The abrupt departure of conductor Jorge Mester from the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra two weeks ago came as a shock to many of the company's musicians and faithful concertgoers.

Now a rift has formed between the orchestra's upper management and its players on allegations that company leaders haven't been honest about the circumstances behind the longtime conductor's departure.


FOR THE RECORD:
Pasadena Symphony: An article in the March 25 Calendar section about discord over the departure of Jorge Mester as music director of the Pasadena Symphony referred to Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras, as Jeffrey Rosen. —



While the company says Mester quit, his representative says he was fired.

What seems clear is that Mester, who has been music director for 25 years, is well-liked by the symphony's loyal subscriber base, but is caught at a time when the orchestra is trying to attract new audiences and dig itself out of the budgetary hole it's been in after the financially troubled Pasadena Symphony and Pops merged in 2007.

The controversy over Mester is the latest development in a round of shake-ups and reductions to hit the organization since the arrival of Chief Executive Paul Jan Zdunek, who was named in late 2008 to turn around a company that was in serious debt.

A representative for Mester said that the Pasadena Symphony terminated the conductor's contract two years before it was set to expire, and that Mester's repeated offers to take a pay cut were roundly rejected.

Mester met with orchestra leaders on May 11 to discuss his future with the company.

"When Jorge and his attorney showed up at the meeting, they were advised that the board had 'unanimously' decided to terminate his contract," said Diane Saldick, who is the conductor's representative.

She said that Mester was told that the terms of his termination were "non-negotiable."

The claim contradicts the orchestra's official version of the incident, given the day before Mester's final concert on May 15. Zdunek said that contract negotiations were still under way when the conductor unilaterally decided to announce his departure to musicians.

Zdunek later reaffirmed his statement when presented with the recent claims from the conductor's representative. "We're not going to discuss the nature of the negotiations. Discussions are still going on," he said.

Mester's representative said that the orchestra's statements are "disingenuous at best" and that Zdunek has made a number of false assertions to the press, the public and the orchestra. The conductor has declined multiple requests for an interview.

Julie Rogers, a violinist with the symphony, said that morale has taken a nosedive. "We played because Jorge was there and we all like playing together," she said. "We were loyal to the orchestra and we don't feel that anymore."

Other musicians and personnel with the orchestra said that the company's version of events appear untrue or suspect. They also said that the orchestra has exerted pressure on its members to remain quiet about the incident.

"People are afraid to talk," said one person close to the orchestra who declined to be named, citing fears that it could lead to retaliation from management.

One symphony musician was reportedly let go for expressing outrage at Mester's departure. John Acosta, the vice president of the Local 47 chapter of the American Federation of Musicians, said that the union has filed a grievance with the orchestra. "The union is fighting back and we will do everything possible to reinstate the musician, who we feel was let go unjustly," Acosta said. The union declined to release the name of the individual.

The bulk of the symphony comprises freelance musicians, many of whom work by day in recording studios for Hollywood movies and television.

The Pasadena Symphony and Pops' 2009-10 budget is $3.2 million, down from $5.7 million two years before; the goal, according to Zdunek, is to balance the budget this year while continuing to pay down $1.2 million in back debts.

The administrative staff has been cut in half, according to the March 2010 recovery plan published on the orchestras' website. Mester, who earned $236,000 in 2007-08, and pops conductor Rachael Worby, who was paid $137,000, according to the symphony and pops' federal tax return, took 10% pay cuts.

Among other cuts are reductions in rehearsal time for the symphony and the pops orchestra. At a Saturday evening Pops concert, Worby told the audience that they had put together the event with just two hours of rehearsal time.

Pasadena is one of several mid-size orchestras around the country that are trying to cope with acute money problems, stemming in part from the current recession. In March, the Charleston Symphony in South Carolina suspended operations due to dwindling donations. The 110-year-old Honolulu Symphony is in bankruptcy court, having canceled its season after emergency donations failed to materialize. In Ohio, the Columbus Symphony announced a plan of reorganization in March that would cut its $9-million budget to $7.5 million or less.

"There's stress in many orchestras," said Jeffrey Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras, a national service organization. "Some are looking at this as weathering a few tough years, and some are looking farther out and asking, 'Are there more fundamental changes we might need to consider?' I don't think anyone knows what the answers are yet."

Jean Horton, a former board member, said that Zdunek's tenure as CEO has been "contentious with various people over time. In fairness, he came in at an incredibly difficult time. There was a tremendous amount of change that was absolutely required, and change is not a one-way street."

Horton is one of several members of the Pasadena board of directors to leave in recent years for various reasons. Membership currently stands at just under 30 individuals, down from close to 40.

Mester was beloved by musicians for his warm, avuncular presence and his close rapport with individual members of the orchestra. The symphony's leaders said that they are currently planning how to move forward without Mester on the podium, but said they aren't yet ready to make a formal announcement.

His departure continues to produce conflicting reports from people close to the organization.

"Their contention that Jorge quit is not accurate," said Jeffrey Bernstein, who is the assistant conductor at the Pasadena Symphony. "Their assertion that he has been unwilling to work toward financial recovery is untrue. I think they've made a scapegoat of him."

"This is an orchestra that used to have exceedingly high standards," he added. "All of that has significantly changed in the last 18 months."

Melinda Shea, the president of the board, said that Mester and the board "spent a lot of time and effort on a mutually agreeable solution that would work for all," but that talks did not prove successful.

"We never wanted it to be adversarial," she said. "We still don't, and want to make this as balanced a transition as we can."

david.ng@latimes.com

mike.boehm@latimes.com