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Music TSO board chair replaced, others out in abrupt leadership change

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra performs at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, conducted by music director Peter Oundjian.

Sian Richards

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra has undergone an abrupt, major change in leadership – with the departure of several board members and a new board chair now in place.

Late Friday, the TSO announced that Richard Phillips, chair of the board for the past year, and a member for the past six, was no longer with the organization. Four of the other five members of the board's executive committee have also left, including Sonia Baxendale, who stepped in as acting chief executive officer after the premature departure last March of Jeff Melanson, only 20 months into his tenure.

Catherine Beck, who joined the TSO Board just this past year, is the newly elected chair.

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The changes at the top of the TSO come at a time when it is still regaining its feet after the departure of Mr. Melanson and a potentially crippling deficit.

The organization is seeking both a new permanent CEO and a new music director. Although the TSO is stressing continuity in its announcement of its new chair, it seems that the turmoil at the organization is not yet over.

TSO managed to post a surplus for fiscal 2015-16, and, by many accounts, Mr. Phillips and Ms. Baxendale saved the organization from a potentially crippling financial disaster. In the 2015-16 annual report, released only two weeks ago, neither member gave any indication that they would be leaving the board. In her remarks in the report, Ms. Baxendale intimated that she would be staying. "I look forward to continuing to support [interim CEO] Gary Hanson and the TSO."

The recent departures came in two waves, The Globe and Mail has learned. Renette Berman was first; she resigned after Nov. 25. Several subsequent resignations followed, she said, without providing details.

"This is not about me. This is about a bigger issue," she said from her Toronto home. "It's about having a board that is in alignment with a very beautiful symphony." She then mentioned a planned tour to Europe and Israel next year, which she stresses she strongly supports.

"It had already been booked by Jeff Melanson and you don't cancel tours. If you cancel, you're not asked again because there are too many good orchestras. And let me tell you, we are very proud of the TSO; it's a fine orchestra with some of the best musicians."

Ms. Berman spoke at length about the importance of the TSO. When asked whether the city was in danger of losing the TSO, she said "of course" – that it's dealing with the same challenging times orchestras around the world are facing. "One has to think creatively and think differently and bring people in in a different way. It's challenging. You've got to be in the 21st century. I love creative thinking. ... You need disruption, you need to think differently, you can't have the old boys' club."

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She stressed that she continues to support the orchestra – especially its musicians – as well as the remaining board members.

"I think it's the best opportunity the TSO's ever had. I think it's the beginning of a new era; I'm thrilled, I'm absolutely delighted."

Reached late Friday, Mr. Phillips confirmed that he resigned, but would not say why.

"It was my decision purely to resign. I resigned of my own volition. And I wish the TSO nothing but the best for the future."

Robert Harris is a freelance writer

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