Music

Ambitious Rhode Island music fest ends in failure of ‘epic proportions’

Paul Van Anglen.

Dave Hansen/The Newport Daily News

Paul Van Anglen.

For a first-time festival, the Newport Contemporary Music Series boasted a program that might make even Tanglewood blush: a star-studded lineup featuring appearances by Philip Glass, four-time Academy Award winner André Previn, and “Lord of the Rings” composer Howard Shore.

The festival hired more than 100 professional musicians to form the Newport Contemporary Arts Orchestra, which over six weeks starting in July was to perform challenging works by some of the titans of contemporary music, including a Previn piece commissioned specially for the occasion.

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The man behind it all: Paul Van Anglen, a 25-year-old impresario who managed to present just three concerts before his grand dream cratered amid charges of broken promises, rank amateurism, and an estimated $120,000 in unpaid orchestra musicians fees, plus tens of thousands more for unpaid soloists and other costs.

“This is probably the greatest amateur act the union has ever seen,” said John “Bebo” Shiu, a director on the board of the Boston Musicians Association.

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Kate Foss, a bass player from Quincy, called it a failure of “epic proportions that will go down in the Boston freelancing lore of nonpaying gigs.”

Van Anglen, a Portsmouth native who now lives at his mother’s Rhode Island home and offers his services online as a composer for hire, said the festival imploded after key donors failed to deliver.

“[I]t is nothing less than extremely depressing to have to wake up in the morning every day knowing that the series had the outcome that it had,” Van Anglen said via e-mail. “I am doing everything I can to try and right the ship.”

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How did it founder?

For starters, Van Anglen tried to net Glass, whose propulsive works have made him perhaps today’s most celebrated living composer. Glass’s producer said she negotiated a $75,000 contract last September with Newport Contemporary Arts Inc., the nonprofit presenting the festival. The Glass engagement was meant to be a weekend celebration of the composer’s 80th birthday featuring performances and talks with Glass and the Philip Glass Ensemble.

09/10/17 -- Belmont, MA -- L-R: Musicians Beth Welty, Ryan Noe, Kate Foss, Michael Hartt, and Ben Fox pose for a portrait on September 10, 2017, in Belmont, Massachusetts. All of these musicians say they are owed money by the Newport Contemporary Music Series. (Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe)

Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe

Musicians Beth Welty, Ryan Noe, Kate Foss, Michael Hartt, and Ben Fox all say they are owed money by the Newport Contemporary Music Series.

But the trouble began in October, when Van Anglen missed his first payment, said Linda Brumbach, founder of the production company staging the Glass concerts. Brumbach let it slide after Van Anglen assured her everything was on track.

But another red flag appeared when Van Anglen failed to secure the large concert venues they’d discussed. His solution: Hold the concerts at the Rogers High School auditorium in Newport.

“I don’t usually have the Philip Glass Ensemble performing in a high school auditorium, so I was concerned,” said Brumbach, who sent her team for a site visit in May. “Paul didn’t show up for this meeting.”

Van Anglen soon missed his second advance payment, which prompted Brumbach to pull Glass from the series. She said that she has since written Van Anglen several letters, requesting a cancellation fee.

“He stopped communicating with me altogether,” said Brumbach, who said she’s personally out $15,000 after compensating her team for work they did or gave up to participate. “It was a huge loss.”

Van Anglen declined to discuss the Glass situation in detail, saying he didn’t feel his presence was needed at the site visit and referring a question about the Glass payments to his lawyer, who did not respond to a request for comment.

At the festival’s inaugural concert, Van Anglen was slated to conduct a program including the world premiere of Previn’s “Almost an Overture” and Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.”

“He chose really challenging pieces,” said Melody Giron, a New York cellist, whose first inkling that something was off came when she didn’t receive sheet music before rehearsals.

But the real shock came when they arrived for rehearsal to find the stage in disarray, missing chairs and music stands. Musicians, some of whom had traveled from as far as Florida, said Van Anglen didn’t even take time to introduce himself to the orchestra.

It went downhill from there.

“He would get lost in very simple things,” said Boston area violist Alexander Vavilov. “His beat was really swimming, really unsteady. We had to ignore him, essentially.”

Musicians said they began whispering meter counts.

“He couldn’t count to four sometimes,” Foss said. “It was the most inept conducting I’ve probably ever seen, and that’s counting grad students.”

The players said they managed to get through the July 1 concert, but only after they cut large sections of “Appalachian Spring” from the program.

“We ended up just doing the end of it,” said Beth Welty, a violinist from Waltham. “He was like a deer in the headlights.”

Although Previn did not appear at the concert, a representative for his publisher said that it “had nothing to do with [the festival],” which had paid him for the commission.

Meanwhile, Van Anglen, who says he studied music in France, blamed his difficulties at the podium on the combined stress of conducting while managing the rest of the festival.

“It’s hard to focus on all those things at once,” said Van Anglen, who was initially scheduled to conduct all of the concerts.

But Van Anglen said an even bigger problem was brewing: A donor, who he said promised a large check, was failing to deliver. “They didn’t at the last second,” said Van Anglen, who declined to identify the donor.

Meanwhile, concertmaster Harris Shilakowsky, who as the festival’s contractor recruited orchestral musicians and served as personnel manager, told musicians they’d have to wait to be paid.

“After the concert I said [to Van Anglen], you’ve got to give me a check,” said Shilakowsky, a violinist. “He said he didn’t have his checkbook.”

Shilakowsky said Van Anglen wrote him a check the following morning for $47,000, which he deposited in his own account.

Shilakowsky repeatedly assured musicians by e-mail that payment was just around the corner, blaming the July 4 holiday and “new banking regulations . . . which create holds and delays on the transmission of funds.”

The check ultimately didn’t clear, said Shilakowsky: It either bounced or was canceled.

At one point Van Anglen did pay Shilakowsky around $14,000, and in late July Shilakowsky wrote musicians that he had “just confirmed the transfer” of the remaining funds to pay them.

“That was an error,” Shilakowsky said. “I misstated myself, and I am embarrassed about that.” Shilakowsky said he’s received around $7,500 for his work on the series and is still owed about $6,000. He said he’s paid a handful of musicians a total of around $6,500.

Meanwhile, the festival ground on with a July 15 concert featuring soloists from the New York-based International Contemporary Ensemble. Ross Karre, co-artistic director of the ensemble, said his group is still awaiting payment for the show.

Several orchestra musicians began reaching out to the Boston union for help. They discovered that although they believed they were signing a union musician’s contract — the contracts mentioned union requirements and promised payments to a union pension fund — Newport was not a union gig.

Edward Plunkett, vice president of the Providence Federation of Musicians, said it was up to the contractor to file with the union. “With a project of this magnitude, not to have a [union] contract under circumstances like that seems terribly naïve,” he said.

Shilakowsky, who previously ran the Bristol Chamber Orchestra (“never missed a payroll”), called the union issue a mistake.

“I’ve screwed up on a couple of things,” he said. “It was supposed to be a union job.”

As Van Anglen’s debts grew, tensions reached a boiling point at a rehearsal in late July when someone asked about the missing payments.

“What ensued was an hour I can’t even explain,” Giron said. “[Shilakowsky] was super upset — crying, yelling. They’re yelling at each other. [Van Anglen] starts crying. . . . It was like ‘Mozart in the Jungle’ in real life.”

Finally someone put the question to Van Anglen: “Do you have the ability to pay us?” recalled Shilakowsky. “He looked right at everybody and said: ‘Absolutely.’”

Some musicians walked out, but the young impresario’s assurance convinced many in the orchestra to go on — so long as they were paid before the concert, which was to feature an appearance by “Lord of the Rings” composer Shore.

When the musicians returned to rehearse the following morning, however, Van Anglen wasn’t there. Calls and texts went unanswered. He didn’t respond to a Facebook message.

Finally, Shilakowsky received a text, which he read aloud: “Let the musicians go: I don’t have the money to pay them if we proceed,” recalled Giron. “We’re all just like: Are you kidding me?”

Late that evening, Van Anglen sent a long, apologetic note to the musicians, acknowledging that “people are upset they have not been payed yet (and rightly so).”

“I can fully understand if this comes across as completely dysfunctional and a joke,” he continued. “I personally feel that I have completely failed in what I was promising to the community, what I was promising to you as musicians, and what I was promising the visiting artists and composers. I don’t think I could possibly be more ashamed.”

Orchestra musicians said they’ve had very little communication since from Van Anglen, and none of those contacted by the Globe said they’d been paid since the festival’s demise.

Roughly 10 musicians have filed small-claims suits against Van Anglen, and Shiu, whose Boston union is helping members cover costs, said many more plan to file.

Van Anglen said he took no money for his work on the festival and sold about 330 tickets for the three concerts he staged. He said he’s doing odd jobs, trying to raise money, and hoping to reschedule the canceled shows “after everything is taken care of.”

“It’s basically going to come from private donors or some kind of mix between private donors and a bank loan,” he said. “I would hope to [make payment] in the next month or so, but I’m not 100 percent on that.”

Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay.
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