Symphony denies wrongdoing by conductor Urbanski, leadership

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra is defending its conductor and leaders, describing claims of age discrimination and harassment made by a tenured musician as “outlandish” and “baseless.”

Principal bassoonist John Wetherill filed a federal lawsuit in March against the Indiana Symphony Society Inc., the not-for-profit that oversees the ISO. In the 17-page document, he accuses music director and conductor Krzysztof Urbanski, 34, of age discrimination and harassment, and says the ISO leadership knowingly allowed it to occur. Conductor Krzysztof Urbanski

Wetherill, 62, who joined the ISO in 1989, says Urbanski has discriminated against him and other musicians older than 40 as part of a “move out and replace” strategy since 2012.

“A number of older musicians resigned during the period from late 2012 and thereafter, as a result of Urbanski’s ‘move out and replace’ plan and action,” the complaint states.

Urbanski joined the orchestra as music director in 2011 under a four-year contract, which was renewed in 2013 to extend through the 2017-2018 season. The on-the-rise conductor earned $395,000 in compensation in 2015, according to the orchestra's tax filings.

The ISO says in its response to Wetherill's suit filed Monday that most of its musicians are older than 40 and that the only musician to be removed from the orchestra under Urbanski’s leadership was 25 years old. The orchestra acknowledges that musicians have retired since 2012, but says musicians retired before 2012 as well.

“Defendant denies the baseless, malicious assertion of unlawful conduct by Mr. Urbanski,” the response states.

Wetherill claims his problems started in May 2012, when Urbanski gave him a handwritten note asking to meet one on one. During that meeting, Urbanski criticized Wetherill for how he played two notes months earlier, asked Wetherill about other musicians and “was threatening" toward him, the lawsuit says.

Wetherill says similar meetings occurred with seven other musicians, all older than 40, and appeared to be part of a plan to “move out older musicians and replace them with younger musicians.”

The ISO acknowledges that Urbanski regularly gives musicians handwritten notes and has meetings with them, but says “any such meetings have been without regard to (and unrelated to) age and certainly without regard to (and unrelated to) some fictitious ‘move out and replace plan.’”

The orchestra also says that new musicians audition behind a screen, so their ages are unknown.

In October 2013, Wetherill says he met with Daniel Beckley, vice president and general manager for the orchestra, and during the meeting he was encouraged to step down to second chair “in order to nurture a younger player into the principal chair.”

Wetherill became principal chair in 2000 and receives additional compensation for that position and his seniority in the orchestra. He declined to step down to second chair.

The ISO confirmed that the discussion about Wetherill stepping down did occur, but “vehemently denies the discriminatory motive Plaintiff has fabricated to support his specious claims and advance his bias against Mr. Urbanski.”

Wetherill says he then sent emails to Beckley in October 2013 and February 2014 complaining about age discrimination, but no actions were taken to rectify the situation.

The ISO confirmed that Beckley received two emails from Wetherill but denied any age discrimination occurred. The orchestra is not denying that Urbanski regularly critiques musicians but argues it is never based on age.

“Out of an apparent and steadfast unwillingness to accept that any direction regarding his performance could be legitimate, [Wetherill] has claimed (erroneously and without any basis) that such critique must be the result of age discrimination,” the response states.

In December 2014, Wetherill says he discussed the ongoing issues with orchestra CEO Gary Ginstling, who “admitted that things were done wrongly by” Urbanski and Beckley. But the ISO denied that claim in its response, describing the allegation as “baseless and irresponsible.”

Wetherill says the discrimination continued through the 2015 and 2016 seasons and offers several anecdotes to detail the harassment he alleges.

In October 2015, Wetherill was suspended for two weeks without pay for using an electronic tuner at a September 2015 rehearsal—a move Wetherill claims is common practice for musicians and was needed to show Urbanski that he was not out of tune.

The ISO agrees that electronic tuners can be used to determine whether individual notes are in tune, but argues that the instrument should not be relied upon by professional musicians and says that Urbanski gave Wetherill a “legitimate critique” for his performance.

The orchestra says the suspension was justified and that Wetherill’s actions “actually warranted discharge,” under the collective bargaining agreement.

“Defendant admits that Plaintiff has not been immune from direction or critique regarding his play and cannot help that Plaintiff takes unjustified offense from any suggestion that his play is less than perfect,” the response states.

In a November 2015 rehearsal, Wetherill stopped playing his bassoon but pretended to play by moving his hands and fingers, according to his lawsuit. Urbanski, who had accused Wetherill of playing out of tune earlier in practice, again yelled that he was out of tune, even though the instrument was silent, according to Wetherill's complaint.

The ISO argues that Wetherill didn’t actually stop playing and that he was out of tune, and called it a “damning admission” for a musician to claim they withheld effort during a rehearsal.

At the end of October 2015, Wetherill filed an age-discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and followed up with a supplemental charge for discrimination and retaliation in March 2016.

The EEOC has the right to litigate claims itself but more often issues a "right-to-sue letter"—a document signaling that the agency has finished processing the charge and that the complainant can move forward with a lawsuit. Wetherill said in his complaint that he received his right-to-sue letter in December.

In its response, the ISO confirmed that Wetherill filed the charge with the EEOC and the agency issued the right-to-sue notice, but argues that the EEOC did not find wrongdoing in its investigation.

“The EEOC investigated the charges, collecting extensive evidence from both plaintiff and defendant, and closed its investigation without further action or consequence and without any finding of culpability or liability by defendant whatsoever,” the response states.

Contacted by IBJ, the EEOC declined to comment on the symphony's characterization, saying it doesn't confirm or deny the existence of investigations.

Wetherill is requesting back pay for lost wages, compensation for other damages such as emotional distress and mental anguish, and attorney’s fees and court costs. The orchestra is requesting the lawsuit be dismissed with a judgment in its favor.

“Some or all of Plaintiff’s allegations are frivolous, vexations, malicious, groundless, and/or sanctionable,” the response states. “Defendant’s conduct and actions were all in good faith.”

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