The tense relations between the conductor and violinist Alexandre Da Costa and his musicians led to the intervention of a mediator mandated by the Ministry of Labor. A “Success Plan” was signed by the parties in June, but musicians interviewed by La Presse fear the launch of the new season.
“We looked at the main problems that were undermining the working climate and we agreed with the orchestra management on a work plan to be applied for the next season,” confirmed the president of the Guild of musicians from Quebec, Luc Fortin.
The union which represents the musicians of the Longueuil Symphony Orchestra, which became the Quebec Philharmonic Orchestra two months ago, had meetings last May and June with the general director of the orchestra, Jean-Marc Léveillé, as well as with conductor and violinist Alexandre Da Costa, whose leadership has been contested by several members since his appointment in 2019.
Since his accession to the position of artistic director, no less than 18 instrumentalists have left the orchestra, a real drain for this symphonic ensemble which has around forty musicians. In recent months, the orchestra has had to undertake a wave of hiring, a process slowed down by the pandemic.
“We are in the process of filling the 15 positions that were still vacant,” Luc Fortin tells us. All positions will be filled by the opening concert of the new season on October 1st. »
In a survey published last spring, the daily Le Devoir spoke with around ten musicians who had left the orchestra or who were thinking of leaving it. In short, they all criticized conductor Da Costa for his poor conducting skills, but also for the fact that he constantly put himself forward, as a musician, to the detriment of the members of the ensemble. Finally, they all deplored the fact that the orchestra was moving away from the symphonic repertoire.
“We had very frank discussions with Mr. Da Costa and general management and they were aware that there were things to improve,” Luc Fortin told us. No one tried to shy away, so I’m hopeful that things will go well for next season. »
But at least three musicians from the orchestra interviewed by La Presse – who have decided to stay within the ensemble – do not share Mr. Fortin’s optimism.
Another musician fears that the breakdown in the bond of trust between the musicians and the conductor will be irreversible. “When we changed the name of the orchestra, after mediation, Jean-Marc Léveillé made an outing in the media against the musicians saying that we were doing our job badly, so, despite the “Success Plan”, I have doubts,” she said.
The musicians La Presse spoke to still maintain that Alexandre Da Costa does not have the skills to conduct an orchestra. He is also not known for his “benevolence” towards his musicians, we are told.
“Her artistic proposal is valid, but we wonder why the general management accepted it in the first place,” one of the musicians we spoke to told us. He could have launched his project instead of destroying something that already exists. His talent as a musician is recognized, but when Mr. Da Costa plays the role of concertmaster when there is already a concertmaster in the orchestra, it becomes contentious. »
The musicians’ concerns were collected by the two mediators who intervened with the musical ensemble.
The mediator’s report, which La Presse obtained, mentions, among other things, that a “very large majority of musicians” have the impression that “the orchestra is moving away from its symphonic mission.” While in the “Success Plan”, which La Presse also consulted, the main objectives are to “reestablish communication between management and musicians” and again to “support the performance of musicians as part of the implementation of the vision of the artistic direction”.
Questioned by La Presse, the general director of the Quebec Philharmonic Orchestra, Jean-Marc Léveillé, believes he has reassured the musicians on the question of the orchestra’s mission.
“They felt like we were making pop,” he tells us. During our season opening concert, for example, we will play Beethoven’s Ninth, but between movements, we introduce songs in several languages. »
The mediator’s report also mentions an “authoritarian and threatening approach used towards recalcitrant people” and the fact that “the expression of divergent points of view leads to actions such as exclusion from engagement or [of] meetings of a disciplinary nature.” An element confirmed by a musician who says she suffered “direct individual repercussions” for having asserted her rights enshrined in the collective agreement.
Jean-Marc Léveillé rejects this criticism. “I heard it in mediation [the authoritarian approach], he replies, but we were not able to put an example on the table. Afterwards, there are musicians who have not respected their contract. That’s something else, we’re just exercising our right of management. »
What other grievances were expressed by the musicians during the mediation that management took into account?
“The other element is Alexandre’s direction while he plays his instrument,” continues Jean-Marc Léveillé. It’s not always easy, but they agreed on certain communication mechanisms between them, with codes so that they understand each other and, since then, things have been going very well, even with the solo violin. Alexandre is a very good chef. But those who don’t want to work with Mr. Da Costa from the beginning will never be satisfied. »
By changing the name of the Longueuil Symphony Orchestra last July – which became the Orchester philharmonique du Québec – the Léveillé-Da Costa tandem lost the recurring annual funding of approximately $122,000 that the orchestra received from the City.
“We had several meetings with the management of the orchestra to understand their vision,” Longueuil Mayor Catherine Fournier told us. It’s a cultural organization that wants to expand, that wants to have a national scope rather than a regional one, so we didn’t want to slow them down in their development, but there will no longer be annual funding. On the other hand, it is not excluded that we have service agreements for the holding of certain activities that will be presented on our territory. »
This withdrawal does not worry Jean-Marc Léveillé, who mentions the contribution of “bigger partners”. According to him, the decision to change the name of the orchestra was precipitated by the abandonment of the project to build a concert hall on the South Shore. “It wasn’t ideal for us to play at the Théâtre de la Ville, we were losing money. When the room project was abandoned, in 2020-2021, we thought about changing the name. »
Today, the general director of the Quebec Philharmonic Orchestra believes that the musical ensemble is in a good position. “We went from 9,000 spectators per year to 32,000, our musicians play more often, last year we gave 52 concerts, we are going back to South America next spring, so I see the future in an interesting way . »
Discussions between the orchestra management and the Musicians Guild are far from over. In addition to the follow-ups of the “Success Plan”, which will be carried out during this season, negotiations between the two parties have just begun with a view to renewing the collective agreement, which expired on August 31.
January 2019: Violinist Alexandre Da Costa is named artistic director of the Longueuil Symphony Orchestra. He replaces Marc David.
November 2022: A mediator is appointed by the Ministry of Labor at the request of the orchestra management and the union, which deplores the departure of 18 musicians.
June 2023: A “Success Plan” is signed between the management of the orchestra and the Guild of Musicians of Quebec, which represents the musicians of this musical ensemble.
July 2023: The Longueuil Symphony Orchestra changes its name to the Orchester philharmonique du Québec.