There is a bitter power struggle rocking Prince George's County these days. It features belligerent, uncompromising parties, charges of power politics and a healthy dosage of name-calling.
This is not your average Prince George's squabble, however. The belligerent parties are two symphony orchestras in a county where, as one central figure in the dispute confided, "most people aren't even aware that we had one symphonic orchestra."
It is a power struggle nonetheless, and it is bitter. When a symphony association fires its conductor, when 65 musicians pack up their trumpets and violins and tell their board of directors to find a new orchestra, and when both groups find themselves scrapping for the same $7,000 county grant, there is bound to be some bitterness.
The dispute began in February when the board of directors of the Prince George's Symphonic Association told Emerson Head, conductor of the orchestra for eight of the 12 years it had been in existence, that his services would not be needed after the current season.
The board said it fired head, who teaches trumpet at the University of Maryland, because he had not been "inspired" in his part-time, $4,000-a-year rold as conductor. Head was accused of not promoting his orchestra enough throughout the community.
"A community orchestra conductor needs to play politics a little bit," explained board president Sally Marshall, the wife of county State's Attorney Arthur A. Marshall. "The people have to know that you're there. Mr. Head didn't have the heart or time for it. He didn't involve himself or his orchestra with the community. He is a phlegmatic person."
Another board member, Robert J. Antonetti, the county elections chairman, was less kind in his assessment of Head. "Most people think Head is God's gift to music in Prince George's County," said Antonetti, who says he holds a master's degree in music. "I htink he's vastly overrated. We wanted to upgrade the orchestra, give it a professional quality that he wasn't giving it."
Head, for his part, accused the board of using him as a scapegoat."The board seemed more interesting in raising money - even if it meant playing 'pops' concerts - than in having a true symphonic orchestra and serving as an outlet for amateur musicians," he argued.
"The quality of our performances should not be at issue. It has improved, I think, almost every year. I think the board is just covering up for some of its own failures," Head said.
The symphony board expected that sort of reaction from Head, but it did not expect what happened next: The 65 orchestra musicians - all of them amateurs, about two-thirds of them from Prince George's County - voted to stick with their conductor next year without the blessing of the symphony association. In effect, they fired themselves.
The musicians had their own complaints. "We weren't so upset with what happened to Mr. Head as we were with how the board treated us during the whole affair," explained Susan Weintraub, a violinist from Greenbelt and head of the orchestra committee. "They were downright arrogant when we asked them to clue us in on what was going on. They said it was none of our business."
Weintraub accused Sally Marshall of using "power politics" in the dispute by sending out letters to all orchestra members with the State's Attorney's Office listed as the return address on each envelope.
"Ridiculous," responded Marshall. "I just happened to give them to my husband to mail and his secretary stamped them because they didn't have a return address."
Marshall said she and another board member, Carlton Sickles, the former Maryland congressman who is an amateur saxophonist, spent several hours attempting to mollify the musicians and persuade them to play next year with a new conductor. "But," said Weintraub, "it was too little, too late."
The split had become irreconcilable.
The board of directors, working without any players, set up a serach committee for a new conductor. After screening 125 applicants for the job, including one from England, they came up with a man whom they consider to be "a gem" - Stephen Douglas Burton, a 33-year-old composer and conductor whose works have been performed by the National Symphony and Chicago Symphony Orchestra! Burton is to start auditioning members for his new orchestra next week.
Head and his musicians, meanwhile, formally split from the symphonic association last week to form their own group - The Prince George's Philharmonic.
This month, as the two orchestras compete for the small grant from the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, the argument seems to be over which one is the real Prince George's Symphony Orchestra.
On one side is Sally Marshall. "Players come and go," she says, "but the board remains." On the other side, Weintraub asks: "What is a board without its conductor and musicians?"