By Emily Wolfram

Warren Buffet said “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” The Great Falls Symphony Association (GFSA) is learning this lesson after emailing a PDF letter to the five members of the Chinook Winds quintet to inform them that their jobs will be eliminated at the end of May.

I was the GFSA Manager of the Core from 2016 to 2019 and after resigning I continued playing as section cellist with the orchestra. I am also married to the bassoonist of the Chinook Winds. My experience gives me a unique perspective on where the GFSA was eight years ago and how it has come to its current state. My goal is to provide context to information and aid in understanding the current situation.

The Chinook Winds is one of two chamber ensembles in the GFSA “Core.” Along with the Cascade Quartet, they have performed in Great Falls and communities across the state for decades. The symphony has been struggling with finances for several years and its leadership has chosen to fix the problem for the moment by eliminating the quintet, a 30-year legacy. This sacrifice may help the budget in the short term, but the problems that have led to this choice and arisen as a result of it will still exist after the quintet is gone.

One recurring question is “how did they decide to do this?” It seems as if those in charge lack a basic understanding of what these musicians do and how it affects the symphony’s ability to deliver its mission and serve the community. The gap in knowledge makes sense when you consider that the GFSA’s organizational hierarchy has been gradually altered to isolate leadership from the mission. At the start of Hillary Rose Shepherd’s tenure as the executive director, board meetings included reports from representatives of the orchestra, choir, Cascade Quartet, and Chinook Winds. This opportunity to connect the board with “the boots on the ground” of music making has disappeared over the years. At present, no one from the Core is allowed to attend board meetings. There is a board role called “director representative of the orchestra,” but since this person is not required to be part of the musician-elected orchestra council it is unclear how this role is obligated to represent the expertise and interests of the musicians.

A lack of skilled administrative leadership has also plagued the GFSA. Management has not utilized resources wisely or budgeted adequately for operational changes. In 2022 the Core musicians agreed to not accept a raise or cost of living adjustment (COLA) for this fiscal year in order to support their colleagues and help the GFSA reach budget goals. As the core had advocated for, the symphony increased per-service fees for non-core orchestral musicians. While this was a positive move on behalf of the performers, it was a significant increase in operating expenses and it is not clear that there was a new grant, donor, or fundraising initiative to cover the cost.

Poor decisions and missed opportunities are also evident in how the GFSA handled the Core itself. There was a Manager of the Core position filled until 2019 (when I resigned), after which the GFSA discontinued this role. At this point, the symphony all but stopped utilizing the Chinook Winds to serve its mission, earn touring revenue, garner local support through outreach, and expand its impact as it had done successfully in the past. In 2022 the GFSA also started using The Newberry for the Chamber Series concerts. The venue is popular and may have helped draw a few new audience members but it was clearly an unsustainable choice considering prior history of this program’s budget.

The most worrisome administrative failure is leadership knowing that the Core residency program was a financial problem for eight years and, in all that time, not finding solutions or even communicating about it. Melanie Pozdol, past Chinook Winds oboist (2012-2016) and current Associate Director of Prospect Management and Analytics at the Kellogg School of Management, commented “I had a one-year overlap with Hillary at the end of my tenure with the GFSA. If the core program was facing serious financial issues then, this would have been useful information for the entire organization to be made aware of. I certainly don’t recall this being transparently communicated to the core musicians at that time; if it was, the extent of the financial issues were not made explicitly known to the GFSA musicians as a whole. Fundraising, relationship building, and organizational change take time, so I think that if new solutions had been analyzed back then perhaps the GFSA would be in a different place today. Better transparency and communication along the way would have also helped to offer better solutions for the long-term.”

Administrative problems aside, the sudden ending of a beloved ensemble has caused a loss of trust on multiple levels—the ramifications of which will be felt now and well into the future.

The GFSA reputation has been jeopardized in the orchestra world in Montana and beyond and this will affect audition pools in the immediate future. The nature of the Chinook Winds’ dismissal was appalling to professional musicians everywhere. All quintet members are moving on and the GFSA will need to find substitutes and hold auditions for next season’s replacements but potential applicants will likely hesitate to apply for an organization that divests in the quality of its programming and treats its employees this way. Sources close to the orchestra also report that some on the GFSA substitute list have decided not to sign contracts for the next season because of what happened to their colleagues. Coincidentally, Grant Harville announced his own resignation in February 2024 and the GFSA will be conducting a music director search in the next two years. The elimination of the quintet stands to inhibit efforts to hire a qualified music director who may have been drawn to the organization by a program like the Core.

Many of the rest of the orchestra have also lost trust in the administrative leadership. There is so much about this choice that contradicts the symphony’s own mission and values that they are struggling to make sense of it. Symphony musicians were made aware of the GFSA’s financial troubles when they rallied to help with the annual fund drive in December 2023. But no one had any warning that blame was being put on the Chinook Winds specifically. Non-core symphony musicians are also concerned about how this loss will affect the overall quality of orchestral performances. Dennis Dell, GFSA musician since 1973, says, “This is a huge loss…with the efforts of many community leaders, we added the Cascade Quartet that gave us outstanding leadership for our string sections. Then we added the Chinook Winds that pushed the quality of our group to a new level. In the past, when we have faced problems, we got together all interested patrons to solve the problems and to keep our symphony alive and continuing to grow…The decision to eliminate the Chinook Winds, coming from a small group of people is a huge set-back to a group I have given most of my adult life to as a performer!” Longtime GFSA cellist, Ruth Johnson also recognizes the loss will be felt beyond the concerts at the Mansfield. She notes, “The loss of these musicians will unequivocally challenge the GFSA to maintain the level of musicality that has been established with the strong core that the Chinook Winds have provided. As a retired music educator for the Great Falls Public Schools, I feel remorse for future music students who will be without their inspiring master classes, performances, and private lessons. Our music programs have been stronger having the Chinook Winds performing and teaching in our community.”

The most upsetting breach of trust is between the GFSA administration and the public. Three days after the infamous PDF to the Chinook Winds, the GFSA released a statement (ironically another PDF-style letter) to apologize and explain itself. It states “There have been several conversations with our musicians, including the Chinook Winds, regarding the Symphony’s inability to continue deficit spending…The members of the Winds were also aware for several months that the Chinook Winds program was of specific concern.” According to both Core ensembles, this is false. The quintet members made it clear in an interview with The Electric that they expected some kind of cut in pay or programs but not the elimination of an entire ensemble. There was no indication that the quintet was a financial concern apart from the quartet, nor is there any logical argument for this to be true: they are nearly parallel ensembles. In the months leading up to the decision, there were regular meetings including members of both ensembles and neither one was singled out as a particular problem. The latest social media statement from the Cascade Quartet falls along the same lines. “We were prepared for across-the-board salary cuts (including the administration), but not for this. We were never aware that this outcome, the Cascade Quartet being retained but not the Chinook Winds, was being considered.” The GFSA letter ends with, “it took many years to conclude that retiring the program was a necessary financial step.” The phrasing of this statement is troubling because it sounds as if ending the quintet has been on the table for years and the information was withheld from supporters and musicians who could have stepped in to help. The 23-24 season would have been a good time to appeal to the community for support. Just last month, Norman Menzales celebrated the culmination of a four-year recording project with a flute concerto performance at the Mansfield Theater and the Chinook Winds had a well-received Chamber Series collaboration with MSU Billings artist Jodi Lightner. All of the positivity surrounding these recent events make the GFSA’s decision and statements more bewildering and apparently disingenuous.

Trust is a hard thing to earn and an easy thing to lose. If trust is lost in a relationship, sometimes it can be regained with a lot of time and a clear, consistent improvement in behavior—if one is lucky. In order for an organization like a symphony to recover trust, change has to take place among the people who make decisions: leadership. As a group, the board of directors and executive director carry the responsibility of being stewards of this orchestra. That is where we—the current musicians, community members, patrons, donors, and future auditioners—will look for change.