Concertmaster who’s suing her orchestra is taken off stage

Concertmaster who’s suing her orchestra is taken off stage


norman lebrecht

November 10, 2019

We hear that the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera season is going ahead without the leadership of Holly Mulcahy, who is suing the orchestra for breach of contract over the cancellation of a solo engagement.

Holly has not performed since April 25, and audiences have begin to notice.

One board member has resigned over the CSO’s mishandling of a straightforward issue. Its Executive Director Samantha Teter is speaking only through lawyers. It’s not a great way to run a candy store.

Holly Mulcahy has, by contrast, issued her side of things via Slipped Disc:

I can’t begin to express how much it means to hear from so many of the CSO’s patrons and supporters. I want everyone to know that I’d love nothing more than to return to the stage to be among my colleagues and continue to be a part of the Chattanooga community. Being absent has been heartbreaking.

When I came to Chattanooga seven years ago, I felt strongly that this was the right community, in the right place, at the right time to accomplish something special. Everyone from my talented and supportive colleagues on stage, to the music director, principal pops conductor, chorus director, CSO staff, and board were focused on not only maximizing community potential, but creating something that is more than the sum of its parts. Something that represented the unique nature of the city and its residents.

Since so many of you have been asking about where things are, I wanted to provide some backstory to help explain how I think things can move forward in a positive fashion. Upon accepting the position in 2013, the then executive director acknowledged that the concertmaster position was underfunded and that she planned to grow the position to what it should be. My commitment to those efforts included increased fundraising and community engagement efforts.

We made wonderful progress over those years but recent changes to executive leadership have modified that vision and redefined what those leaders believe the concertmaster’s role should be. I fully acknowledge and respect those decisions are theirs to make although I am disappointed they were made without input from me or any of the orchestra’s artistic leadership. As of now, the only thing preventing everyone from moving forward, is finalizing the terms of my individual contract. The key issue is how many concerts per year I’m able to provide.

During my contract negotiations the CSO’s executive leadership asked me to guarantee that I’ll be at the majority of masterworks and chamber concerts. I agreed to those terms and for the 19/20 season confirmed I could perform 5/7 masterworks and 2/3 chamber concerts plus two additional pops concerts. Early in the negotiations, we reached a written agreement on this term. Regrettably, the CSO revoked that written offer without explanation and began moving the goalpost toward even higher commitments. They went so far as to insisting on a full-time commitment for part-time pay.

The good news is the situation is not beyond remedy and I am optimistic we can reach an amicable resolution. Every other term in the individual agreement for my concertmaster contract is settled. I even proposed, and they accepted, financial concessions as a sweetener to help settle the deal. All that’s needed is for the CSO’s executive leadership to accept that I’ve given them what they asked for: a commitment to perform at a majority of masterworks and chamber events along with extra pops concerts.

I hope this can be resolved quickly and amicably and I can return to the orchestra and the city I love.

Holly is also concertmaster in Wichita



  • This seems to be a disagreement or misunderstanding about commitment to a job and an orchestra. The idea that a key musician of an ensemble would only play part of the concerts can be problematic. Did these problems arise because Holly added Witchita to her schedule thus limiting the time she could commit to Chattanooga? Is the solution for Chattanooga to fulfill its contractual obligations to the end of Holly’s contract, and then look for a concertmaster who can commit the time to the orchestra that management wants?

    • christopher storey says:

      William Osborne : a written agreement is a written, enforceable, contract . The concertmaster states unequivocally that the managers revoked that agreement . That is a breach of contract. Further, the concertmaster states that the managers want her to work full time for part time pay . Do you consider that she should do that ?

      • Yes, that’s what Holly states. Management might see the facts differently. I don’t think they would be going to court empty handed. In any case, as I note in my comment, the orchestra should fulfill its contractual obligations. I hope this will all be soon resolved.

        • JPAULO says:

          Part time regional orchestras that employ free lance musicians nearly always have members missing certain concerts. You need to juggle 4 or 5 groups of this level to add up to a full time living wage. It actually makes all regional orchestras better. It might sound counter intuitive, but free lancers can be much better players playing full time. Playing several different groups allows this. If they played 7 times a year, no matter how well they got paid, skills would slip. Many regional orchestras can give smaller full time groups a good run for the money quality wise. They have a sub pool to draw from, so while not ideal to not have all the same players in every concert, the quality is still very high. Even major orchestras use subs a lot.

      • Enquiring Mind says:

        A written offer was revoked. That doesn’t sound like a contract, which must be signed by both parties. Meanwhile, the CSO is probably realizing they can get by without her?

        • christopher storey says:

          Enquiring mind : a written offer, once accepted, cannot be revoked without the consent of the other party . The principles of offer and acceptance are the same in all the Common Law countries . The management will be taken to the cleaners by her

        • fflambeau says:

          If there was a “meeting of the minds”, with spedificity as to impotant details (time, reimbursement) there was an enforceable contract in effect. It seems to me that the concertmaster is correct and will prevail in the law courts if it comes to that. I might add that not only am I a lawyer but I have taught contract law.

    • Bill says:

      You know that the Berlin Phil has a quartet of concertmasters, and you only see 1 or 2 on any given concert, right? Are they not key musicians?

      • william osborne says:

        Chattanooga only has one. And Berlin probably does 50 times as many concerts, or something to that effect.

        • Bill says:

          All irrelevant to your point:

          “The idea that a key musician of an ensemble would only play part of the concerts can be problematic.”

          A professional orchestra does not crumple like a wet paper bag just because the usual concertmaster is out for a set or two.

  • Anon says:

    The unspoken underbelly of this situation, I believe, is that the disagreement coincides with Ms. Mulcahy’s acceptance of the Concertmaster position in Wichita, the same position which she’d hoped to hold simultaneously in Chattanoga. If I’m wrong here, I hope that anyone in the know will correct me.

    This move raised a few eyebrows when it was announced, but given the situation of smaller orchs in the US, which strive for quality but can’t afford to pay full time salaries, it’s kind of a necessity for any concertmaster of repute. A small orch. like Chattanooga can’t realistically expect exclusivity on the salary it pays.

    If I’m reading this right, although it hasn’t been said directly, it looks like Chattanooga’s mgmt. is bucking against the fact that Holly is now serving as Concertmaster in Wichita. They want exclusivity. Given the salary they are probably prepared to pay, unfortunately, I don’t believe they’re in a position to demand that.

    I support Holly, but you’ve got to admit it’s rather unprecedented situation. Although I see the necessity, it’s a first for a concertmaster with a high social media profile which has been linked consistently to one orch (albeit a small one) to suddenly accept an identical position in another small orchestra. I can sympathize with Chattanooga’s mgmt. on this. It’s a timely comment on the state of small US orchestras, but it’s a new concept.

    A big factor here is her expansive presence on social media. She’s positioned herself to be able to sway public opinion thru her connections with this blog, her own blog and her unusually adept use of social media in general. It puts Chattanooga mgmt. at a distinct disadvantage in this situation.

    I admired the fact that when this announcement about the conflict first came out, that Holly abstained from bringing the topic into any social media commentary. She was very discrete, as was her husband, another important classical music influencer. I thought that was classy, wise, ethical and an overall good decision. I am not convinced that explaining her point of view via Slipped Disc is a particularly good idea. In any case, I wish her only the best in resolving this conflict.

    • SVM says:

      Mulcahy’s absence is being noticed; in those circumstances, it is entirely reasonable for her to make a public statement clarifying the reasons for this. Nowadays, remaining silent amid public speculation and gossip often gives rise to the assumption that one is guilty or in the wrong (this is evident from many of the comment-threads in Slipped Disc — for example, when Malcahy’s concerto appearance was cancelled, several people impugned the competence of the conductor, until he posted a statement clarifying that he had nothing to do with the cancellation).

      In a world where the balance of power between the individual employee/freelancer and the corporate employer/customer is still all too often skewed in favour of the latter, it is perverse to begrudge instances of a highly skilled individual having a prominent platform to tell his/her side of the story (although I certainly do begrudge the unaccountable power of the American multinational companies who enjoy /de facto/ monopoly status on so-called “social media” — this is one of the many reasons why I persist in refusing to ever use “social media” myself). Mulcahy’s statement as printed in the Slipped Disc article comes across as measured and professional.

      • Anon says:

        To SVM, how would you respond to her taking it to social media if you were Chattanooga management? How can they possibly respond fairly and professionally in a labor dispute with an employee who is taking her point of view public before a decision has been reached?

        I’m afraid you’ve reversed the perceived roles here. Once a musician like Holly takes her point of view public using her social media presence (please keep in mind also that her husband, Drew McManus, publishes one of the most respected daily classical music journals in the US), against a small town orchestra like Chattanooga, it’s Goliath vs. David. The orchestra is the underdog here – they are David, not Holly.

        It’s not a fair fight. It’s not ethical, in my opinion, for her to be discussing this via social media right now. The orchestra has no possible way of countering that, of presenting their side. As a professional, I believe that she should trust in the legal system, and show discretion in not discussing the case publicly before it’s been resolved.

        In cases involving major US orchestras you don’t usually see the players bringing their point of view to social media. There have been serious legal situations recently in Boston Symph and NYPhil, for example, situations in which prominent players have also been noticeable absent at concerts. The orchestra says nothing. The players say nothing. They allow the legal process to take its course without the benefit of social media influence. Once there’s a resolution, yes, that is made public. That would be my professional expectation in Holly’s situation with Chatanooga as well.

        • Drew McManus says:

          It’s worth pointing out an article in the 11/8/19 edition of the Chattanooga Times Free Press by Barry Courter. The article reports that orchestra patrons on social media are asking about Holly’s absence.

          The reporter reached out to the orchestra’s executive director, Holly, and a CSO board member who resigned as a result of how the orchestra handled Holly’s individual agreement negotiations.

          Here was the orchestra’s response: “CSO Executive Director Samantha Teter referred all questions to attorney John Konvalinka, who didn’t return phone calls made over several days seeking comment for this story.”

          You can read the full article here:

          The orchestra has been responding to patrons contacting the orchestra directly asking why Holly hasn’t been at concerts. They’ve had no problem replying to those inquiries with misleading information while never providing Holly an opportunity to communicate with the patron. Fortunately, many of those same patrons end up reaching out to Holly directly thanks to how accessible she is across social media.

          So if there’s any imbalance, it certainly favors the employer, not the employee.

          Keep in mind, the individual agreement written about here and in the newspaper article is mutually exclusive from the lawsuit. You’ll notice in the Times Free Press article Holly makes that distinction and refrains from offering any comment on those matters. Granted, from the outside looking in, it’s easy to see how the two can be confused but I think the reporter did a very good job at making that distinction, as did Mr. Lebrecht.

        • Anon says:

          As a caveat let me add that I stand with Holly 100%. Part time orchestras should not be lording it over players who by necessity have to hold other positions. Yes, that needs to be said. But I’m not convinced that social media or Slipped Disc is the best way to go with this right now. It cheapens the message.

          Look, it sounds like Holly has a a strong contractual case against Chattanooga. Let that stand. Let the lawyers do their jobs. Have faith in the legal system. So she’s not there right now. Not a big a big deal. Lots of players “aren’t there” in orchestras around the world. Getting everyone riled up on social media when there’s a legal case pending just isn’t a classy or even a very professional way to approach this, IMHO. Holly is someone with high standards who other musicians look up to as a role model. I’ve always admired her, and I know that she’s above this. WIshing her much success and a swift resolution.

          • Drew McManus says:

            I can certainly say that Holly was content with remaining quiet and I’m sure would agree, it’s an option that should only be considered after everything else has been exhausted. Having said that, once patrons and reporters start asking questions, they deserve answers. Keeping patrons in the dark is a disservice and they deserve the transparency.

            Keep in mind, Holly’s individual agreement (related to her not being on stage for regular concerts) is mutually exclusive from the lawsuit. Granted, it’s easy to confuse but rest assured, the issue moving through small claims court is indeed being handled by attorneys and not across social media.

      • Larry W says:

        Despite your saying you “persist in refusing to ever use ‘social media,’ you now use Slipped Disc to misrepresent comments about the conductor of the cancelled concerto. Not much truth here.

  • drummerman says:

    When Slipped Disc first report about Ms. Mulcahy (September, I think) it said that her lawsuit was about failing to perform a concerto with the Symphony. At least that’s what I recall. Now it seems that there is a totally different thing in dispute, ie., her availability to play more concerts.

    I’m not a lawyer but is it possible that a “written agreement” is something different than a binding, legal contract? I mean something like a “memorandum” or “memorandum of agreement” or “letter of intent.”

    Let’s hope that they can resolve this immediately so she can get back to making music.

  • Simon says:

    I’m sure all of the other players are just thrilled with this situation.

  • Robert says:

    Chattanooga has both “A” contract and “B” contract players, “A” being principals. “A” do not really function as free-lancers because they are expected to play (and are guaranteed to be paid) all 198 services per year, the total amount for the Symphony. (“B” players are guaranteed only 90 services per year.) Of course, they are free to take other employment when not with Chattanooga.

    One has to assume that the Concertmaster would be an “A” type contract, ie. expected to play everything unless a separate contract is negotiated which is what Ms. Mulcahy apparently has.

    BTW, no one considers her husband to be an “important classical music influencer.” He’s proclaimed himself to be an expert on orchestra management even though he’s never managed an orchestra in his life.

    • Drew McManus says:

      Robert, you are correct in that Chattanooga is uses a tiered musician structure. They have four levels: A, B, C+, and C. However, your assumption that the concertmaster and several other principals comprise that top tier is not accurate. Currently, 44% of principals are not A-contract level; the concertmaster is a B-contract level position while the remaining seven principals are B, C+, or C contract level musicians.

      Moreover, your assumption that the concertmaster, or any musician for that matter, are expected to “play everything” unless negotiated in an individual agreement is not only inaccurate, but the opposite of what typically exists at per-service orchestras.
      The orchestra’s collective bargaining agreement disallows any minimum commitment from musicians (including the concertmaster) and maintains a long-standing policy to let musicians out of accepted services should they be offered higher paying jobs elsewhere or need to attend an audition at a higher paying orchestra, provided the musicians submit requests within a given time frame. These provisions are common throughout per-service level orchestras.

      All of this was made clear by the orchestra’s previous executive when they offered Holly the position several years ago. The executive director at that time was very transparent, acknowledged the concertmaster should be an A-contract level position, and was committed to growing it to that level. That executive and Holly agreed to work together to bring that about and during the executive’s time with the orchestra, they made terrific progress. Holly was able to devote increased numbers of services across seasons during that period.

      Since then, the current leadership has decided to no longer pursue that goal. They ceased growing the position in both wage and service commitments beyond the B-contract level cap. And even though the collective bargaining agreement disallows minimum commitments from musicians, Holly kindly agreed to provide the orchestra with a guaranteed service commitment that would satisfy their desire for the concertmaster to perform for a majority of masterworks and chamber concerts. For example, she would have been able to perform 5/7 masterworks this season, 2/3 chamber concerts, as well as two additional pops concerts this season.

      • Robert says:

        Thank you very much for this additional information. But I find it odd that the principals are not being paid the highest, ie. “A” level. I wish Ms. Mulcahy well.

      • Vaquero357 says:

        Thus Drew demonstrates a high degree of knowledge about how “per service” regional orchestras work. As he would because he’s a full-time professional arts management consultant for whose services there is, I believe, a fair amount of demand. {;-)

  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    It’s confusing. I first thought it was about a concerto appearance that was canceled. It seems to be more than that.

    But about having two concertmaster positions, why not? Conductors have more than one position so why not overscale/titled musicians who have the skill set to be in demand as section leader?

  • Larry W says:

    As we learned September 1 on Slipped Disc, Holly Mulcahy is suing the orchestra for breach of contract over the cancellation of a solo engagement.

    Following silence regarding that lawsuit, Mulcahy has now “issued her side of things via Slipped Disc.” She talks about her contract as concertmaster, but still says nothing about the ongoing lawsuit. Perhaps she has been advised not to.

    It would appear that the difficulties over her contract as concertmaster are directly related to her lawsuit. If so, it would not be the first case of retaliation for questioning an administrative decision.

  • Plush says:

    Activists draw attention and agreement or disagreement. Holly is the highest profile kind of activist. She is an easy target to punish and she lost out to those with power and with the money. It’s that simple. On the other subject of her cancelled soloist turn, perhaps she can collect something more than her usual fee in court.