What is going on in Saskatoon?

One of the strangest yet oddly compelling stories happening in this week’s arts news is a very peculiar lawsuit between a music director and the orchestra committee of the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra. The idea of a conductor being able to sue over comments made in a steward’s report could set a dangerous precedent which would make running an orchestra utterly impossible without several lawyers being present at every rehearsal and concert. Luckily for orchestras everywhere, and especially the six musicians named in the suit, the chances of Mr. Sanford winning in court are about as likely has the chances of him ever conducting in Canada again.

First I should disclose from the start one important point with greatly shapes my perspective on this issue; I was the principal double bassist in the Saskatoon Symphony for one season in 2005-06. To be quite honest if I was still there I would very surely be among the musicians currently being sued. That being said, here are my thoughts…

Firstly, the alleged ‘defamation’ stemmed from a steward’s report to the union. The steward is a musician who keeps a log of goings on in a rehearsal. Usually it’s things like someone arriving late or what time the break starts and ends. This steward’s report took note of the atmosphere of rehearsals as well certain aspects of Sanford’s rehearsal technique that were creating this atmosphere. The report was submitted by the union to two government funding boards, The Saskatchewan Arts Board and the Canada Council for the Arts. This is where Sanford’s grievance stems from. He claims that the distribution of this report caused “personal and professional reputation has been seriously damaged, and he has suffered distress and embarrassment.”

As for the damages Sanford is seeking, $200000, Ivan Katz of the Huffington Post who knows a lot more about the law than I do points out that nowhere does Sanford provide evidence that this report has lead to loss of wages, cancellation of engagements or any tangible financial impact. Sanford claims he “agonized” over the decision to sue. The fact that $200000 amounts to substantially more than the combined salaries of the musicians named in the suit smacks of revenge.

I’m sure the more rational readers out there are asking themselves why Doug Sanford and his lawyer Richard Elson don’t seem to realize that the lawsuit itself is doing far more damage to Sanford’s reputation than the report ever could have. From my point of view the mindset which lead Sanford to file this lawsuit is quite indicative of why his musicians had problems with him in the first place.

As I said, I am no expert on the law, but there are a few things that Richard Elson is saying that should be making Doug Sanford wish he’d hired a better lawyer. First of all, Elson should be aware that since his client is himself a member of the union he should understand that distribution of the report is part of the union’s normal course of business, and was not an action taken against him. Second, he says

“There are things that are stated in that document which are described as factual which, in our position, are not factual.” (Source.)

Had Elson made some phone calls to people outside of the Saskatoon Symphony who had worked with Sanford he would find that the musicians “allegations” are actually widely held opinions, both personal and professional of Sanford in the greater Canadian music community. Nothing that Sanford claims is in that report actually surprises anyone who’s worked with him. This also directly relates to troublesome statement number three:

“The $200,000 is not a target amount, that’s simply a minimum amount. We’ve roughly estimated what impact this would have.”(source)

I wonder how many orchestras Elson contacted to find out why his client hadn’t been engaged, and how many of these orchestras cited this report as the reason. I’ll go out on a limb here and say none.

The part of this that really had me shaking my head was this little tidbit:

He [Sanford] also wants the courts to order an injunction on further publication of the allegations or similar words. (source)

Doug Sanford is suing over being labeled a ‘dictator;’ isn’t this attempt to silence his critics the very essence of a dictatorial style? He may not be able to keep a steady tempo, but Doug Sanford does have an incredible flair for irony.


Articles quoted and cited can be found at my del.icio.us page

delicious.png del.icio.us/philharmonist/Saskatoon


9 responses to “What is going on in Saskatoon?

  1. You know, I hadn’t really thought about the wider implications of this lawsuit, or the precedent it could set. If bad conductors of small (or large) orchestras are allowed to sue for being labeled as incompetent, tyrannical, idiotic, nepotistic, slobs, we’re going to be seeing a huge spike in orchestral litigation in the VERY near future. It confirms my theory, though, that the only good conductor is a dead one.

  2. I hope the Saskatoon 6 win so i can continue to safely call my conductor an “incompetent, tyrannical, idiotic, nepotistic slob.” those are the exact prerequisite characteristics for a conducting job down here in mexico so I’m sure we’ll be seeing Senor Sanford as a guest conductor very soon.

  3. I do remember reading in one of these articles that the conductor’s attorney, Elson, did say that he told his client bringing this out in the open could do more damage but his client persisted that damage had been done. As such, any opposing counsel would almost certainly seize Elson’s remarks in any defense action. As to whether or not Elson should have asked around about his client, I do not believe lawyers are under any obligation to do that. Instead, they are tasked with providing legal service for their client. That being said, if his client is bent on self destruction then the best Elson can hope for is to marginalize any damage.

    I bet this conductor will still be able to find work at some community orchestra and pull down a big enough check to pay the bills while he keeps on behaving the same way he always had. Sad really, that guys like this can find work good paying jobs so easily while musicians doing that are lucky to be poor.

  4. upsetinsaskatoon

    As a person who has attended many Symphony concerts in Saskatoon over the past two decades, and a former spouse to one of the symphony musicians, I have found Sanford to be an offensive man. From my little interaction with him, as well as my observation of his expectations, treatment of, and attitude toward the musicians in the orchestra, and his attitude of superiority over the general populace regarding his musical knowledge, I believe he IS a tyrannical and abusive man to work under. (And he seems to want to keep people UNDER him, as evidenced by this stupid lawsuit.)
    What musician in the orchestra is going to be comfortable working in the orchestra with this hanging over their heads? Instilling fear is counterproductive to achieving musical emjoyment, isn’t it? And frightening all of the musicians by his picking on a select few people and suing them is simply a show of the power he feels he holds over the musicians. What sane artist would want to work in those conditions?
    I would hope that the people of Saskatoon will show their support of the Orchestra members, and NOT ATTEND, or buy tickets for concerts until Sanford is either GONE, or has been silenced by order of the musicians union. Without musicians to play the music, there is no orchestra. But having someone waving their arms around, grunting, and sweating is not a necessary part of the enjoyment of the music.

  5. hadenoughins'toon

    I have returned my season tickets for a complete refund. I will continue my support of the orchestra once this idiot is gone.

  6. It is finished

  7. It is my opinion that this Conductor brought out the best from the material with which he had to work. (For interest; a European friend of mine historically won’t attend Saskatchewan concerts based upon his opinion as to what ranks as a symphony orchestra.)

  8. I had played under him in a community orchestra in Toronto. I left and I would concur with the players in the Saskatoon Symphony. Too many tantrums from Sanford for me. He may have better luck in Mexico conducting a Mariachi Band.

  9. Margaret Johnson

    I am so sorry to hear of all these problems with Doug. Sanford. I’ve known him and his family since he was a boy. His parents sacrificed a lot to provide his musical education and would be heartbroken to see what has happened. His father is dead and his mother has dementia. The small city where he came from was so proud of his success, before all of this.

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