Union steps in over Chicago’s unpaid Beethoven Fest

Union steps in over Chicago’s unpaid Beethoven Fest


norman lebrecht

June 29, 2014

George LePauw, the festival’s director, has received a stiff letter from the Chicago Federation of Musicians. He is threatened with a musicians boycott unless he pays up.

UPDATE here.

beethoven fest

George Lepauw, President and Artistic Director

International Beethoven Project

P.O. Box 14149

Chicago, Illinois 60614

Dear Mr. Lepauw,

On behalf of the Chicago Federation of Musicians (“CFM”), I am writing regarding the

failure of the International Beethoven Festival (the “Festival”) to pay the wages it owes

to the musicians who participated in last year’s orchestral performances.

Because the Festival did not file a musical services contract with the CFM, the CFM is

unable to take any action on behalf of the affected musicians. I have, however, followed

this story with great concern; and given your recent announcement that you are

proceeding with a 2014 Festival despite failing to honor your commitments to the

musicians who performed in 2013, I am compelled to go on the record and state, in no

uncertain terms, the CFM’s opposition to the Festival’s actions.

The Festival’s treatment of its musicians has been atrocious. You engaged some of the

best musicians from Chicago and beyond; you promised to pay them; they performed,

by all accounts admirably; and then you failed to pay them. Citing financial difficulties,

you promised at various points over the past ten months that payment would be

forthcoming. According to what you said in the Chicago Reader, only “a quarter” of the

sixty-plus musicians in last year’s orchestra have been paid in full. The other three

quarters have received only partial payment and, ten months after the performances,

are still waiting for the rest. It is unclear why certain favored musicians received

payment before others.

In an email just a few months ago, you assured the musicians that you would “not

proceed” with a 2014 Festival “unless finances allow and our debt to you is paid.” But

you have now announced plans to present the Festival in August 2014, and engaged a

new roster of musicians – many of whom are not the same musicians who played in

2013, and to whom you still owe wages. Your assurance of payment has proven false;

and now it appears that you intend to exploit another group of musicians with the 2014


Recently, in comments on the blog Slipped Disc, you vigorously defended your decision

to proceed with a 2014 Festival without paying last year’s musicians. Worse, you tried

to paint yourself as the victim of musicians who “complained on social media.” In an

email to the unpaid musicians last November, you complained that you “had to give up

on gigs in order to” deal with this issue.

Mr. Lepauw, you are not the victim here. Given your background, you should know

through personal experience the struggles that free-lance musicians face when trying to

earn a living, and how each and every gig counts when bills come due each month.

You should also be keenly aware of the harm that results when employers say “if you

want to get paid, keep your mouth shut and don’t complain” or “you should do this for

the love of the music.” Yet that is precisely the tactic you have chosen. Your words

claim you are a “musician’s advocate,” yet your actions make public an alarming lack of

regard and respect for your musician colleagues.

Be advised that the CFM will be urging all musicians to decline employment with the

2014 Festival, or, if they have already accepted employment, to withdraw. The CFM will

also be calling for the public to boycott the Festival until last year’s musicians are paid.


Gary Matts, President

Chicago Federation of Musicians


  • Anon says:

    This seems a rather combative approach to the problem, and not a helpful one. Mr. Lepauw’s communications as far as we have seen them have been generally apologetic and come across as sincere; someone genuinely trying to make ends meet to fulfil obligations. For Gary Matts to storm in is only likely, as far as I can see, to make matters far worse. It’s clear that there is a reliance on extra income from the 2014 concerts to help pay back those unpaid in 2013. If musicians pull out of 2014, how can that ever generate income to pay for the 2013 debt? The festival will simply fold, 2013 musicians will be left unpaid permanently, the 2014 players won’t be paid for anything, and there won’t be a 2015 festival of any type.
    I fail to see how this approach by the union is likely to help resolve anything at all, and looks designed merely to flex the union’s muscles for the sake of posturing. Wouldn’t a more co-operative approach help? The Union could offer to help Mr. Lepauw with the 2014 festival, or agree to allow its members to perform in return for access to the books to help make sure it is all fair and above board, for example.

    • Paul says:

      George, if you didn’t write the comment by ANON above, you must certainly know who did, and I am certain you will read this. It pains me to see what you are going through. When I first met you over coffee in 2012, I knew you were not the person these comments make you out to be. The grade-school abuse to which you have been subjected by some musicians is disgraceful, and it is too easy for some people to adopt the villager-with-a-pitchfork mentality.

      For me, there’s absolutely no doubt that you are sincere. However, there have been a number of faux-pas which have turned public sentiment against you. The biggest one was announcing a 2014 festival after promising there wouldn’t be one, but before writing to the musicians to explain the situation.

      At any rate, that’s now in the past, and the question is how to resolve this situation. Unfortunately, using new revenue to pay for old debts is reminiscent to many of a strategy once used by Charles Ponzi. Of course, the difference is I truly believe you are dealing in good faith, but to many, the similarities are inescapable. Therefore, I believe Mr. Matts is doing you a favor. The 2014 festival has already received so much negative press, it is unlikely to generate the revenue you hope it needs to not only pay for itself, but to also pay for 2013. If the festival is to continue in 2014, it will fail financially. Mr. Matts’ “nail in the coffin” hopefully prevents this.

      As someone who has made his fair share of mistakes in the classical music scene, I’d like to respectfully submit what I think is the best way forward:

      1) Cancel the 2014 IBF.

      2) Apologize to the musicians wholly, offering no other excuses or explanations. Mistakes happen. People just want to hear someone take unequivocal responsibility for them.

      3) Contact the donors who have pledged themselves to the 2014 IBF, explain the situation, and ask them to donate instead to a series of in-home private concerts for the benefit of paying off 2013’s debts I am certain many who have been against you will help you in this endeavor, both to play with you, and to put you in touch with others who could donate. Or start a kickstarter campaign, managed by a trusted third party, with donations over a certain amount getting a private concert. If I am in town, I would gladly donate my services for an evening fundraiser to see some of these debts paid. This is one of the reasons for my decision to make this an open letter: to go on the record with my offer, and to perhaps encourage others to do the same. The classical music world is a generous one; with its support, people have paid for lost instruments, reconstruction surgery after an accident, and even [successful] cancer treatment.

      4) Once the debts are paid off, organize a quality 2015 festival with a solid board-approved budget, with the love and support of the entire musical community in Chicago and abroad. It could even feature Beethoven’s 6th Symphony as a programmatic metaphor for the initial successes, interim tribulations, and ultimate triumph of the International Beethoven Festival.

      This is my humble recommendation. I believe moving forward with 2014’s festival will only create more financial, social, and emotional difficulties. I do not wish this for you; you are too good a person (and pianist) to have your name destroyed like this.

      Good luck to you. Sending my love and support to ALL affected by this terrible situation, from down under.


  • NYMike says:

    It’s about time this charlatan was called to accounts. Gary Matts puts it succinctly and accurately.

  • Alex says:


  • tp says:

    To anon above: paying the 2013 artists from the hoped for income or profit from the 2014 festival might sound good, but doesn’t make sense if you look closer.

    You have to ask several questions:
    – what guarantees a profit in 2014?
    – how can you promise fees to 2014 artists when 2013 artists have not been paid?
    – who gets the fees from profits first?
    – are the 2014 artists willing to wait for their fees until the 2013 artists are paid?
    – are the 2014 artists willing to wait to be paid until hoped for profits from a 2015 festival?

    It all starts sounding like a “musical” ponzi scheme.

    • Anon says:

      TP, you ask questions which are impossible for any of us to answer without knowing more than we do.
      Suffice to say, though, you do not pay 2014 artists from “2014 profits”. Profits are what come after payments have been made, and what, in 2014, might be left over to repay 2013 debt.
      I think it is fair to suggest that one can organise a series of concerts with sponsorship that you know covers the costs. Let’s say the 2014 Festival is organised in such a manner; in this way, any ticket revenue would be available to cover old debts.

      This is classical music, and nothing guarantees a profit – not even the rankest dumbing down and the biggest marketing spend. But one thing we can be absolutely certain of – if there are no more events, the Festival organisation will simply fold and those owed money from 2013 will never see another cent. That’s not a good outcome.

      • NYMike says:

        Considering the way Lepauw operates, 2013 musicians are unlikely to receive another cent regardless of outcome.

        • Anon says:

          Given that a number do seem to have been paid, albeit slowly, the insinuations of your comment seem both rude and unnecessary. Are you able to demonstrate that Mr. Lepauw is not, in fact, doing his best to raise funds to pay the musicians who are owed money? I’d suggest it is to his very great credit that he hasn’t simply allowed the 2013 Fesitval company to fold, whereupon he wouldn’t need to worry about it any more and no-one would receive any money. Instead, he seems to be trying to pay people where he can, and to arrange more performances to help the payback, and continue to bring music to the city. That’s worthy of support and help, surely, that someone hasn’t taken the easy way out, but is striving to create more work for musicians?

  • Professional Musician says:

    I think what people are forgetting here is that Mr. Lepauw is a musician who can earn money being a musician himself. Not just by raising money and asking for donations, but by actually working as a musician. All he has to do is be willing to actually work as a musician for the next year, giving concerts anywhere he can get paid, and yes, (god-forbid!), actually teaching students- even untalented ones. Then he can pay all the musicians out of his own pocket without having to ask anyone for a dime.
    His parents can house him and support him for the next year, as they are his parents, afterall. Each week he should be able to earn enough to pay back one musician. In 52 weeks, that’s 52 musicians. He is young and able and has friends in a lot of high places. He has relied on his contacts and prestigious family to build a following. Now he must rely on his actual musical talent, likability and work ethic- of which he is lacking, according to many people’s accounts on these forums. Therefore, he must now show commitment to serving the true cause of music. Not just self-glorification. He must put his fellow musicians’ needs ahead of his own now. This will be the determinant of whether he can overcome this debacle or not, and even then there will be no guarantee of his future success, as there are never any guarantees of success in life no matter what you do for a living. At least Mr. Lepauw would be able to have a clean conscience, and regain his self-respect if he pays his debts to his fellow musicians on his own.

  • Insider Musician says:

    I think, Professional Musician made a good point here. George Lepauw is a young man in good health, with a family in Chicago’s affluent Northshore who should be able to provide him with food and shelter. He should make use of his talents and get to work, be it as a piano teacher or pianist, to pay up to his fellow musician colleagues!
    One question to be raised is: where did $100.000 go?
    Certainly not a lump sum of money!