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Fresno Philharmonic Conductor Is Ousted

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A bitter cultural feud over the future of this city’s philharmonic orchestra and its popular maestro has been settled, at least for now, as nearly 600 season ticket-holders narrowly voted to boot out conductor Raymond Harvey.

In an election late Tuesday night, some of the more well-heeled and cultivated citizens of this farming capital voted 302 to 264 to keep the current symphony board and to oust Harvey.

The 48-year-old conductor has been a genuine star of the San Joaquin Valley, a nimble showman whose ability to communicate a love for music has spread the wonders of Brahms, Mozart and Schubert beyond the philharmonic’s core audience to farmers, landscapers and beauticians.

Last June, shortly after the local newspaper credited Harvey’s “thousand-watt” style with saving the philharmonic and photographed him and his longtime partner, a white man, tending flowers in their garden, the symphony board decided not to renew the conductor’s contract because of insubordination.

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People of the town, at least those passionate about the cultural arts, have been at war ever since, and the vitriol even pitted husbands against wives.

Civic leaders fear that the wounds from the six-month fight over Harvey’s fate will not easily heal. On one level, the quarrel in California’s heartland was about classical music and a maestro who had brought back the 45-year-old Fresno Philharmonic from the ranks of the near-dead, doubling membership and attendance over the past six years.

But on another level, it was about who controls the cultural arts here and whether part of the symphony board’s motivation in removing Harvey was because he is a gay black man who clung stubbornly to his vision of classical music.

Harvey’s legion of fans have fought to wrest control of the symphony from what they call the “local arts Mafia.” They say the tightknit group of museum and philharmonic devotees objects to Harvey because he receives too much attention, doesn’t closet his gay lifestyle and refuses to water down his musical vision.

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Under the banner “Save Our Symphony,” the diverse group of Harvey supporters, who include liberal lawyers and conservative grandmothers, had vowed to return the philharmonic to the people, a kind of cultural coup d’etat.

But board members say Harvey, despite his obvious talent and the overwhelming success of his preconcert lectures, was let go because of arrogance, his refusal to attend key meetings and a failure to be a team player.

It had nothing to do, they say, with his sexual preference or fondness for hogging the limelight. They insist that this season will be his last, and they boast that the search for a replacement has garnered 150 applicants.

The choice on Tuesday’s ballot could not have been more stark. The 600 residents who hold season tickets were asked to either keep Harvey and elect a new board or retain the current board and dismiss him. And no one was celebrating the outcome.

“I’m pleased that the board prevailed, but it’s tempered by the reality that the other side is going to continue to fight, and that fight is going to cripple the philharmonic,” said Don Black, a Superior Court judge who is chairman of the board.

Harvey supporter Rosellen Kershaw also was pessimistic about the future.

“Raymond is going, and when people realize he’s going, it’s going to radically change things. There may not be a philharmonic with his departure.”

Each side had predicted doom if the outcome didn’t go its way. If the current board won and Harvey was forced to go, his supporters said, a big chunk of the symphony audience also would go. If Harvey were to stay, current board members vowed, you could say goodbye to big donations from them and their wealthy friends. Needing to raise $1.5 million a year, the Fresno Philharmonic can’t rely on big industry or corporations. Wealth here is concentrated among a few farmers, developers, lawyers, physicians and a single department store mogul, who aren’t known as big givers.

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What has made the fight so remarkable, beyond the obvious stakes, is what outsiders generally assume about Fresno, that it’s a place wholly lacking in highbrow culture. Board members still talk about one proud conductor, only months into his reign, who called in the dead of night mumbling about oppression and hayseeds, the cruel summer sun and stinking winter fog. The next train, he was gone.

Harvey, a New Yorker who earned a doctorate in music from Yale University and has served as guest conductor for the Boston Pops and other orchestras, said he discovered a more layered Fresno when he arrived in 1993.

The first three years were sweet. Membership jumped from 1,800 to 2,700 and preconcert lectures, which used to lull to sleep a crowd of 50, were drawing 1,000 people. The attraction was Harvey, a trained singer and actor too.

“The man’s a communicator, a tremendous teacher,” said Kershaw, a Save Our Symphony organizer. “He makes the music come alive.”

The feud had gotten so contentious that in recent weeks prominent Fresno residents were buying $250 memberships for their employees and children--so they could vote. Ironically, on the eve of its most fateful hour, the symphony had never been more flush with subscribers.


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