Storm rages through woodwind section of Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra - The Buffalo News

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Storm rages through woodwind section of Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

The accusations might seem insignificant – even trivial.

The sweeping gesture of a musical instrument. Hitting a flat tone. Or playing too slowly at times.

But to some musicians in the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, it smacked of sabotage.

And it cost Pierre Roy his job as principal oboist for the orchestra.

Not even an apology to the orchestra or his skill – by all accounts he is a highly talented player – could mend his relationships with the principal flutist and the second oboist, among others.

Normally, the ins and outs of a workplace squabble aren’t news. Most everyone knows what it feels like to work alongside co-workers who don’t get along – or are hard to deal with. But this infighting played out in one of Western New York’s highest-profile cultural institutions and affected the performances and moods of its members.

In workplace disputes, people often don’t like to talk on the record, and that is the case with the orchestra, where hard feelings drove a wedge in the wind section. The Buffalo News reached out to lawyers for Roy and the orchestra, offering an opportunity for anyone involved to speak. Roy’s attorney spoke. No one from the orchestra responded. So The News pieced together what happened by reviewing court documents, including an arbitrator’s report and the emails, letters and testimony from musicians and orchestra managers that leave no question about the turmoil inside the orchestra.

Several musicians supported Roy, citing their good relationships with him and admiration for his musical skills and professionalism.

But others felt belittled or annoyed by what they called his distracting behavior in rehearsals.

“I felt like he was mocking me when I was sitting there,” flutist Betsy Reeds told an arbitrator, of several occurrences. “Just the tone. I felt like he was making fun of my tone and my movements when I play.”

After orchestra managers investigated complaints against him, they fired Roy in July 2012, ending his nearly 17-year career at the orchestra.

But Roy won’t go away quietly. In March, he filed a petition in State Supreme Court, hoping to void the arbitrator’s ruling that supported his firing. He wants to be reinstated. The case has since been moved to federal court.

In one incident, from 2011, Roy claimed another musician struck him while walking backstage, leading to a verbal exchange on stage during the intermission at a holiday concert.

A flutist and other musicians complained about feeling uncomfortable while playing near Roy. After one complaint, the orchestra put up a Plexiglas shield between Roy and principal flutist Christine Davis.

Audiences may not have picked up on the discord. In fact, Roy has garnered critical praise for his superb playing over the years, including in reviews in The Buffalo News. One in 1997 called his playing “truly magnificent” with intonation that was “immaculate.”

But by 2012, feedback within the orchestra turned harsh for the 51-year-old Amherst resident who trained at the New England Conservatory in Boston.

“As principal oboe, your lack of musicality is shocking and destructive to our orchestra,” music director JoAnn Falletta told him in a letter.

Tempers flare

The symphony fired Roy once before. The facts behind that dismissal in June 2010 didn’t come into play when he was fired in 2012. But arbitrator Robert J. Rabin said the prior dismissal and the settlement that brought Roy back to the orchestra in January 2011 were essential to understanding what happened more recently.

He started his career in Buffalo as principal oboist in 1995.

In June 2010, he had a challenging solo part in Berlioz’ “Symphonie Fantastique.” Scarce parking that evening around Kleinhans Music Hall delayed him. And then the location of a group photograph that had been planned for the musicians changed. By the time he found them, the photo already had been taken, and the photographer refused to take another. Roy berated and cursed an administrative staff member, according to the arbitrator’s report.

Then he couldn’t find space backstage to warm up, knocked over a sound shield as he looked for a place and swore at a staff member. Roy acknowledged he had “a kind of meltdown backstage.” He said he told a staff member that he was going to his car to relax because his hands were shaking and he was having trouble breathing.

Symphony managers, however, said that as the performance time neared, no one knew where he was. They worried they might have to cancel the concert. Roy reappeared just before showtime. Another oboist testified that he looked angry as he slammed his music sheets down on a stand and then cursed her. The performance went on, and Roy played well in the opening piece and also a duet from the balcony.

But Falletta said his actions had a negative effect on the orchestra’s performance that night. The next week, the symphony fired Roy.

The musicians’ union grieved his firing. Six months later, the orchestra agreed to reinstate him. As part of the settlement, he received no back pay and agreed to undergo anger management training. Roy also had to apologize to the orchestra, which he later said was humiliating.

Some musicians told the arbitrator they were disappointed in the apology; others accepted it.

Roy returned feeling some didn’t want him back. So he carried a small MP3 recorder in his pocket and recorded all of his interactions.

‘Out of tempo’

After his return in January 2011, it didn’t take long before a complaint was made about him. In March 2011, during a rehearsal of Holst’s “The Planets,” flutist Davis complained that Roy played his solo “very, very much out of tempo.”

Davis and Anna Mattix, an English horn player, told Falletta that his playing was deliberate and designed to throw them off.

“It was much too slow,” Davis told the arbitrator. “He did not play it at the tempo JoAnn was indicating.”

Davis asked to sit somewhere else during rehearsals and performances – an unusual request because the principal flutist and principal oboist sit side-by-side in front of the woodwind section. She said she didn’t want to sit so close “to someone who was very enraged.”

“And when I felt that rage being directed specifically at me, as it had been when he was sabotaging my musical efforts, I found that to be frightening,” she said.

The orchestra denied her request to sit elsewhere. But it allowed her to sit somewhere different during performances at Shea’s.

“When I sat in Shea’s pit three seats down or however many people were in between us, I was stunned at how different the experience was,” she said.

Later in 2011, Falletta took note of how Roy tuned the orchestra – a job he had typically done – at a Nov. 5 rehearsal with an A note that she called unacceptably high.

“It seemed to me that his inappropriate A was deliberate in that he has become very angry about his responsibility of tuning without additional monetary compensation,” Falletta said, in an email to orchestra General Manager Dan Hart.

On Dec. 9, 2011, with five minutes left in the intermission of a holiday show, Roy crossed paths with trumpet player Phil Christner by the lockers backstage at Kleinhans.

“As he went by, he caught my left thumb,” Roy testified. “And he hit it pretty good.”

Roy turned around.

“Phil, you hit me,” he said.

Roy said Christner brushed him off with a wave of his hand, so Roy followed him onto the stage.

“I wanted him to admit what he had done and see if he would apologize,” Roy said.

The audience was filing back into the hall and the musicians were warming up.

“Why did you hit me?” Roy asked him.

“That little bump?” Christner replied, according to Roy.

“Then he said … ‘If you want to start something, go right ahead. But if I would have hit you, I would have knocked you (down),’ ” Roy recounted.

The confrontation happened in view of the audience, though it’s unclear if anyone in the crowd could hear what was said.

Christner, in his testimony, said he tried to stop the argument with Roy.

“I said this is no place to do this,” Christner said. “If you’re having an issue with me, don’t do it on stage. It was just inappropriate.”

Six months later, the orchestra sent warning letters to both, citing Roy for pursuing Christner on stage and Christner for his remark to Roy.

Mimicked and mocked

Musicians reported more incidents after that, but only one occurred during a concert. Second oboist Kate Estes testified Roy played “extremely under the pitch and very much behind the beat, almost half a beat behind the rest of the orchestra” at a concert in January 2012.

“I didn’t know whether I should play with him or with the orchestra,” Estes said. “I decided to play with the rest of the orchestra. There was no way I could match his pitch level at that point.”

On Feb. 11, 2012, Davis filed an email complaint saying Roy had mimicked her movements during a rehearsal for the Broadway Rocks concert.

Roy testified that he was cleaning reed shavings off his lap. But Davis didn’t buy his explanation.

“Pierre mimicked and mocked everything I did for the entire rehearsal, from brushing lint off my pants to how I was sitting in my chair, to taking the hair off the back of my neck, to how I was cleaning my flute,” she testified.

Several musicians noted Roy’s gestures, which surprised them because they described Roy as a player with minimal body movement.

“It wasn’t a gesture that I had ever seen before in the orchestra and I wondered what was happening, and then I saw Christine brush something off her pant leg and immediately afterward Pierre Roy did the same thing but in a very big gesture,” Estes said.

Yet another long-tenured musician, in court documents, said she did not witness anything unusual or rude in the behavior of Roy, or any flaws in his playing, during this time.

Later in February 2012, Davis again complained to managers about Roy, accusing him of aggressively swinging the bell of his oboe into her space, in a side-to-side movement, during rehearsals for John Adams’ “Lollapalooza.”

She said he consistently made the gesture at a particular place in the score where she was having trouble with an entrance.

“When we got back to the same place to rehearse, Pierre Roy made a very sharp movement with his oboe, pointing his bell at me,” she said in an email to the orchestra manager, Hart.

Mattix, the horn player, testified that Roy made similar gestures toward Estes.

Once, “I was concerned because I thought he was about to strike her instrument with his instrument,” Mattix said.

Roy denied making such gestures. He said he was cuing the principal clarinetist. But after Davis’ complaint, orchestra managers installed a Plexiglas shield between her and Roy.

In his testimony, Roy said that he felt Davis was a “very dangerous person in the orchestra” because she would complain and write letters about others she was not happy with. He said she was “sort of like the orchestra police.”

Fallout with Falletta

During rehearsals for the Prokofiev Symphony No. 5 in March 2012, several musicians noticed Roy “playing flat,” according to the arbitrator’s report.

“They concluded that this could only have been deliberate,” the report said.

“It was really horrifying,” Falletta told the arbitrator. “The playing was deliberately out of tune, which, of course, creates a situation that is completely confusing for everyone. A person of Pierre’s level, skill and professionalism would only play that way intentionally. It was something I’ve never heard in my life. I can’t remember another situation where a musician would sabotage a rehearsal like that.”

Toward the end of the season, in one of the last rehearsals, Falletta commented about the intonation of the principal flute and oboe.

Roy questioned Falletta “in a rather aggressive way,” according to Falletta.

“I don’t hear it that way,” Roy said.

Roy said he was talking to another musician, that he did not make the comment loudly, nor intend it as a disrespectful remark.

But Falletta viewed it as an act of insubordination. Challenging her in an orchestra setting, she said, “is just not the way things are done.”

Roy and Falletta seemed to have a good relationship for a long time. In court documents, he talks of her support for him over the years, and her kindnesses to him with words and tokens.

“I think she’s been very complimentary to me throughout my history with the orchestra,” Roy said.

They talked about music, he said, and Falletta told him at times “how much she has enjoyed my playing.”

Yet, Falletta by March 2012 issued a warning letter to Roy about his employment.

She cited an episode in early March that year, saying Roy played during a rehearsal with “a marked lack of musicianship.”

“Your playing in the Prokofiev Fifth Symphony was perfunctory, devoid of emotional involvement, showed an unfortunate lack of tone and exhibited questionable intonation,” she wrote in the letter.

“You seemed determined to play in an unmusical way and continued to do so for the entire rehearsal, even after I strongly asked you to play a solo with expression,” she wrote.

In his testimony, Roy said Falletta had told him in one meeting that “she wanted me to be the most inspiring musician in the orchestra.”

He said he didn’t think that was fair, and that it seemed like more was being required of him than of others.

Personality conflict

While the arbitrator said he admired Roy’s musicianship and spirit, he ruled out giving Roy his job back.

“He never came to terms with his anger problem,” Rabin said in his Dec. 1, 2014, decision. “He engaged in unacceptable conduct that made it difficult for the musicians around him to do their job. His return would cause unacceptable anxiety.”

Playing in an orchestra requires calmness, collaboration and concentration, he said.

The arbitrator recommended giving Roy a year’s pay in return for his resignation. Roy went to court to overturn the ruling.

Davis, reached at her home, declined to comment.

Roy’s attorney disagreed with the arbitrator’s reasoning.

“For the arbitrator to suggest that all musicians have to get along in order to make great music is contrary to the common experience,” said lawyer Steven M. Cohen, who represents Roy.

The members of some popular musical groups don’t get along and often sound great, Cohen said.

“The principal flutist and a few of her supporters had a personality conflict with Pierre Roy,” Cohen said. “It’s not a question of music. It’s a question of personalities, and the arbitrator should have told orchestra members to ‘stop acting like children and get back to what you do so well.’ ”

Roy, who has performed in major orchestras around the country, including St. Louis and Indianapolis, deserves his job back, Cohen said.

“It’s not about money for Pierre Roy,” Cohen said. “That is his life.”

email: plakamp@buffnews.com

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