Exclusive: Why Cleveland fired the Cavani Quartet

Our string quartet diarist Anthea Kreston has been investigating both sides of the year’s ugliest chamber music incident. Here’s her report:
String quartets are complicated structures. Each has a unique DNA as well as a specific and well-tended collection of interconnected things which sustain it financially, musically, and emotionally. Last week, the much-beloved Cavani Quartet suffered a devastating blow – the Cleveland Institute of Music, which had employed them for 30 years, terminated their contract, severing a relationship that had grown and flourished for these long years, and which had provided the solid foundation on which the Cavani could build their lives, providing a home where they could flourish and become integral parts of their communities.

The Cleveland Institute of Music is a leading music school in America, with a prestigious faculty and state-of-the-art facilities. It also had something which no other school in the States had – the legacy of chamber music teaching which reached beyond the nuts-and-bolts. A philosophy which teaches music as a path to becoming a better person – more empathetic, more honest, and with an understanding that each of us can find a path in the musical world – every person has a voice which is needed and special. The Cavani Quartet perfectly embodies these principles, and judging by the outpouring of support by colleagues and former students, their outrage and disbelief – their anger and mobilisation – these words speak to the deep impact that this extraordinary Quartet has has on the musical world. Furthermore, their current and former students have garnered a multitude of successes – from the international competition circuit to educators and music advocates.

And yet, the nobility of the response of the Quartet itself speaks volumes. You hear the pain in their voices, how this has affected their families and threatened their existence, but they remain strong, loving, and kind.

The Cavani sent me this statement: ‘The love we share with the students, and faculty whose lives have been intertwined with ours through the power of music for the past thirty years is a treasure and has been a life preserver in this really tough time. We were stunned by this – we had called the meeting last Monday to let President Hogle and Dean Bundra know that we had accepted the resignation of our cellist from the quartet and immediately after hearing this news from us, we were informed of the plan to sever our affiliation with CIM, including Preparatory, Young Artists Program and Case West en Reserve University students. As you can imagine we were in complete shock. The official CIM email came out immediately  thereafter.’

A Cleveland colleague, violinist Gabe Kitayama-Bolkosky, adds: ‘The problem is symptomatic. Somehow, universities and conservatories have decided that rather than being temples of learning, where they develop young people into deep artists who have an understanding of the human condition, they need to create commodities that “win” competitions. The problem is that winning is not what music education is about. It’s about depth of character and using long practiced skills to move people.

‘This is what the Cavani quartet stood for to all of us. Creating music could be a process that lasts a lifetime and if all of us stayed with it, we could become a true artist, a Donald Weilerstein, a Peter Salaff, a Martha Katz, a Paul Katz. Most of us did not get into this business to hobnob with the “best.” We wanted to learn to contribute in meaningful ways to our fellow musicians and audiences because Music served us that way. It soothed our hearts and healed our souls. CIM has now joined the fold and is looking for teachers who teach to external results rather than the long search that an artist’s life is about. Its the dark side. It leads to suffering for many musicians, no matter how talented or successful. It sends a message to thousands of young people that there is likely not enough room in the field for them. This is most tragic and will have sad repercussions for the school and our community.’

Reaching CIM for clarification was not easy, but they provided me with this: ‘As I’m sure you can imagine, this is a complex situation with a lot of nuance. It’s also a personnel matter, which means there is very little we can say publicly by way of explanation. I can only provide the following statement from President & CEO Paul W. Hogle and Dean & Chief Academic Officer Judy Bundra, PhD:

“Last week, we learned that the Cavani Quartet had released their cellist; he joined the Quartet last summer from the University of Central Florida preceded by Indiana University. With the Quartet now at another personnel transition point (after two members left in 2016), CIM decided it was now time for a different direction. After much discussion and deliberation, and with the full support of Trustee leadership, CIM decided to end its relationship with the Cavani Quartet.

“The chamber music program at CIM remains under the leadership of the esteemed Peter Salaff, a founding member of the Cleveland Quartet and a fixture in our community. Members of our incredibly talented string faculty — many of whom have deep chamber music experience and are eager to work with students in that setting — will be coaching ensembles. We are also exploring multi-year partnerships with other professional string chamber music groups to provide a contemporary performance perspective. Words alone cannot fully describe the impact the Cavani Quartet has had on CIM over the past 30 years. While there will be time to celebrate, thank, and congratulate them, we want to add our admiration for three decades of imprint on a generation of CIM alumni.”‘

Please note the difference in time-lines presented by the Cavani and CIM. The discrepancy is a cause for concern.

I have been inundated with messages this week as I began to investigate this story. My inboxes are overflowing with testaments. Social media is exploding with anger over this CIM decision – letters are being written, plans being made. Who is to say if there is a path back for this unique and passionate Quartet – but there is no doubt that there is an ever-growing and strengthening “circling of the wagons” around these amazing souls.

Much in this story remains to be told: why the cellist quit, why CIM reacted in such peremptory fashion, whether Hogle – who has a history of confrontation with musicians – was the driving force. We expect these details to emerge in the coming days. This is a first attempt to lay out the two sides of the story.

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  • Three personnel changes within 2 years? Then it is not the same quartet that was hired originally.

    Add to the mix that conservatories are on a kick to teach “entrepreneurial” skills as part of their chamber music programs and tilting to unique instrumental combinations that feature accessible contemporary music, this should not come as a surprise.

    I too lament that so much of music making is focused on the prevalence of competitions rather than developing well rounded and complete musicians.

    But for an academic institution that is competing with Julliard and Curtis for the very top talent, hiring teachers and faculty with a proven record of students winning the top competitions is part of how perspective students and parents will evaluate the institution.

  • Need to be clear whether “it” or “they.” It is 34 years old. Annie Fullard and Mari Sato may have been members for 30 years. The two guys look barely 30 themselves. If Si-Yan Darren Li was “released,” as CIM says, then his story will have had an impact on Hogle and Bundra’s decision. If Fullard and Sato lost two other old members two years ago, maybe that was the moment to fold the Cavani. Why should they be free to hire and fire on CIM’s dime when a quartet comprises four equals?

  • This sounds like an economic decision. Not only do prospective students and parents make enrollment decisions on how many competitions a school’s students win, as Old Man says, but the individual donors may base their donations on it also, as well as grant making foundations and government departments (state arts endowment, state education dept. etc.) that fund the conservatory.

    In addition the conservatory may just have been trying to make budget cuts and one of the easiest ways to do it may be to cut a quartet where at least some of the musicians do not have tenure.

  • While I am sorry for the Cavani Quartet, I would imagine CIM will hire another fine group. They are not that difficult to find. As to CIM having some magic formula for chamber music, as something that builds human beings, that is fairly preposterous. All of the top schools have fine chamber music programs.

  • If the criteria for parents in choosing a music school is who has students winning competitions, they have missed the point entirely. This attitude should be discouraged, not supported by institutions like CIM. Winning a competition does not a career make, as countless musicians will attest. The outpouring of support for Cavani speaks volumes, and no matter the reasons given for firing them professional career musicians know better than anyone else what is important in music education. This should never be about “economics”, and this is coming from someone with massive student loan debt. The skills I have learned from caring mentors like Cavani are the ones that contribute greatly to any success I have and will have in the profession.

    This is why we need more musicians in higher administrative positions! Far too much bottom line thinking for our future musicians…

    • You are so right! It’s such a sad situation and the way they were let go was anything but diplomatic or fairly explained.

  • As a student, I admired the Cavani Quartet as passionate and intense chamber musicians who possessed a talent for communicating with colleagues, students and audiences with openness, authenticity and humor. I remember participating in coachings of an Opus 18 Beethoven quartet; in addition to being a focussed and meaningful opportunity to study and perform, the experience was incredibly fun. Over the years, their extraordinary dedication has enabled the Cavani Quartet to exercise a profound and lasting influence upon the many young string players fortunate enough to encounter them at CIM.

  • Just as you don’t know what’s going on in anyone else’s marriage (thank goodness; one’s own is quite enough), only the members of an ensemble fully understand its dynamics and inner workings. I am grieved that the school has chosen to let go of such an invaluable asset as the Cavani, and I earnestly hope that another school will snatch them up!

  • I am an alumni cellist of CIM, I wanted to touch upon the mentions of “winning.” It should be noted that CIM quartets under the tutelage of the Cavani Quartet and Peter Salaff frequently compete and win prizes in preeminent chamber music competitions. Just this past May, in fact, both collegiate and Young Artist Program quartets from CIM won Gold and Silver in their respective divisions at the Fischoff Competition.

    I 100% agree that the Cavani’s impact reaches far beyond the winning of competitions, and I feel unbelievably grateful to have experienced their impact over my several years at the institution. Their genuine desire is to nurture musicians to embrace camaraderie and a deep, unlimited study of the score, encourage and assist students in constructing outreach performances, collaborate as loving humans, and much more. Their legacy draws from these invaluable actions, but it should also not be forgotten that they have worked tirelessly to produce proven success for their groups that desire such acknowledgement and leave them with the most effective rehearsal techniques to continue flourishing.

  • Just as one doesn’t really know what goes on in other people’s marriages (thank goodness; one’s own is quite enough), those of us outside of an ensemble really don’t know the whys and wherefores of why members join or leave. What is clear to me, though, is that CIM is losing an invaluable asset in letting go of this wonderful quartet–and I sure hope another institution is smart enough to snatch them up!

    Concerned Pianist

  • ” ….looking for teachers who teach to external results rather than the long search that an artist’s life is about. Its the dark side. ..” Sadly, this is becoming the trademark of all education, not only in music, across western institutions starting from elementary school.

  • As an alumni of CIM and its string chamber music program, I may be in the minority, but I’ve long been critical of the Cavanis and their program. The program is great for a few select students with personalities that endear them to the quartet members, but for the rest of us there was little thought to developing us as chamber musicians and we were basically given the bare minimum of coaching in groups thrown together in a slapdash fashion to fulfill our graduation requirements.

    Almost as importantly, compared with the quartets in residence at other leading conservatories, the Cavanis just aren’t all that good. Their concerts were regularly underprepared and unpolished. It’s telling that if you look at their concert schedule you’ll find very few appearances outside of Ohio, and fewer still in any major city other than Cleveland.

    • Thank you for your remarks, I completely agree with you. I am also a string player alumnus, and I felt the same while studying there – not impressed by the overall chamber music program at CIM.

  • I have performed my poetry with the Cavani String Quartet since 1990 both locally, as well as nationally. I am simply stunned that CIM would sever their relationship with such giving and gifted artists. It is especially unconscionable the way it was done. Unfortunately, hypocrisy and treachery are no strangers to the world of the music.

  • Just looking at this article. The entire premise here is very weak. CIM has something in the Cavani that no other similar school had? Virtually every leading conservatory has a resident string quartet, some with tenures longer than the Cavani Quartet and bigger careers. The Juilliard? American String Quartet…I could go on. I tend to see it in a different way, how nice it was that the Cavani Quartet had such a nice long residency. My guess is that another quartet will be appointed and that it was just time for a change. I hope the Cavani Quartet will do well in this transition. Maybe there’s another institution that will be interested in them.

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