Symphony's chorus of dissent grows louder

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Anne Ewers has backers who still support the merger between Utah Symphony and Utah Opera that made her CEO of the combined group in 2002. But since last month's news that US&O is in financial trouble, a chorus of dissent has grown louder.

Arts supporters want to know why news of US&O's falling attendance, negative cash flow and declining annual donations since the merger was not made public. They want accountability from the volunteer board that governs US&O.

Former US&O board member Bertram Schaap pulled his annual donation and cancelled a bequest of "hundreds of thousands of dollars" because he was disillusioned by the merger and the performance of Ewers and US&O music director Keith Lockhart. Now Schaap wants to give the money back, but with a condition: He wants Ewers and Lockhart out.

"It's no vendetta," Schaap said. "It's an attempt to make sure that what have had in the past is continued into the future."

Carolyn Abravanel, widow of former Utah Symphony conductor Maurice Abravanel, said she is besieged by Utah Symphony supporters.

"From everything that concerned individuals are calling and telling me, I no longer believe this [controversy] is a temporary moment of insanity," Abravanel said. "People are making it known they are disillusioned and concerned."

Abravanel issued a statement Tuesday saying she wants recommendations in a consultant's report by Thomas W. Morris implemented, including a formal review process of Ewers' performance and installation of a board chair who will lead the organization for five or more years.

Some major donors still support Ewers. Rick Lawson said he believes in Ewers and the merger, though his own foundation and others he is involved in are not able to donate as much as in the past. "We haven't given the merger enough time," Lawson said last week. James Swartz, who with his wife Susan Swartz gave $1 million as a start-up gift for US&O's Deer Valley Music Festival, characterized Ewers as a "visionary" who made a smart expansion into an adjacent market in Park City.

Retired architect Ray Kingston helped design Salt Lake City's Abravanel Hall and served on the National Advisory Council for the Arts. Kingston supports Abravanel's statement, and says the US&O board is not giving the group's management enough impartial oversight.

"I don't understand how a board of directors can be so unaware of the fiscal health of an organization," said Kingston. "The board is not doing its job - they should be asking some extremely difficult questions of their management."

US&O executive board member Patricia Richards leads a task force charged with deciding which of Morris' recommendations will be implemented. The task force will make recommendations to US&O's full board on March 24, said Ewers in a written statement.