In Annapolis, where residents are passionate about politics and the environment, it's the arts that typically provide a common ground.
But for the past two months, symphony hall - not the state Capitol or the waterfront - has been the unlikely backdrop for a the biggest controversy in town. In November, the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra opted not to renew the contract of musical director Leslie B. Dunner, and the city's arts community is still buzzing.
It doesn't buzz quietly.
"When Annapolitans get started about what they want, there is just no keeping them quiet," said Jean Jackson, president of the Annapolis Opera.
Since Dunner's ouster was announced:
Two-thirds of the symphony's musicians have expressed opposition to the dismissal.
A former mayor has organized a letter-writing protest by more than 75 people, including donors and past board members.
The mayor has written a letter of protest.
Anna Greenberg, 73, the unofficial matron of the local arts scene, said she has never seen anything like it.
"I'm hoping," she said, "that things will calm down soon."
To that end, the symphony board of trustees will hold a meeting tonight. The goal is to begin winning back public support, but two items won't be on the agenda: reversing the dismissal or publicly announcing the reasons for it.
Board President Fred H. "Bud" Billups will say only that the reasons for Dunner's dismissal are not the reasons he initially announced.
Dunner declined yesterday to discuss the reasons for his dismissal.
For a city of about 35,000 people, Annapolis has a sizable arts scene.
"We're sandwiched between two metropolitan communities; we fight to keep our supporters," said Jackson, who is in her third term as president of the opera.
Among the entities that local residents support are the opera, the Annapolis Chorale, the Ballet Theater of Maryland and a branch of the Peabody Conservatory of Music.
But when the 42-year-old symphony - the crown jewel of the city's cultural groups - has an event, the other groups adjust their calendars. The symphony typically plays to full houses of 881 at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.
In 1998, Dunner was chosen over 278 other candidates for the $38,000-a-year post. He was resident conductor of the Detroit Symphony and music director of Canada's Symphony of Nova Scotia. Aside from conducting, he is a clarinetist and composer.
Unlike previous conductors, Dunner, 47, moved to Annapolis and stressed community outreach. He even dyed his hair orange and appeared last summer in the Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre's production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.
"I thought the quieter, more suburban kind of lifestyle might be tedious," said Dunner, a New York City native who is the orchestra's first black musical director, "but it's not that way at all. ... It has dynamic energy to it in its own sort of quiet way."
To symphony outsiders, and to the musicians and board of directors, Dunner's future appeared secure as recently as last fall. Earlier in the year, the board had voted to open contract negotiations to bring Dunner back for the 2003-2004 season.
Surprise from trustees
At the Nov. 20 meeting of the symphony board of trustees, though, Billups dropped a surprise as big as a double bass: He announced that the board would not be renewing Dunner's contract for the season that will begin late this summer.
Guest conductors would take over for the season, he said. By the end of the meeting, attended by about two-thirds of the 33 trustees, Dunner was out.
In his initial public comments, Billups said that after five years, it was time for a change. He also said subscriptions to the symphony had declined.
Few believed that was all there was to it.
Billups said yesterday that if had to do it over again, he wouldn't have tried to pass those reasons off as the rationale for Dunner's dismissal.
"Hindsight is always great," Billups said. "We certainly did not want the community to be splintered."
But that's what started to happen.
As some began to publicly criticize the decision, Billups sent an e-mail to the board of trustees Dec. 3 that said: "The more people make comments, the more pressure there is for the ASO to discuss the real reasons for not moving to a new contract, which will only hurt Leslie's future."
"We were told that they didn't want to say anything because they wanted to be nice," said Susan Dapkunas, a violist who joined the symphony is 1969. "I think it's the opposite. The silence has ... made people wonder."
First, those close to the symphony started stirring.
Seven of the 33 board members demanded a special meeting. One resigned.
Thirty-six of the symphony's 57 musicians under contract signed a letter complaining to Billups, said violist Michele Monico.
Then others got caught up in the drama.
Three people with ties to the symphony, including former Mayor Richard L. Hillman, organized a letter-writing campaign in support of Dunner.
Mayor Ellen O. Moyer wrote to Billups on Jan. 6 to say that she was sorry he was the center of a "community controversy" but that the issue wasn't going away.
"The perception of a cavalier act without merit has the prospect of damaging the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra," she wrote.
"It's obviously concerning," Billups said of the numerous disgruntled symphony regulars, "but it's also comforting to know people are that concerned about the orchestra."
Tonight, Billups will begin his mission to win support.
`Various events' noted
He won't reverse his decision to release Dunner. Yesterday, he said only that the dismissal was tied to "various events" in October and November, some of which have a long history.
Dunner, who will serve as conductor through the end of the 2002-2003 season, said he will get a full explanation from the board tonight.
Billups said the divided arts community here will never get one.
"The decision," he said, "was based on personnel matters. As such, it's not for publication."