Investigating the Seattle Symphony train wreck

Investigating the Seattle Symphony train wreck


norman lebrecht

January 15, 2022

Doug McLennan, founder of, is a former orchestral player and a responsible journalist who lives in Seattle.

When Seattle’s music director quit his job by email, it was inevitable that Doug would want to dig deeper. But the Seattle Symphony battened down doors and windows. Nobody in charge will offer him a comment. Nobody else will speak, except off the record.

That has not stopped Doug from piecing together a devastating portrait of an orchestra in disarray.

Sample quote:

What raises red flags though, what is extraordinary about Dausgaard’s departure, is the manner in which he ended his relationship with the orchestra – in the middle of a season, effective immediately, and barely a month before he was about to embark on the first installment of a two-year Sibelius cycle, his passion project. Yes, music directors quit all the time, but virtually never in the middle of a season and, in the modern era, not effective immediately.

That’s what we know for sure. You will notice throughout this attempt to piece together the story behind the fiery departure is that there aren’t names attached to the stories. In contentious internal organizational situations, the zone quickly floods with gossip and inuendo. Of the some two dozen people interviewed for this story, only one agreed to go on the record. “That right there ought to tell you something about how bad a situation this is,” says one former board member before promptly going off the record. “This is a train wreck.”

Read on here.

If this were a listed company, you would sell your shares. Now.

UPDATEL Meanwhile, at Dausgaard’s other orchestra…


  • Paula Kranberg says:

    McLennon was a concert pianist, not an orchestral player.

  • John Porter says:

    Would anything right now surprise anyone in this era of COVID? People are off kilter. It’s not like the days of Gerard Schwarz terrorizing people in Seattle.

  • Peter San Diego says:

    A very sad story all around, even without resolving the competing narratives. What seems objective fact, though, is that the usual public-relations aspect of Dausgaard’s role as Music Director was greatly curtailed, even before the pandemic. That suggests a problem from the start of his tenure — though who is responsible remains an open question, judging from both Mr. McLennan’s article and the comments thereto.

  • Monsoon says:

    The article doesn’t really answer any questions. While it paints a damning portrait of the orchestra’s President and the board’s oversight of him, his behavioral issues where with administrative staff — there are few interactions between him and Dausgaard detailed.

    The article does note that Dausgaard wasn’t provided a personal assistant like his predecessor, but shouldn’t that have been something he negotiated for in his contract? Or isn’t this someone that his management company should provide to support him with all of his activity (I mean, it doesn’t seem like each orchestra a conductor works at provides them an assistant)?

    It also says that his ideas to get out into the community and meet with donors was dismissed; without knowing what exactly he proposed, maybe he had really terrible ideas? (I also doubt that the fundraising team would intentionally not have him meet with donors to help land major gifts.)

  • Donna Pasquale says:

    Scottish friends tell me that the departure of former RSNO chief executive Krishna Thiagarajan was warmly welcomed amid suggestions of a very unpleasant working atmosphere.
    Maybe that’s why Dausgard left?

  • Concerned patron says:

    There is nothing responsible about Doug’s “journalism.” This is a hit piece fueled by cowards who were unwilling to go on the record with their real names.

  • Oregonian says:

    Seattle bailed out of the American Federation of Musicians long ago. Nowadays, the Symphony is made up of quite a few antivaxxers as well. Wise of him to stay away.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Just play the music. Let someone else wave the stick. It’s an opportunity for someone else to step up. Sure, some conductors are better than others, but they’re basically a necessary evil. A middle man. Focus on the music.

    • BrianB says:

      How can one focus on the music in such an atmosphere promoted by Thiagarajan? I can’t imagine any self-respecting artist taking that job with him and his enablers there.

  • Nick2 says:

    That the Boards of arts organisations are often a collective disaster waiting to happen (anyone mention the Met??) is hardly new. In this case, the Board members each seem to be a collection of individual disasters starting with the Chairman.

    The appointment of Krishna Thiagarajan must have seemed an ideal one given what on paper seems an impressive track record. It’s hard to get a handle on his relations with Dausgaard, but the way he has handled his senior administration staff surely exhibits more than serious flaws,. This is especially true when one looks at the impressive appointments they moved on to. If Elena Dubinets was suddenly so bad she had to be placed on administrative leave before resigning, how is it that she is proving herself a more than able artistic administrator of the London Philharmonic? These departures should have been a very large red flag to any competent Board.

    Thiagarajan’s people management skills are clearly defective. That the Board should find the complaints against him so serious they formed a committee that met in a lawyer’s office to consider them is bad enough. Any competent administrator would probably have resigned at that point.

    Having got past that point, though, how many capable and professional CEOs would have meekly accepted the Board’s decision to subject themselves to working with a “professional executive coach” to improve his skills? I once managed a symphony orchestra. If that had been foisted on me, I would immediately have resigned. I had been appointed by a Committee of Board members. Had they been unhappy with my work and we had failed to work out the reasons why, I would immediately have resigned. What in Thiagarajan’s character, I wonder, made him accept this? I can work out no reason.

    That he remains in his position is probably far less to do with the orchestra and its playing standards and much more to the fact that, as a result of covid19, its finances are now in much better shape. Given his overall track record, my view is that he and most of his Board should be fired.

    • NotToneDeaf says:

      If you had really managed an orchestra, as you claim, you would know that board members are volunteers and can’t be “fired.” You must have been a poor manager indeed if you don’t understand something this basic.

      • Nick2 says:

        I did indeed manage an orchestra for eight years. And my Board members could indeed be fired. Several were political appointees and more than one was fired from serving on the Board during my time.

        Please do not assume that you know how all orchestras are run. This varies in different parts of the world.

  • Anthony Guterwicz says:

    Gerard Schwartz planted the seeds of toxicity within this orchestra during his tenure as MD.

  • BigSir says:

    Excellently documented article. Completely changed my perception of the real problem.

  • BrianB says:

    Excellent reporting by McLennan.

  • NotToneDeaf says:

    1) McLennan seems to think that Dausgaard is “unwell” because he makes claims about feeling unsafe and threatened. How out of touch is he to think that men can’t legitimately have these feelings? 2) Why does anyone think McLennan is an “expert” in the area of orchestra management? Has he ever been involved with a major orchestra in any capacity? I wish the industry would stop giving this know-nothing poseur a platform. 3) Anyone remotely connected to the orchestra business knows that Thiagarajan has a reputation for destroying staffs. How can a board of professional business people not understand the need to check references? Minnesota made this mistake twice – hiring a European with a terrible reputation. Do these sophisticated board members not realize that there are actually telephones and email in Europe that can be contacted to collect such information? (Not to mention that musicians typically sit on these search committees as well – Why don’t they reach out to their European colleagues to gather information?)

    • Concernedin Seattle says:

      You entirely misread the Dausgaard “unwell” part. McLennan was in fact making exactly the opposite point – that had he been a woman, he would have been taken more seriously when he said this rather than dismissed out of hand. I don’t think Doug held himself up as an expert at all, but yes, I believe he has worked with a number of orchestras…

  • An interest reader says:

    Dausgaard’s comments about feeling threatened and unsafe stand out for me because this is exactly what the culture was like when KT ran the RSNO in Scotland. It was chilling to read how similar the situation was, and I know there will be a number of people associated with the Scottish orchestra for whom the mention of bullying and toxic environment will really strike a chord.
    I’m sorry to say that there are numerous similar stories to tell from KT’s time in Glasgow. I hope that this toxic behaviour is now dealt with by the SSO board in the appropriate way. This man is sadly not fit to lead an orchestra.

  • PG Vienna says:

    Excellent journalistic job. In the last 50 years conductors have moved from almighty despots to slaves of non musician administrators, idiotic stage directors and sometimes orchestra musicians. They can be dismissed for real or imagined misconduct or their contract not renewed for flimsy pretexts. The result ? A dozen orchestras looking for a conductor including Amsterdam, Chicago, New York , Dresden…..some Orchestras directed by Maestros who are only a fraction of their predecessor like Philadephia, the MET, Leipzig ….
    Clever conductors like Abbado stoppedworking with established Orchestras altogether to create their own structures. Some others like Thielemann welcome their firing which gives him more time to work in Vienna . Some other like Rattle are making a first in having further lives in London and Munich after Berlin. Finally a conductors like Chailly showed the door out of his life to management teams at the Concertgebouw and the Gewandhaus to dedicate himself to his love of opera. At the end, these Orchestras are the losers.