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Classical 101

Cleveland Institute of Music grapples with student protest of head of orchestral studies

 Students walk to rehearsal at the Cleveland Institute of Music where a protest was planned Wednesday.
Dmitri Ashakih
Ideastream Public Media
Students walk to rehearsal at the Cleveland Institute of Music where a protest was planned Wednesday.

A protest planned for Wednesday at the Cleveland Institute of Music could involve punishment for students who refuse to play their instruments at rehearsal.

Ideastream Public Media observed students walking into rehearsal, many wearing blue, which the president of student government encouraged as a sign of unity.

CIM’s student government announced online days ago a planned protest, where students would sit silently without instruments, during Wednesday afternoon’s orchestra rehearsal in protest of Carlos Kalmar, principal conductor and director of orchestral studies and the conducting program.

The school cleared him last month after an investigation into accusations of inappropriate behavior. However, student government is circulating a petition calling for his resignation. A flyer about the planned protest says students have “lost trust” in him and are uncomfortable under his leadership.

This week, administration told students via email that they “may receive an unapproved absence” if they participate in the sit-in.

A junior at CIM told Ideastream Wednesday that she wasn’t sure if she would participate in the protest or not as she was worried about repercussions from the school. She asked to remain anonymous for the same reason. The student said she has had instruction from Kalmar, and she has been intimidated he will single her out in front of her peers based on the treatment of others.

"I think that if such a massive part of the community is so uncomfortable with him being here today, that the school should definitely acknowledge that," she said.

Students walked to rehearsal Wednesday, many wearing blue, which was encouraged as a way to demonstrate unity by the student government president.
Dmitri Ashakih
Ideastream Public Media
Students walked to rehearsal Wednesday, many wearing blue, which was encouraged as a way to demonstrate unity by the student government president.

Student government countered the threat of school discipline on social media by encouraging protesters to “stay silent and civil” throughout the demonstration.

A comment on that Facebook post, from a user identifying himself as renowned composer Greg Sandow, called the protest "impressive" and asked, "I wonder what options the administration has if the protest continues. Fail every student in the orchestra?" Sandow’s wife, journalist Anne Midgette, recently declined an honorary doctorate from CIM in the wake of the investigation into Kalmar’s behavior.

On Wednesday morning, student government president Erika Cho sent an email labeled as her personal statement, reassuring those who wish to protest.

“You may feel neutral or against the protest, and that’s okay,” she wrote. “You have the opportunity to continue on your way and do what you think is best for you. Just be open-minded to the students that wish to express their concerns. If that’s the case, you do not have to pay attention to us and can choose to continue on with rehearsal or if you wish to support your peers, but not through the protest, we encourage you to wear blue, which signifies unity.”

Shortly after that, according to multiple sources, the school reportedly disabled the mass email distribution lists which can be used to send messages throughout campus.

The protest stems from the Title IX investigation started in April. About 30 students, faculty and staff were interviewed by former U.S. Attorney Carole Rendon. In dismissing the case, acting Title IX coordinator Dean Southern said "the conduct was not on the basis of sex, nor was it so severe or pervasive as to create an objectively offensive environment such that it denies anyone equal access to educational opportunities at CIM based on gender." The school has not commented further on the allegations or investigation.

After the investigation was announced, Title IX director Vivian Scott departed the institution for undisclosed reasons. In July, the school cut 15 percent of its administrative staff.

On September 8, the editorial board of the Observer was highly critical of CIM’s handling of the investigation and questioned why Scott was removed. The paper is part of student media at CIM’s neighbor, Case Western Reserve University. The schools run a joint music program.

Uruguayan-born and Vienna-trained, Carlos Kalmar was named director of orchestral and conducting programs at CIM in 2021, following a three-year search. He left the Oregon Symphony after 18 years as its music director to take the post. He has been artistic director of Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival since 2000.

Last month, following the dismissal of charges, festival CEO Paul Winberg told the Chicago Tribune that the outcome “reinforces our decision this spring to move forward with Carlos Kalmar as our Artistic Director and Principal Conductor through the 2024 season.”

Updated: September 13, 2023 at 4:38 PM EDT
This story was updated with photos and information gathered at CIM just ahead of the planned protest.
Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.
Dmitri Ashakih a digital producer for Ideastream Public Media.