Millie Patterson was part of the Arapahoe Philharmonic for 67 years. She enjoyed playing the viola, making music, and seeing her friends at practices and performances. Over the decades, the orchestra became such a major part of her life that she donated large sums of money to it, along with instruments from Universal Music Company, the Thornton music shop she opened with her husband in 1960. Yet over the past six years, Patterson came to dread weekly rehearsals, and just listening to classical music was beginning to make her nauseous.
In early February this year, the conductor and chair of the board of the Arapahoe Philharmonic announced that all of the orchestra’s volunteer musicians would have to re-audition for their seats — a first for the group. Patterson, a founding member of the orchestra, was furious. She struggled to make sense of the abrupt policy change, an unusual move for a community orchestra comprising amateur volunteer musicians who viewed each other as friends rather than colleagues.
In the days after the re-audition policy was announced, Patterson found solace in commiserating with her fellow musicians. Many had also been dissatisfied with the group for a long time. And they pinned their discontent on one man: conductor Devin Patrick Hughes.
Several of the volunteer musicians lamented that Hughes had made it clear he wanted to lead a professional orchestra rather than a group of amateurs. “This would come across in the way he would talk to people and the way he talked at the podium,” says David Cher, a violinist with the organization.
Ellen Elias, director of the Special Care Clinic at Children’s Hospital Colorado, is also a violinist with the Arapahoe Philharmonic. Near the start of Hughes’s tenure as conductor, which began in 2014, Elias served as chair of the Orchestra Advisory Council. The group was tasked with facilitating his transition; the previous conductor, 68-year-old Vincent LaGuardia Jr., had passed away in front of the orchestra while conducting Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue.”
From the start, Elias had found herself in conflict with Hughes. And when she expressed opposition to his early proposal to re-audition all musicians, she says, he pulled her outside and yelled at her, emphasizing that he was "her boss." Elias responded that he was not her boss, but rather the conductor of a community orchestra with a long history and dedicated volunteers with feelings and concerns of their own.
“Devin seemed to have trouble showing respect and kindness to people who were maybe a little bit older, maybe didn’t play as well as they did forty years ago but were still very enthusiastic and really loved the family aspect of this community orchestra,” Elias says. “He just didn’t understand that part of this.”
Several musicians who spoke with Westword stress that they weren’t opposed to auditioning, but they were concerned that their working relationship with Hughes would not make the process a constructive, mutually beneficial experience.
“The idea is sound; they just have no idea how to implement it in a kind and caring manner,” says viola player Gail Sindelar. Four generations of Sindelar’s family — a grandmother, both of her parents, two uncles, two sisters and two daughters — have played with the Arapahoe Philharmonic.
Within a month, volunteer musicians frustrated with the announced changes organized into a committee. They met on Zoom, crafting a petition to the conductor and board requesting that they reconsider the re-audition policy and seek more input from musicians before making major policy changes. Thirty-two musicians, most from the string section, signed the petition. Three days later, the board chair, María del Río, rejected the request.
Soon more than forty musicians were attending committee meetings. Sindelar solicited feedback from former Arapahoe Philharmonic members who had left in recent years and discovered that many had departed because they didn’t want to play under Hughes. But when members of the board found out about Sindelar’s data-gathering efforts, they booted her from the orchestra.
Not long after, the board hired a lawyer, who sent cease-and-desist letters threatening civil and criminal charges to at least eleven volunteer musicians, accusing them of defaming the Arapahoe Philharmonic and banning them from entering the orchestra’s rehearsal or performance spaces.
Ellen Elias and her husband, Anthony, were among those who received the letters.
“I can’t even begin to describe how hurtful that was,” Ellen says. “For the past twenty years, we have been active musicians. Anthony and I are strong players. I’ve been the concertmaster of the side-by-side concerts that we did for years teaching children how to play. We’ve contributed financially to support the orchestra in a fairly big way. Our families would support the orchestra; our doctor friends would come to our concerts for the orchestra.”
Now they were being informed that if they stepped foot on Arapahoe Philharmonic’s property, the police would be called.
Violinist Cher, who is also an attorney, says he was baffled by the threat, because to his knowledge the orchestra does not own property beyond its name and music library. "That's language that a divorce lawyer would put in a letter telling an abusive husband to stay away from his spouse," he says.
On March 30, 88 percent of Arapahoe Philharmonic’s volunteer musicians met to vote on a resolution of no confidence in the board. Principal among their complaints was that the board had failed to exercise control over Hughes, who had created a “toxic culture” in the organization. The resolution accused the conductor of publicly humiliating members of the orchestra during rehearsals and generally adopting a rude attitude in his interactions with musicians, guest performers and sponsors. It further noted the depleted morale of the orchestra and slammed the board, accusing it of enabling Hughes to convert the Arapahoe Philharmonic into a semi-professional orchestra. The resolution was passed by 85 percent of the meeting’s attendees.
Less than two weeks later, the board asked six more musicians to leave the orchestra and expelled two boardmembers who were sympathetic to the musicians’ concerns.
“We take pride in playing well, but not at the cost of kicking people out,” Cher says.
At this point, Patterson decided that enough was enough. She resigned on April 14, in a letter that detailed the grief that rehearsal sessions had caused her over the past six years. She listed all the different roles she'd filled at the Arapahoe Philharmonic: playing as both principal viola and section viola, working at fundraisers and doing paperwork for the organization. She'd donated funds and sponsored the annual T. Gordon Parks Concerto Competition. “Arapahoe Philharmonic has been a major part of my life’s work,” she wrote, concluding her letter by expressing how heartbroken she was by everything that had taken place.
Patterson was not alone: Before long, 65 percent of the volunteer musicians had resigned.
Meanwhile, the Denver Musicians Association placed the Arapahoe Philharmonic on a “Do Not Play” list, noting that playing for the orchestra could violate local bylaws.
According to Arapahoe Philharmonic spokesman Jon Pushkin, it's not uncommon for musicians and conductors to have artistic differences; he says that Hughes has never acted unprofessionally. Since the wave of resignations in April, he notes, the orchestra has added 29 members to its ranks: fifteen volunteers and fourteen professionals.
Del Río and Hughes both emphasize the importance of the Arapahoe Philharmonic aspiring to artistic excellence.
“Even before I joined, our orchestra has always been comprised of passionate amateurs and professionals,” says Hughes. “If you wanted to classify us, we are a semi-professional orchestra. We’re not all-volunteer or all- professional. ... I’ve never felt more optimistic about the direction of our organization.”
“I understand that people are upset and concerned, and change is hard,” Del Río adds. “That would perhaps be a headline from us to you.”
"Upset" is an understatement: The musicians who resigned say they're shattered after losing their community orchestra. Hughes and the board "just do not accept the orchestra for what it is, which is a community of friends and families who love playing together,” says Elias, who notes that the timing of the re-audition demand was particularly unfortunate. “Why was it so necessary to do it especially now, with people just being able to play together again? That was part of the pain, too.”
“In 2014, I remember saying to [Hughes], ‘I’m not going to let you destroy my orchestra that I’ve spent fifty years building,'” Sindelar says. “But here we are. I just feel like they stole the orchestra from me. They stole the timpani; they stole the music library; they stole my past from me.”
While the musicians who left the orchestra — either through resignation or expulsion — will likely never play together again under the banner of the Arapahoe Philharmonic, community orchestras in the area have welcomed them. On May 27, the Lone Tree Symphony Orchestra hosted a social and side-by-side reading with Arapahoe musicians, who have dubbed themselves “refugees” in internal correspondence.
“We'll be fine,” says Elias, noting that she and her husband both plan to audition for other community orchestras in the area.
“But I feel so sad that our family has been broken up, like a very acrimonious divorce,” she adds. “All of these people that for twenty years we’ve enjoyed playing with so much — they’re good, wonderful people, and we’re not going to be able to play with them anymore.”
Editor's note: On June 8, Corinne Denny, executive director of the Arapahoe Philharmonic, sent this response to the story:
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