[Dixielandjazz] Hell Hath No Fury Like A Musician Scorned

Steve barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Thu Dec 15 13:33:04 PST 2005

Larry Walton Entertainment - St. Louis at larrys.bands at charter.net wrote:

>   What is the genesis of this story? (The Audubon Quartet lawsuit/Judgement)

OK, since you asked, here is all the dirty laundry:


Blacksburg, Va. ‹The Audubon String Quartet was whimsically named 31 years
ago by four young string players to evoke nature's lyrical beauty and an
earlier, more innocent America. But in the world of classical music, it has
since come to stand for an ugly, almost epic legal feud that has damaged
lives and divided loyalties. It is a bitter story, in which music plays no
redemptive role.

The feud pits the cellist, violist and second violinist against the first
violinist, whom they ousted from the quartet in early 2000. He sued and won
a $611,000 judgment, sending the other three to bankruptcy court.

Now, after nearly six years of legal battling, what may be the last chapter
is playing out in a Virginia courthouse. A bankruptcy trustee is seeking to
liquidate the assets of the violist and the cellist, a married couple. They
face the loss of their house, car, snowblower, lawn mower, bank accounts
and, most painfully, their instruments. Another trustee is seeking control
of the second violinist's instrument.

"I've never imagined something like this before," said Clyde Shaw, the
cellist. "It's just the judicial system gone awry. It's a horrible, horrible
thing. Our instruments are our voices, our souls."

For his side, the matter is simple: musicians should be able to choose whom
to play with. Their former colleague, the other three say, has manipulated
the legal system, and in the process violated the conventions of chamber

David Ehrlich, their antagonist, said he felt sad that his former colleagues
might lose their instruments. "Yes, it's a tragedy," he said, but he had to
protect his reputation and recover the life's savings - more than a half
million dollars - he spent in legal fees. Mr. Ehrlich, a former junior
tennis champ who still has the tenacity of a competitive athlete, says his
ouster was a result of a conspiracy. "I would never have gone the distance
if I did not believe very, very strongly that this was really outrageous,"
he insisted. "I want to be whole again."

The three defendants are seeking permission in a state court in Pennsylvania
to appeal the judgment. Meanwhile, a bankruptcy hearing about finalizing the
liquidation is scheduled for Tuesday. "It's do or die in Pennsylvania," Mr.
Shaw, the burly son of an amateur country guitarist, said at his home here.

It would be a cliché, not to mention false, to say that such ugly conflict
contrasts with the genteel world of classical music. The field is as rife
with passions as any other. But those passions are supposed to be kept
private. For a conflict to spill into the courts and the public arena in
this way is, musicians say, unprecedented. With all the vitriol and
heartache of a bad divorce, it has consumed the lives of those involved, and
become a cautionary tale for string players who come together to play the
bedrock pieces of the Western chamber music canon.

Mr. Shaw, now 56, also known as Tom, is the only member of the group who was
there at its founding in 1974. His wife, Doris Lederer, joined in 1976 and
has been the violist ever since. In those early years, the Audubon won
several competitions, played at the White House, received glowing reviews,
made a rare tour in China and won financial security with a paid residency
at Virginia Tech.

Mr. Ehrlich arrived in 1984, and in many ways things seemed stable. Mr. Shaw
and Mr. Ehrlich, who lived near each other, would talk about photography;
Mr. Shaw's two sons even studied piano with Mr. Ehrlich's wife, Teresa.

Beneath the surface, however, tensions were growing. David Salness, who at
the time was the group's second violinist, said Mr. Ehrlich was at odds with
him and his colleagues early on over matters musical and nonmusical. "I
think that he liked to hear himself a lot," Mr. Salness said. "Tom, Doris
and I are more from the American democratically conceived approach to both
sharing of ideas, and in the contribution."

Mr. Ehrlich agrees that there were arguments but says the real problems
predated him. The group had run through five other first violinists and
dismissed one of them. "It shows some dysfunctionality," he said.

In 1993, during a rehearsal at the quartet's spare studio here at Virginia
Tech, Mr. Ehrlich announced that he and his wife were starting a music
school. A spirited discussion followed.

"I saw a conflict of interest," Mr. Shaw said, and a use of Mr. Ehrlich's
group affiliation to further individual ends.

Mr. Ehrlich saw jealousy. Mr. Shaw had suggested an educational effort by
the quartet as a whole some years earlier and was shot down. "It was just
killing him," Mr. Ehrlich said in court testimony.

Arguments started breaking out during rehearsals. Mr. Ehrlich said he was
being drowned out by the other players and began to dream of owning a violin
with a bigger sound. But still the quartet kept performing, and issuing

In 1997, Mr. Salness had had enough. "I chose to extricate myself from the
situation," he said.

Mr. Ehrlich told the two remaining members that he felt isolated by them.
But together, they agreed to regroup and try again. They hired a replacement
for Mr. Salness, Akemi Takayama, a young Japanese violinist. Mr. Ehrlich
said he immediately took her under his wing, even lending her a bow.

In retrospect, Ms. Takayama, who is a defendant in the case, said she felt
used. "I was close to him in the beginning because he needed my support,"
she said. "He came off as sincere, but that was only to have me on his
side." Mr. Ehrlich accused her of joining the others to usurp his first

Then came what can be called the Bergonzi Affair.

Mr. Ehrlich had located an 18th-century Carlo Bergonzi violin with the sound
he wanted, and he wrote several letters soliciting donations for its
purchase, in exchange for free concerts by the quartet. Mr. Shaw, claiming
that Mr. Ehrlich never told the quartet, was outraged at what he saw as
"back-channel" dealings.

Mr. Ehrlich, who called the Bergonzi issue a "red herring," said he had told
Mr. Shaw and Ms. Lederer, and pointed out that the quartet had approved a
similar plan years earlier. A university foundation eventually acquired a
1735 Bergonzi for him. Mr. Shaw said it at times crushed the sound of the
other instruments.

In the summer of 1998, Mr. Ehrlich said he learned that Mr. Shaw had gone
behind his back to the music department seeking his removal. "When I heard
that, I freaked out," Mr. Ehrlich recalled. He demanded that Mr. Shaw resign
and, Mr. Shaw said, raised the threat of a lawsuit for the first time. (Mr.
Shaw, for his part, says he was merely inquiring about the contested
dismissal of a cello teacher from Mr. Ehrlich's Renaissance Music Academy.)

Matters came to a head during a rehearsal in early 2000, when Mr. Ehrlich
demanded expense money that was in dispute. Tempers flared, and the
confrontation almost became physical.

"Akemi told me to sit down," Mr. Ehrlich testified. " 'Are you telling me to
sit down like a dog?' She said: 'Yes. Just sit down.' " He says the petite
Ms. Takayama physically blocked the door.

On Feb. 8, 2000, Mr. Ehrlich met with the other members, again in the
group's studio. The quartet was spinning out of control, he said. He had
initiated lawsuits against them and would move forward with the cases unless
the quartet sought counseling, Mr. Shaw recalled, adding that Mr. Ehrlich
refused to elaborate on the lawsuits. (Mr. Ehrlich has since declined to
comment on that point, citing the pending litigation, but confirmed the rest
of the account.) 

The quartet members considered it blackmail. "It was like putting a gun to
your head," Mr. Shaw said. "The die was cast." On Feb. 21, 2000, the three
handed Mr. Ehrlich a letter, prepared by a lawyer and signed by Mr. Shaw,
dismissing him from the group.

Hand over your music, all quartet documents and the quartet American Express
card, he was ordered. Give the Bergonzi back to the university. Return your
studio key. And do so by 5 p.m. "Failure to return all quartet property in
your possession will result in the filing of a criminal complaint," he was

Perhaps the dismissal was harsh, Ms. Lederer later acknowledged. "But how
would it have been different with a man like this?" she said.

Two days later, Mr. Ehrlich sued, charging wrongful termination. He won
injunctions barring the members from performing as the Audubon without court
permission, a ban that lasted a year and a half. Their management dropped
them. So did Virginia Tech. "They didn't exist as a quartet," said a Tech
spokesman, Larry Hincker.

But they still had concerts to play, including a performance at a Richmond
Jewish community center. Mr. Shaw told the audience, which included Mr.
Ehrlich, that because the court would not allow the Audubon to play as a
quartet, they would present duos and trios, including music from the
Theresienstadt concentration camp. He compared the situation with the Nazi
oppression of Jewish musicians.

Mr. Ehrlich condemned the equation. "As a Jewish person, this was
tremendously insulting to me," he said. Mr. Shaw called it a "poetic
comparison." On Oct. 12, after 18 months of legal combat, Judge Timothy
Patrick O'Reilly, of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Pa.,
dealt the three members a devastating blow. They could continue to play as
the Audubon, he said, but he decided against them on nearly every other

Viewing the quartet as a business whose "product was their musical
performances," he applied corporate legal principles to declare Mr. Ehrlich
an owner and director, and found that the other members had unfairly
squeezed him out. Mr. Ehrlich was awarded $132,844 in lawyers' fees and
$78,275 in quartet funds. But, more important, the judge said Mr. Ehrlich
was also entitled to 25 percent of the quartet's "value" as a business. He
placed that amount at $400,000, partly based on the expert opinion of a
finance professor at Virginia Tech who is also a friend of Mr. Ehrlich's.

"He just had his share of the business coming to him," the judge said in a
recent interview. 

The other three, saying they were unable to pay the judgment, filed for
various bankruptcy protections. Mr. Ehrlich put liens on their property
between two such filings. Now they find themselves in Chapter 7: involuntary
liquidation. All told, Mr. Shaw said his side had spent hundreds of
thousands of dollars in legal fees - perhaps close to the original judgment.

"We're completely impoverished," Mr. Shaw said. "We're hounded by something
that's relentless and something that's persistent beyond imagination."

Ms. Lederer said: "The very essence of this whole case is, how is it
possible for three people who dismiss one person and end up like that?"

Back in Blacksburg, Mr. Ehrlich, 56, speaks with quiet outrage at what he
sees as a gang of bullies taking away his living. "It turned into a life or
death war, and I was to go down one way or another," he said.

Interviewed at the airy home of a supporter, he described his love for
string quartets. He repeated several times that he was known as an easy
person to work with. And he expressed anger about the way he was fired.
"When you take somebody's livelihood away, you need to do it with dignity
and sensitivity, and you need to follow the law," he said. "If I hadn't
cleared my name, I believe no one would have wanted to work with me again."

Mr. Ehrlich is keenly aware of how he is perceived. "This is not a
popularity contest," he said. "It's about my life and three other people who
attempted to take my livelihood and assassinate my character. I had to
defend myself. I'm not the evil one."

In the area around Virginia Tech, the quartet is well known. Each side has
gathered passionate supporters from town and gown. Competing Web sites bulge
with court documents and decisions. Letters and opinion pieces occasionally
rocket forth from The Roanoke Times.

The classical music world is divided, with members of quartets including the
Juilliard, Emerson and Mendelssohn and other musicians around the country
backing the defendants. Mr. Ehrlich's resort to lawsuits has angered many.
"To take it to the court system seems contrary to the spirit of chamber
music," said Eugene Drucker, of the Emerson String Quartet.

"The idea of a musician taking other musicians' instruments away from them
is something I find quite appalling," said Peter Schickele, the composer
behind P.D.Q. Bach, whose First Quartet was commissioned by the Audubon.

But Mr. Ehrlich has plenty of supporters, too. They include several members
of the esteemed Vermeer and Guarneri quartets, the pianist Anton Kuerti and
several prominent teachers.

Marc Johnson of the Vermeer called the way he was dismissed
"unconscionable." "You get two weeks notice at McDonald's," he said. Mr.
Kuerti said that with all the years Mr. Ehrlich gave to make the quartet a
first-class ensemble, "one couldn't expect him to walk away with nothing."

Needless to say, artistic and personal divides are not rare in an emotional
hothouse where four people travel, hash through rehearsals and perform
together. In "Indivisible by Four," a profile of the Guarneri Quartet by its
first violinist, Arnold Steinhardt, he likens a string quartet to "Siamese
quadruplets" or rock climbers roped together. But most quartets have rules
to keep tensions in check. In the Guarneri, Mr. Steinhardt writes, the
players avoid complimenting one another so as not to stir resentments and
expectations. In the Brentano String Quartet, every member has an equal
voice, said Mark Steinberg, the first violinist. And usually, when three
members decide a fourth must go, the departure is gradual, or accompanied by
a monetary settlement. But not in the case of the Audubon.

Now, as Virginia Tech looks toward the Gator Bowl, the parties in Ehrlich v.
Audubon Quartet are trying to continue their lives.

Mr. Ehrlich teaches at his academy and directs a small chamber music series
in town. He has returned to Virginia Tech as a salaried fellow of fine arts.
He rarely plays in quartets now.

Ms. Takayama, 38, the mother of four boys under 6, is concertmaster of the
Roanoke Symphony. Mr. Shaw and Ms. Lederer teach at Shenandoah Conservatory
in Winchester, Va., about three hours from Blacksburg. And the Audubon is
back in business, with Ellen Jewett as the other violinist - alternating the
first chair with Ms. Takayama. It has new management and plays about 15
concerts a year. But it is not easy. Mr. Shaw said some presenters fear
being sued. "We're radioactive," he said.

How did it come to this? How did the tension between Mr. Ehrlich and the
other members of the quartet lead to a six-year legal battle that has
scorched the earth beneath their feet?

The personalities of Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Shaw - both stubborn men -
contributed, as did their strong feelings for the quartet. "It's my life,"
Mr. Shaw said. "It's my identity." The quartet's deal with Virginia Tech, a
residency that provided each with $50,000 in yearly salary in exchange for
relatively light duty, might also have raised the stakes. And it led the
judge to set a high figure for the group's value.

During the lawsuit, both sides said they had made repeated settlement offers
and that they were ignored or rejected. Judge O'Reilly said anger got in the
way. "There was a lot of money that could have been used to soothe this
thing over, and it probably would have gotten settled," he said. "They're
high-strung artistic people. I guess an artistic divide occurred."

During the interview, Mr. Ehrlich took a pause from making his case and said
quietly, "We have created this mess totally, beautifully, by our own

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