Karen Romeo's mother was blind, she played the piano, so sound was always an important part of Karen's childhood in Washington Park. Classical music was always playing, and Romeo sang the melodies. At age eleven, she began learning the violin and proved a quick study. Between her junior and senior years in high school she attended the famed Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan. For the first time, she was with kids who were better musicians than she was. She loved that. "It was like, 'Oh, the world is bigger.' I'm competitive. I like challenges."
She enrolled at Northwestern University on a violin scholarship, then went on to earn a master's degree in performance and a doctorate in music education from Ohio State. She spent several years teaching music at schools in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont.
At the Brattleboro Music Center in Vermont, she was introduced to her first community arts school -- a local center for music and arts education, open to the public. Brattleboro was a funky little town, half old mining outpost, half ex-hippie haven; the streets were full of folks with long, graying hair. The school was in an old Victorian. Upstairs bedrooms had become studios, the dining room housed the administrative offices, and the living room was part classroom and part recital hall.
Community schools of the arts have a long history in the United States. The first one was established in 1892, and today there are more than 275 such schools in 43 states, as well as in Canada and Bermuda. Brattleboro was one of the most famous; it had enjoyed a strong reputation since the 1940s. Romeo felt right at home. "These were my folks. I could function in that world."
She also believed she could transpose that world back home to Colorado. In 1990 she settled in Boulder and started up a private studio -- which is how kids in town were generally taught. She was enthusiastic about starting a school but needed the help of an established organization to back her up. So she went to see Bill Lightfoot, the executive director of the Boulder Philharmonic.
The orchestra had been a part of Boulder life since 1958, but it had never been much more than a dedicated group of amateurs playing concerts at Boulder High School, and by the mid-'80s, the ensemble was running $30,000 in the red. Lightfoot had been hired in 1988, after years as a performer with the Honolulu Symphony, to turn things around. He says now that the Boulder Philharmonic was "perceived to be in worse shape than it was"; however, he promptly started a fundraising drive that earned back the deficit and renewed confidence in the orchestra.
In the mid- and late '80s, the orchestra paid its players a paltry $6 a night for six performances in an eight-month season. Special events backfired. During one of the Broncos' aborted Super Bowl runs, the orchestra rented the CU Events Center, a facility that could hold about 4,000 people, in anticipation of hosting a Broncos victory party. During a dress rehearsal, Lightfoot's predecessor showed up and explained to the players that the concert would have to be canceled due to problems with ticket sales.
"How many tickets did you sell?" someone asked, as the other musicians pondered the thousands of empty seats before them.
"Fourteen," the manager replied.
From the violin section came a response: "I bought eleven of them for my family."
Nonetheless, Lightfoot was dreaming of transforming the orchestra from good-natured amateurs into serious professionals. "Even with limited resources, we wanted to be as high-quality as we could," he says.
The Boulder Philharmonic had no money to stage concerts in local schools, so when Romeo pitched her idea, Lightfoot understood the value of the educational outreach she proposed. "We wanted to define ourselves, what we could do to make us different," he remembers, and Romeo's proposal was a chance for kids in the community, not to mention their parents, to form a lasting relationship with the orchestra. Still, Lightfoot was a community-school alum and knew that community schools were not accredited. They did not award degrees. "All you get out of it is what you put in it," he says.
To make sure the orchestra wasn't dragged back into financial insolvency if the academy failed, the Boulder Philharmonic sponsored the school as a one-year pilot project during its 1991-1992 performance season. The orchestra lent its name and clerical support to Romeo, but her school would have to pay for itself.
Romeo set up shop as the Boulder Philharmonic Academy in the basement of Grace Lutheran Church in Boulder. At first there were just a few kids. Romeo brought in violin students herself; then, working without pay, she recruited teachers, answered phones, did the marketing, drew up the brochures. She spent that first year trying to convince anyone who would listen that her community school could work. When space ran out, the school decamped for larger basements in other churches. The students held recitals in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, wherever. "It was a real volunteer effort. Parents would do whatever. But it all came together because of Karen," says Stephanie Price, parent of an academy violin student.
Naturally, the school met with resistance from established teachers in Boulder, because Romeo's center offered things that private studios couldn't offer so easily, like master classes, a library, and student ensembles and performances. "As the academy grew, there was an increasing sense of suspicion and dread that she would be taking students away from private teachers," says Greg Walker, the Boulder Philharmonic's concertmaster. Some people didn't want her horning in on their territory, Romeo says, but mostly there were more teachers in Boulder than students, so she had no trouble building a good faculty.
At the end of the first year, the academy brought in $11,122 in total tuition, finished the year $3,984 in the black and provided some 37 hours of private teaching to 55 students, and another five hours of class time to 24 more kids. Despite that success, the organization was still run "pretty fast and loose," Romeo says. Sometimes the orchestra's management lent a hand, sometimes it did not. "They thought it was sort of a fluke -- maybe it would work, maybe it wouldn't, but it wouldn't matter either way."
But Lightfoot let Romeo run her own shop, and as the school grew, she earned a reputation for being a visionary, a woman truly dedicated to giving something back to Boulder. "I thought it was a great adventure. I felt like I was making good decisions," she says.
When Karen Romeo moved to Boulder, she had also auditioned for the Boulder Philarmonic and landed the assistant concertmaster seat, right next to Greg Walker. The orchestra was a laid-back place then. Even though its conductor, Ozzie Lehnert, was a Juilliard-trained violinist, he was easygoing and forgiving of mistakes. "Ozzie had this great, joyous, overwhelming personality," says Dana Axelson, a former Boulder Philharmonic tympani player. "He would have a lot of fun. When the orchestra was on, they were just on, and everybody just got on it and rode it like a train. The high from it was like nothing else."
The Boulder Philarmonic was composed mostly of university students and good musicians who had moved to Boulder for reasons other than playing in the orchestra. There were auditions, but often the rule of thumb was "first come, first chair."
Walker says Romeo was, "in some respects, in the what-the-heck category. But she had such good training. She was a level above the person she replaced."
And as Romeo's little school grew, the orchestra also got better. "First come, first chair" was slowly being replaced by a dedication to musical excellence. In 1995, Lehnert started a fourteen-member string chamber group that eventually expanded to 32 members and took the name Sinfonia of Colorado. The philharmonic moved from a converted indoor ice-skating rink to the Dairy Center for the Arts, a renovated dairy factory, in 1995. There was talk of folding the Boulder Ballet into the evolving mix.
The Boulder Ballet was founded in 1981 by dancer Barbara Demaree. In 1989 the orchestra hired the ballet to stage The Nutcracker, and the show went so well that the orchestra hired the ballet again the next year and added a spring ballet concert aimed at children.
Like the orchestra, the ballet's performance was heartfelt if modest. In 1992, the two companies staged the ballet suite of Stravinsky's Firebird. "It went fine," Lightfoot remembers. "Both groups were at about the same level artistically. Very amateur."
As the orchestra's finances improved in the early '90s, Lightfoot began importing prominent guest acts, like the Canadian Brass. He found that if the orchestra raised ticket prices it could still sell out shows and afford to pay the performance fees. The orchestra began to draw more sophisticated audiences. As management demanded a better product, the musicians demanded better pay. The group unionized in 1998 and began playing seventeen or eighteen shows a season. Musicians were now being paid $55 a service -- for rehearsals and practice. Still not enough to quit their day jobs, but quite a bit more than $6.
Meanwhile, in 1997, the Boulder Ballet had merged its own training school with Romeo's, and the school was renamed the Boulder Arts Academy. But it didn't work to have one school feeding two arts groups with different boards. "We knew for us to go the next step, we needed to have a stronger financial base to operate from," says David Jacobson, one of the ballet's boardmembers. So the ballet's entire organization officially joined the mix in June 1999, and the overall organization was also given a new name: Peak Association of the Arts, or PeakArts, as it is more commonly referred to.
"What's unusual is to have four arts organizations under one umbrella," says Lightfoot. "We're still sort of figuring it out. We had to bring it together because it is a small town; you can build a critical mass."
Last year, PeakArts' budget was $2.45 million. About 58 percent of its revenue came from concert tickets and tuition, the rest from private donations and the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, which chipped in $350,000. Peak consists of a board of directors made up of community members as well as three "councils" that oversee the ballet, the academy, and the orchestra and sinfonia. "I think it's been a good marriage," says Jacobson. "The ballet brings a new audience to the philharmonic." And the greater financial strength of PeakArts allowed the ballet to hire John Prinz this past January as a full-time artistic director, the first ever in the ballet's history. Prinz, a veteran dancer of the prestigious American Ballet Theatre in New York City, became the latest symbol of the elite aspirations of PeakArts.
The orchestra was already a step ahead. When Ozzie Lehnert had retired as conductor in 1996, the Boulder Philharmonic held a national search for a new conductor. (At the time, the University of Colorado was also holding a search for a conductor for its orchestra.) Videotapes from more than 200 conductors flooded Boulder; boardmembers selected seven finalists and invited them to come to town and try out for the job. One of them was Theodore Kuchar.
Ted Kuchar was born in Cleveland, Ohio. He started violin lessons when he was ten -- at an age, he says, when "baseball was more important than music." He resisted when his parents dragged him to concerts, but by the age of fifteen or sixteen a strange change had taken place. He attributes it to growing up in a town with "arguably the best symphony in the world and studying with the best teachers, who train you in the best possible way and inspire you."
He later switched to viola, but as another youth might dream of being the quarterback, Kuchar began to dream of conducting. As he played in more ensembles and saw more conductors, he thought, "What if?"
When he was in his early twenties, he attended the prestigious Tanglewood Music Center, a training ground for emerging professionals run by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Knowing that it was easier to gain conducting experience abroad than in the states, he headed off to play solo viola in Helsinki, Finland, where he lived for five years. He began conducting orchestras throughout Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, and has since conducted in cities as far-flung as Berlin, Hong Kong, Madrid, Cape Town and Sydney. From 1992 to 1999, he was the principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine and recorded more than fifty albums with the ensemble.
Kuchar landed both the university job and the Boulder Philharmonic job. By all accounts, he was, hands down, the most qualified candidate. Former principal horn player Doug Bailard says Kuchar was an improvement over Lehnert, who was a "fine musician -- not a conductor, but everyone knew it." During his audition, Bailard says, Kuchar was "very pleasant."
Kuchar's mandate from management was explicit: Get the orchestra to a higher level artistically. "We were not interested in a warm, fuzzy community orchestra that doesn't play well," says Lightfoot. "There's no reason why metro Denver can't support two professional orchestras."
"If they had told me, 'Ted, we have a community orchestra here and we want you to maintain it,' that's what I would have done," adds Kuchar.
Under Kuchar, the orchestra has gotten better. He has demanded and gotten more from his players -- but it hasn't always gone smoothly. Lightfoot tactfully describes Kuchar as an "extremely strong personality" and says he "pushed hard, stepped on some toes, rubbed some people the wrong way."
At the same time, some musicians complain that Kuchar under-rehearses the orchestra. On his first night as conductor, during a concerto featuring a guest soloist, he brought the orchestra back in at the wrong time, and the musicians, says Greg Walker, "badly faked the last twenty or thirty seconds."
Some players also complain that Kuchar's dramatic conducting style rings of grandstanding (though others find it exciting). Kuchar says his style is demonstrative because in the United States there is more "emphasis on glamour, show, effect. Any motion I make is not thought out, not planned. It's never the same two nights in a row."
An even more telling sign of changes to come for Boulder's "warm, fuzzy" community arts groups was a clever advertising campaign cooked up by the orchestra's management during Kuchar's first year. He was dubbed "the ultimate conducting experience," a play on BMW's promise of the ultimate driving experience (and perhaps a nod to the German automaker's eliteness). Lightfoot says the orchestra tried to get BMW involved, but "they actually weren't that interested."
Though he'd known that Kuchar was the best candidate, Walker adds that the image campaign confirmed his sense that PeakArts management saw Kuchar as a "hood ornament" for the pretensions of Boulder's arts community. "Before, the community had a warm, loving relationship with the orchestra. It was like bringing in your crazy uncle," says Walker. "But the strongest classical-music fans, they wanted more. Ted represented that in spades."
Classical fans might have benefitted, but there was discord within the orchestra. Some musicians were willing to submit to Kuchar's directives that if they wanted to stay with his program they would have to practice like never before, practice as if this were their full-time job. Others decided the extra commitment wasn't worth it and left with no hard feelings. Those caught in the middle were unable to leave on such friendly terms. They say Kuchar made quick work of putting players he didn't care for on notice.
Dana Axelson remembers telling Kuchar, "There's a reason why myself and the others are in this orchestra, and there's a reason why you're here. We're all good amateur players, and you're a good amateur conductor." Nobody, Axelson says, had "any dreams of playing in an orchestra higher than the Boulder Philharmonic."
Axelson says he received a letter from the orchestra's board in the spring of 1997 telling him in blunt terms that his playing wasn't up to par and that he had only a certain number of weeks to clean up his act. When he didn't, he was forced into a kind of trial to save his job. Nine members of the orchestra were chosen by their peers to listen to arguments for and against dumping him. No one asked him to play, and union rules prevented him from getting recordings of the orchestra's performances so he could prove his musicianship.
While some orchestra members stood up for his playing, others did not. "They brought in a guy who played bass trombone to represent Kuchar. This is a guy I've been friendly with for years and years, and he got up there and said, 'Dana's never been a good player,' and my jaw is hanging in my lap."
The session lasted ninety minutes. The next day he got a voice message from one of the jury telling him he'd been canned. "I was upset. Playing in that orchestra defined a large part of my personality."
He was one of two players terminated. Lightfoot says the trial was fair and followed union rules. And Kuchar says that he recommends action only after many players have come to him to complain. "If you don't have majority support, you will never win."
Doug Bailard is also out of the orchestra. He spent ten years as principal horn, and before that, he'd spent years as principal horn of the United States Naval Band in Washington, D.C. He says his Boulder seat was in jeopardy the moment Richard Oldberg, a favorite of Kuchar's, came to town. Oldberg had impeccable credentials. He had played in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra -- one of the world's finest -- for years, but more importantly, he was hugely admired by Kuchar, who, back in Cleveland, had grown up listening to Chicago Symphony recordings. Bailard admits that Oldberg was a fine player, but says he was on the backside of his career and, at the time, no better than Bailard himself. Still, he says, "Ted thinks he walks on water, so he started getting on my case."
Bailard received a letter of reprimand from Kuchar in March 1999, after a concert performance of Mahler's Fourth Symphony. "I played it flawlessly," says Bailard, who told himself that he didn't need this kind of drama from a community orchestra. Kuchar says that he had been hearing complaints about Bailard from other musicians and "did not feel in any way justified to go headhunting." He did, however, try to tactfully offer Bailard a different -- and lower -- seat in the section. Bailard resigned instead.
And he was dismayed to learn that Kuchar immediately appointed Oldberg principal horn. "When you have a principal opening, you always have an audition. I don't believe Oldberg would have won."
Lightfoot and Kuchar say that auditions are the norm unless a player has spent time filling in at the top spot and proven himself, as Oldberg apparently had when Bailard missed the first half of last season. Lightfoot says Bailard was approached about taking a lower seat after musicians told Kuchar they played better with Oldberg leading the horns. "A musician has a choice. He can say yes or no," Lightfoot says.
"I would have been perfectly happy to play assistant [horn]," Oldberg says. "Then Doug left, and however they battled that back and forth, I wasn't involved in it."
Though Bailard left on similarly unhappy terms, he doesn't have much sympathy for Axelson. He says that although Axelson's situation was handled poorly, his dismissal was the "best thing that could have happened, percussion-wise, to the orchestra. He was never there mentally. He wasn't a real professional, just a community player."
Greg Walker is in the most intriguing spot of all. As concertmaster, he is essentially the team captain to Kuchar's coach, and his seat is the most prominent in the orchestra. Walker has played in ensembles all over the world and has four music degrees, including a doctorate. But when his letter of warning came in May, it was for crossing his legs during a concert and facing the audience when he played a solo.
"It's inappropriate for Greg Walker to talk about that letter," Lightfoot says. Besides, two concert reviewers also singled out Walker for criticism. Writing in the Denver Post, Glenn Giffin commented that during Walker's solo in a Tchaikovsky suite the violinist "clowned its completion, which to me was unprofessional." And in the Rocky Mountain News, Marc Shugold complained that Walker offered up "a hammy, mannered, scratchy bit of playing-to-the-crowd."
Other former orchestra members aren't bitter at all. Jack Bartow played in the Boulder Philharmonic for 35 years, including 22 as principal oboe. He says that most of the musicians who have departed under Kuchar realized the tougher demands of the new-and-improved ensemble simply weren't for them. "Most felt the way I do. They weren't let go or fired. They just felt they'd be more comfortable in a community orchestra," Bartow says.
The orchestra "really improved by attrition," adds Rick Starnes, a former principal trombonist. Starnes doesn't remember seeing anybody fired. He just remembers people saying they couldn't put in the time to keep up. With a strong conductor like Kuchar, Starnes says, there will be "people who just love him and people who just hate him. That's par for the course."
Lightfoot says that about 20 percent of the orchestra's members have turned over since Kuchar came on board. "He didn't come in and clean house. Some felt after a year or so they didn't want the pressure." Lightfoot says that he feels the general perception of this situation is the same as his.
Karen Romeo disagrees.
When Ted Kuchar joined the orchestra in 1997, she says, the vibe between him and Romeo was tense from the beginning. At his first rehearsal, he queried Romeo about where she had gone to school -- a question she says had the clear tone of a challenge.
Romeo left the orchestra, not wanting to be Kuchar's equal in her capacity as academy director while being his subordinate in the orchestra. And anyway, times were changing.
Boulder, Romeo says, is a city looking for its performing-arts identity. It values quality and community, and those values often oppose one another. That clash is at the heart of PeakArts. With the symphony and the ballet, Romeo says, "you're looking for the best possible product when you get up on stage," even if longtime musicians are given the boot. At the arts academy, on the other hand, "you're talking children first, young artists and dancers second." Romeo believes the academy's job is to develop in kids a love of the arts, to give them skills they can apply in their academic or social lives. "What they produce in a performance is down third or fourth on a list. We're not just teaching notes, but all the extras."
Romeo says an elitist attitude had been infecting PeakArts for some time. Last fall, she met with Dean Boal, president of the PeakArts board of directors, and Susan Marine, chair of the education council, which directly oversees the academy, to "make a stink and stand up for the academy."
She says Boal promised his support, but it was the first exchange she'd ever had with anyone on the PeakArts board that felt a touch adversarial. Soon after, she met Boal at a coffee shop to discuss matters further. "He told me that my body language -- I needed to watch it, because even when I didn't say anything, I was speaking volumes, especially when I wasn't happy," Romeo says. She doesn't know if the comment was the strategic advice of an ally, but she says she found it sexist and irresponsible. (Boal had no comment on Romeo's claim: "I'm not responding to that. It sounds provocative, searching.")
At Romeo's prompting, parents of Academy students began writing letters defending the quality of instruction at the school. Molly Hardman, who had two children taking lessons with Romeo, says she heard from Romeo that "there was some dissatisfaction from the board's point of view" about the school, that "the quality was not where it's supposed to be. I'm strongly not of that opinion. It was not advertised as Juilliard."
Several parents remember last fall's meeting of the education council, at which Boal told them that his goal for the school was to buy the best teachers and buy the best students. It was a comment that rubbed many raw. "Many of us in the community find this philosophy repugnant and the antithesis of what constitutes vital and effective arts education," parent Stephanie Price wrote in a letter to the Boulder Daily Camera a few months later. "We are committed to an arts academy that expands the horizons of every young person and enriches the entire community." In concluding, Price pointed out that her fifteen-year-old son had worked hard for nine years to become one of the best young violinists in the area. "My son," she concluded, "is not for sale."
Boal says he doesn't remember making those comments, but, he tells Westword, "what we have to be concerned with is how to get the best teachers we can buy, we can get. We have to have a great interest in two levels, which we don't think are in conflict." One level is hiring the best faculty, presumably to train the best students. The other, he says, is a concern with outreach.
In December, Romeo received a letter from the board. The letter's tone appears complimentary, pointing out that Romeo had been "instrumental" in making the Academy an important part of the organization. "Your role," the letter continued, "can be compared to that of an entrepreneur, who conceived, builds, struggles against the odds, and succeeds in creating a business, bringing it to the level where it is a going concern."
But the letter challenged Romeo to leave behind her entrepreneur status and become a "builder," who, "by contrast, looks to teamwork, communication, sensitivity to the needs of others, and an awareness of the organizational hierarchy to continue the group's development."
The letter vaguely went on to tell Romeo to improve her internal relationships with PeakArts management, noting that she should take all of her concerns to Lightfoot, who "must be kept informed of Academy actions and events." The memo also called for Romeo to do outreach with the community, warning that "if the Academy falls down in gaining the respect of the community, the long-term loser will be the entire organization." The letter went so far as to advise Romeo on her intention to adopt a baby, urging her to plan carefully and noting that her "time management abilities will be tested," as well as her ability to make on-the-spot decisions.
Romeo says the academy already had the respect of the community and calls the memo a "smokescreen." The real message, she says, was to get in line with the board or else.
She says the board was mad that she hadn't fired a recently hired "master teacher" after Boal complained that the teacher wasn't a good enough musician. She also says that the board began "making decisions that weren't being thought out too carefully." As an example, she cites the board's 1998 promise, made a year and a half before the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts was slated to come to Boulder, that the academy would raise $10,000 to help stage the conference. She says the board came up with $1,500 -- "a bit of an embarrassment for us."
Others noticed the strange vibe at the Dairy Center. Lynda Carter had moved to Boulder from Washington, D.C., last November. She had been a counselor at a girls' school and liked the idea of working with kids in an arts setting. "When I met Karen, I was really inspired and wanted to work there. She had a great vision," Carter says. Carter was hired in January to act as liaison with the community and local schools. "In a sense, I was a goodwill ambassador."
But there wasn't much goodwill. "I had noticed that Karen was a very creative person, an idea person, and that did not seem to fit with the bigger organization's mission," Carter says. "It was very cut-and-dried, meat-and-potatoes. It was a business. I think the corporate part wanted the school part to become more corporate."
On February 14, Romeo says, Lightfoot came to her office and told her that he wanted to make some changes. For one, staff people would no longer report to her, but instead to him. He also wanted her to clean house, though he provided no numbers and no reasons. "These are 35 people I hired. It was impossible to run a school with no staff and to fire these people," Romeo says. "He was very clear. He used the words 'get rid of' and 'weed out.' He was talking comprehensive changes."
"I have zero recollection of those statements," says Lightfoot. "There was no directive to clean house. One of the things we did want to do is possibly tighten things up, do quality evaluations of current teachers, create a strong process for hiring new faculty. Nobody was gunning for any of the teachers."
Nonetheless, Romeo felt she was being forced to get rid of her own staff and hire a new staff that would report to Lightfoot. On February 23, she submitted a terse letter of resignation to Lightfoot. (Two other staffers working for Romeo also resigned within days.) Then Lynda Carter announced her decision to leave. In her resignation letter, she wrote that "because schools are unique entities and because the larger organization has its own very separate agenda, I found the marriage to be less than harmonious. In fact, it soon became obvious that the school is not able to be a school or to grow within this framework."
Days later, Lightfoot put Romeo on pay through the end of April but asked her to leave immediately. "I felt it was better for us to move on right away," Lightfoot explains. "It wasn't totally comfortable. I felt it would be better if changes were made right then." Lightfoot acknowledges there had been tension between administrators and Romeo in the months preceding her departure, but he declined to discuss it.
Dean Boal, president of the PeakArts board since June 1998 and due to step down at the end of this month, says Romeo "did a fantastic job. She was there nine years, going on ten. I was very surprised when she left." Boal, however, declined to discuss the growing tension between Romeo and PeakArts, calling it a personnel issue.
"I think Karen was unceremoniously told to leave," says Gail Stoneman, a former administrator at the academy who resigned after Romeo. "I was told to tell people they were moving in a different direction. But I highly doubt that. It had been very, very successful."
Romeo blames Ted Kuchar for setting events into motion that ultimately led to her resignation. In general, she's upset at the attitude of elitism he represents. More specifically, she says he wanted her job. She points out that Kuchar did not seek reappointment to his post as conductor of the university's orchestra and was looking for a new job to sustain him. "I think it was probably because Kuchar wanted to add my salary to his."
"It had nothing to do with her," Kuchar says of his decision to leave. (He will still conduct the university orchestra through spring semester 2001.)
Lightfoot doubts Romeo's charge as well. "He certainly never applied for the job. He's a conductor. He doesn't want to run a music school."
Lightfoot and the ballet's David Jacobson and other PeakArts administrators say that the desire to make the academy more elite does not preclude it from offering the same education it always has. Speaking for the ballet training, Jacobson says there's "no question we need to have a certain level of competence for people to perform on stage at Mackey Auditorium in front of 2,000 people. By the same token, it's a broad-based program." He doesn't think one is done at the expense of the other.
This is the common line at PeakArts: Romeo is wrong if she thinks the academy is shifting to train the best kids at the expense of average kids. The two approaches are not mutually exclusive. As for moving away from inclusiveness to exclusivity, Lightfoot says, "I would say absolutely, emphatically that is not the case." He says a conservatory program has been on the books for years and that such a school-within-a-school is not antithetical to a community arts school.
Romeo says that this is only the association's public line. "My resignation was forced on me," she says. "The organization is making some terrible decisions. It's not putting human beings first."
Boal says that from the board's point of view, Romeo was not forced out. "We honor her. We just put a plaque up."
It reads: "In grateful appreciation for her creation, nurturing and development of the Boulder Arts Academy, 1991-2000. From the Board of Directors and the staff of the PeakArts Association of Boulder."
Plaques are common at PeakArts these days. Last October, Dana Axelson received a letter from PeakArts. Management there, the letter informed him, wanted to honor longstanding players by offering tickets to an upcoming concert for the players and their families. Afterward, there would be a reception and a presentation of plaques.
Axelson attended the event, along with about eight others. "They gave us these really cheap plaques, etched in clear acrylic, hung from two chains off a baton." Axelson's award misspelled his name and botched the number of years he had played. There were similar mistakes with four other plaques. "It was like a slap in the face."
Lightfoot collected them, Axelson says, but he never received a new one.
Greg Walker refers to the "allure of elitism," whereby parents want to "entrust their kids to someone who will offer them a quality experience. Karen's approach is too socialistic, too all-inclusive. They'd rather spend their resources developing high-powered students. Elitism is connected to quality control, but it's definitely a function of image. If you get rid of people who are connected with the old way, you've made a statement that you're interested in higher quality."
Linda Wolpert, whose children take flute and trumpet lessons at the Academy, may be speaking about PeakArts in total when she assesses Kuchar as an effective conductor who makes the orchestra "sparkle." She says audiences may be upset if Walker, a well-liked and respected orchestra member, leaves, and if more people learn of Romeo's departure. But the bottom line for audiences is that the music sounds better. "I don't know that the community would know or care. The community understands that when you prune, there will be pain."
When Romeo left, all twelve of her students asked for refunds from the academy to join her. So now she teaches privately and volunteers at Boulder High School running a chamber orchestra.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.