Breaking: Judge dismisses concertmaster’s case against US orchestra

Breaking: Judge dismisses concertmaster’s case against US orchestra


norman lebrecht

February 08, 2020

Holly Mulcahy, who sued the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra for breach of contract after it cancelled her concerto performance, lost her case this week before Judge McVeagh in the Hamilton County General Sessions Court.

Holly has just issued this statement via Slipped Disc:

I am grateful for the opportunity to stand up for employee’s rights. I respect the judge’s decision and, given the heavy reliance on a technicality to secure a dismissal, I am even more confident about my decision to pursue this course. Combined with the outpouring of support from colleagues and patrons, this confirms it was the right choice to make.

While the venue of small claims court doesn’t allow the time needed to fully examine the unique nature of solo agreements, the process afforded the opportunity to introduce the conversation to a broader audience.

Based on an agreement of an engagement this season with the CSO, I declined another performance opportunity because my intention is always to honor my original agreements. Sadly, the CSO executive leadership informed me barely three months before the performance date that they no longer intended to honor that agreement because my individual contract was set to expire and we had yet to reach an extension. This is contrary to the long-established performance of contract activity where all parties work to prepare and execute events a season in advance.

Because the CSO did not abide by the agreement, I made the distressing decision to file a lawsuit for breach of contract.

Unfortunately, I’m not the first musician to be put in this position. A board of directors customarily provides guidance and oversight in order to protect ticket buyers and will correct any executive decision that inflicts financial harm and/or puts the institution at risk. While I am unsure of why that did not transpire here, it broke my heart that the situation reached this point.

As concertmaster of The Chattanooga Symphony & Opera (CSO), I have been proud and excited to share so in many remarkable experiences since 2013. Connecting with listeners and community, growing audiences and contributing to making an inclusive place for someone’s first or 100th concert experience continues to be a career highlight.

My commitment to the CSO’s mission and our patrons is unwavering and, now that this matter is concluded, I am optimistic we can move forward by reopening communications toward reaching an extension for my individual agreement.


The trial lasted six hours. We have no determination yet on costs.

But it has set a precedent for musicians to sue their employer for breach. The next plaintif may get luckier.


  • LewesBird says:

    TL;DR. Can we have a summary of Holly’s novella?

    • Poacher says:

      lazy bum

    • V.Lind says:

      I had to look up your “initial” comment. If seven short paragraphs is “TL,” then I despair of the future literacy of the race. A generation weaned on “reading” Twitter — oblivious to literature or even a newspaper feature or editorial — is set to take over the world. Oh, wait — covfefe — it has already. And look where that is getting us.

      Is the human race destined to have to start from scratch, to go through it all over again? The basics used to be “readin’, writin’, arithmetic.” Today’s “yout” cannot do arithmetic — calculators have meant they did not have to. They do not write — as I heard a dad tell his pre-pubescent daughter once, she did not have to learn to write — all he ever wrote was his signature. (I learned to write before I was five, and had already been reading for a year or more). And now, they can’t even read a few paragraphs because their attention span is so diminished?

      What’s the opposite of Age of Enlightenment?

      • Bruce says:

        In David Mitchell’s weird novel “The Bone Clocks,” he refers to the not-too-distant, post-climate-apocalypse future as “The Endarkenment.”

        • V.Lind says:

          It has started. It began with smartphones, surely the most ironically-named inventions in creation.

          • Sceptical and non-impressed says:

            I suspect they’re called ‘smartphones’ because too many of those who own them are not.

  • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

    “Reopen communications”…?

    I think the Chattanooga Choo Choo left the station on that one.

    Good luck on reaching an agreement on your individual contract.

  • Player says:

    I wish you all the best and although I understand the circumstances, I hope you are no longer employed there. I can only imagine that the situation must now be absolutely impossible.

  • fflambeau says:

    Another loss on a “technicality.” That’s what every loser claims. I am not impressed.

    Why not hear from the other side in a balanced report?

    • Bruce says:

      The “other side” in a case like this doesn’t usually issue public statements, and if they do it’s usually something anodyne like “we are glad to have resolved this issue and are looking forward to moving on.”

      An interview where someone from management would answer pointed questions is highly unlikely, and an “omg you guys, so here’s what happened” post to Slipped Disc even more so.

  • Enquiring Mind says:

    Why was she unable to sign her contract so that she would be an employee at the time of the solo contract? Maybe management got fed up?

    • Bruce says:

      It’s pretty standard practice, if a contract expires while the parties negotiating a new one, to simply extend the terms of the old one after it expires; then the changes, if any, are made retroactive (e.g. if there’s a pay increase, it gets prorated onto future paychecks until it catches up). It happens all the time with orchestra master agreements and professional athletes.

  • French Toast says:

    A real blow to overpaid, mediocre concertmasters everywhere. Sad!

    • Bruce says:

      Have you heard her play? Honest question (I haven’t).

    • Barbara says:

      I too am curious to know if you’ve heard her play. If you have, why not put your name to it? How about saying which concerts and what you heard to back up your claim?

      If you read back through other articles on this from Norman, you’ll find all kinds of testimonials about her musicianship and leadership from her colleagues who weren’t chicken sh*t and put their names to what they had to say. Or maybe you’re just part of management and this is how you get your jollies, LOL.

      • French Toast says:

        Barbra, I’m disappointed but not surprised at the accusation that I’m not using my real name. It’s uncommon, yes, but I’m proud to be French Toast III and I’m sick of the micro aggressions from people who think it’s a joke. Imagine what it’s like growing up in America with a name like this in addition to having a congenital heart defect. I’m starting to think you’re the one with the hole in your heart, Brabara.

        • Barbara says:

          Making some kind of joke while you sling arrows just shows how much of a trolling toad you are. Thanks for letting everyone see it. And we’re still waiting for you to tell everyone which concerts and what you heard to back up your claim. I’m sure you’ve never heard her perform and you’re either a troll getting his jollies or you have some other connection you don’t want exposed.

  • harmony's older brother says:

    Should have signed the individual contract earlier, I guess.

  • Couperin says:

    Gloriously boring finale! Way to put a “victorious” spin on it though. Next time, make sure to sign on the line which is dotted!

  • I’m sure this will soon be behind Holly and the orchestra and that they will make some fine music in Chattanooga.

  • Bad4Business says:

    This can’t be good for her husband Drew’s arts management business. Who could trust him with their contract negotiation after this tremendously bad advice?

    The CSO should put her on the next Chattanooga Choo Choo out of town.

    • TNChooChooDude says:

      You’re right about it being bad for husbands business as a manager. I suspect he was the one driving this the whole time anyway. I imagine things at hone are pretty tense if that were the case.

      • TNChooChooDude Is So Right says:

        OMG YAAAS! Word on the street from my sister who knows someone that had lunch with their neighbor is they yell and scream at each other all the time. I’m glad someone had the courage to mention this.

  • No good deed goes unpunished says:

    It never ceases to amaze me how little people commenting on Norman’s articles actually know about how classical music really works. Let me explain what Ms. Mulcahy is talking about through my own experience. I’m a professional musician and was hired by a big name opera company to be an offstage musician for the entire run of a Wager opera. At the time, they sent me an email with the dates, how much I would be paid each service, travel and lodging reimbursements, etc.

    When the time came to begin rehearsals, the opera company was negotiating a new contract and even though the old one expired, both sides agreed to play and talk. I noticed that my first paycheck seemed low and when I asked the personnel manager about it, he said they were paying subs a lower rate than what I was promised in the email. When I produced a copy of the email with the original amount, he said those were the new rates and the old contract expired. Since a new one wasn’t in place yet, they were going to pay subs the rate they wanted.

    The contract did get settled a few weeks later and even though the sub rate never changed, management still refused to make good on shortchanging me stating the same BS reason: no contract means we don’t have to do it.
    I gave them a commitment and turned down other work that would have ultimately paid more had I known they were going to stiff me on the per service amount. So what’s the message here, no good deed goes unpunished?

    I complained to the union but they were already beat down from the negotiations and didn’t really push very hard saying I would have to file a grievance on my own. As a sub, that would mean I would never be hired again. I had to shut up and take it and the entire experience makes me automatically mistrust anything a manager says because the moment they have a chance, they will screw a musician over.

    I get Ms. Mulcahy’s point and admire her courage. As a sub, I couldn’t stand up for myself but she stood up for all musicians by saying no, you have to honor your agreements and when you don’t there will be consequences. I wish more musicians, and our union, would be this brave.

    • Bone says:

      This is a very reasoned take on the whole affair.
      Wonder what else was involved to produce such a poor result for Holly.

      • TNChooChoodude says:

        Word on the street is she was offered the money she would have received for a single solo performance and she turned it down. Evidently her issue was over a canceled solo performance, not the contract. She spins quite the web it appears.

    • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

      I pity your situation but concertmaster positions are usually outside of the CBA agreement its rank and file musicians. They tend to be positions that are employment at will between the conductor, the management, and the solo artist.

      In this situation, where the concertmaster has to work long term with administration, conducting staff, and board members in more intimate fashion, a lawsuit is really biting the hand the feeds you.

      Not only has she lost the battle, but most likely, lost the war as well.

      At least she has another position to rely on and perhaps can win another titled position with an orchestra at the level of the CSO.

      But my guess is that this was not a good move if she truly wanted to remain in her position and have good communications with those she works after suing her employer.

      • Janet says:

        I don’t know what world you live in but ALL musicians, including concertmasters and other principals, are part of the collective bargaining agreement. Show us ONE verifiable example of a concertmaster not included in the contract.

        Same goes for most orchestra librarians. They aren’t at will employees and even suggesting it demonstrates the type of ignorance that defines orchestra boards today.

        • Bruce says:

          Janet — there was a well-known case several years ago with the Seattle Symphony, where Gerard Schwartz fired Illka Talvi. Talvi protested (I don’t remember if there was a lawsuit) but it turned out that his job was “at the pleasure of” the conductor and there was nothing he could do.

          I also remember that when Zubin Mehta took the New York Philharmonic job, he brought Glenn Dicterow with him from LA. I’m sure there was nothing wrong with his predecessor (Rodney Friend IIRC), but Mehta wanted his guy in the chair.

          • Janet says:

            I remember that dust-up with Talvi but I don’t recall if there was a lawsuit or if the justification was artistic review over an at-will removal. Seattle isn’t an AFM orchestra so I don’t know if they have similar a CBA in that way. But I do wonder if they made a change after that.

            And music directors replace concertmasters all the time, that’s not unusual at all. But they don’t get to tell them to hit the road, they buy out their contract so it doesn’t get ugly. Even in situations where a concertmaster isn’t keeping up, an orchestra will just buy them out to avoid bad PR.

    • V.Lind says:

      Are there no labour relations laws where you live that make contracts binding upon BOTH signatories? Subject to legal penalty if breached? Or is this the route you elected not to challenge dues to professional fears?

      If the latter — if companies routinely ignore the law with impunity for such reasons — they really do have you by the proverbials.

      • No good deed goes unpunished says:

        As a sub, you live in nothing but fear. Fear of irritating the maestro and upsetting management. Yes, I could have challenged it but it would mean never working at that group again. Employers talk and too many are happy to squish subs as favors to other managers.

        I agree, employers do this because they know they can get away with it. I don’t have the time or money to push back. Seeing a musician do it gives me hope.

  • Plush says:

    Oh no! Leave that orchestra immediately. Come back and play in Chicago.

  • Watch out Wichita says:

    Why is there such a deafening silence from the CSO music director and contract musicians? If Holly has suffered a great injustice and she is as beloved as she claims, wouldn’t there be an outcry from especially these people? And yet, not a single public statement of support has been issued by either the music director and/or the contract players (individually or collectively).

    This stands in stark contrast to the recent fiasco involving the dismissal of players from the Grand Teton Music Festival. In that case there was an immediate outpouring of support via petition, signatures, and letters from players of the festival not to mention an incredibly vocal and active artistic director.

    Why isn’t there a similar reaction from the CSO contract players and music director? Makes one wonder how much more there is to this story…

    • Janet says:

      You really don’t know much about how union musicians work do you? They won’t issue public statements when lawsuits are involved.

      As for the music director, she didn’t issue any statements for or against so why don’t you go ask her instead of insinuating something here as it’s just as likely she’s unhappy with management as anything.

      Other articles Norm’s written about this have quite a few comments of support from Holly’s fellow musicians and her Facebook wall is littered with them. So you’re either blind or don’t know what the word “support” really means.

      You sound more like a Chattanooga manager trolling comments under a fake name.

      • Watch out Wichita says:

        Hi Janet, wow, such an accusatory response to a genuine question and observation!
        Union musicians are absolutely free to vocalize support individually for Holly on Facebook or any other social media platform.
        As far as the music director is concerned, you are the one insinuating her displeasure with management. I only noted the contrast between the CSO and the Grand Teton Music Festival.
        Per your argument about social media support, I’ve looked through all of the Slipped Disc articles and Holly’s Facebook posts pertaining to this situation. Based on the current roster from the CSO’s website, I have yet to find one post or comment of support from an actual contract member. Please point me in the direction of one that I may have missed. I never said that she was not receiving support from other colleagues or musicians, just not CSO contract holders which seems strange.
        Also to use a handicap as an insult is just poor form. Not only does it do a great disservice to those who are blind, but it also distracts from an honest question.
        On the subject of fake names, that seems to be a long-standing tradition on this web page. Besides, you haven’t exactly been forthcoming with your own identity.

        • Mary says:

          I couldn’t be more angry at this comment. I am a CSO musician and can say that everyone has been uneasy with the way the management has handled this. You don’t see many of us standing up in public because we are afraid of repercussions. Our music director never goes against the management either so no one is surprised she’s mute.

          The Tetons is a summer festival, it’s not a read-round job so there’s far less to lose by speaking up. And if what I read is true, that executive director got caught lying to his board about what the music director said.

          Our executive director lies to us all the time so I wonder how much more there is to the story. And you shouldn’t discount all of the support our very own audience members are showing her. They don’t have to worry about becoming a target. I’m pretty sure more than a few are large donors and I’m very worried they are going to leave thanks to the way our management has been handling this.

          We were just getting back up on our feet and feeling good about ourselves again after Holly arrived. Now I’m afraid the way our management is behaving will cause us to to throw everything away.

        • Harold Kupper says:

          W.O.W. you clearly have too much time on your hands or you have a vested interest in sliming Ms. Mulchay with your negative comments. Holly, from all indications, did everything she could to avoid going down the lawsuit road here. The CSO management (which dollars to donuts you’re a part of) left her little choice with their hard ball attitude. To many being a musician is more than a job, it’s an avocation, and I’ve observed Holly work enthusiastically to build connections in the larger community whenever wherever she is involved.
          At a certain point you’re forced to say “enough is enough” and stand up for your musical values and personal and artistic integrity.
          I’ve heard Holly perform as soloist, in chamber music and shared the same stand in the violin section. She’s a gifted musician, supportive colleague and a passionate and tireless community builder.
          A true “connector.”
          It’s a shame that other women in leadership (like W.O.W) are threatened by her presence and strong voice.
          Just because someone writes a big check to build a wing on the hospital doesn’t give them the right to dictate how medicine should be practiced.
          There’s also something very “Trumpy” about stiffing someone out of their fee and using deep pockets to intimidate people into silence.
          They will never understand that some things aren’t for sale.

          • friend of harold says:

            Harold Kupper died many years ago. Maybe 20 years? How could he have sat in the section with Holly in Chattanooga?

  • Chills says:

    I wouldn’t dream of returning to an orchestra with colleagues like this! Can you imagine what her first rehearsal back will be like? She’s going to stand to get an A from the oboe and will look into the eyes of an entire orchestra who didn’t offer a scrap of public support during her absence. Then she will have to turn and shake the hand of a likewise silent music director. Gives me the chills just thinking about it…

    • Janet says:

      Really? Go look at her Facebook page and the comments from her actual colleagues and you’ll see none of them share your opinion. There’s nothing but repeated support and admiration. Your comment sounds so much like the “Watch out Wichita” troll, you’re certainly the same bully manager.

      Which would you trust: the words of a comment troll or words of support coming from actual musicians leaving their names?

    • Dear Chills,

      You might not dream of returning. It says more about who you are rather than who Holly is…

      It is clear you do not know this woman or how she deals respectfully with her colleagues. You have no insight into – or understanding of – her character, family, life experiences, motivations, or reputation. Holly builds bridges rather than demolishes them.

      She would return because she fully appreciates the extent of support she has across the full spectrum of CSO constituents in Chattanooga and the job there is yet to do to make this symphony a regionally important institution. She reads people well. She fully knows the depth of support she has in this community and it is not measured by likes and dislikes, thumbs up or thumbs down, or quick blogsite outbursts. Not everyone does their communicating with her through social media.

      Holly would be a healer and a helper, attracting outstanding people to join in the work – and this community would appreciate it very much – in stark contrast to executive and board leadership who are unaccountable and have an agenda that has little to do with stewardship of the CSO for the benefit of the entire community.