Judge Allows Composer to Sue Brooklyn Philharmonic for Breach of Contract

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A Brooklyn Supreme Court judge has denied an attempt by the Brooklyn Philharmonic to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the composer Nathan Currier, who alleges that the orchestra broke a contract by abruptly terminating the premiere of his oratorio mid-performance at Avery Fisher Hall.

“It was disappointing and it will be appealed,” said Harvey Mars, the Philharmonic's attorney in a phone interview. A conference between the two parties is scheduled for May 28.

The lawsuit, filed in Brooklyn Supreme Court, alleges that the Brooklyn Philharmonic stopped the April 21, 2004 performance of Currier’s two-hour Gaian Variations mid-stream so that the musicians wouldn’t go into overtime.

Currier, a Juilliard-trained composer who has won a number of industry prizes, is seeking compensatory damages of $72,000, the amount he paid the orchestra to premiere his magnum opus, which is scored for a full orchestra, chorus, string quartet, vocal soloists and assorted soloists. The performance became undone when, during the second intermission of the evening-length performance, Philharmonic CEO Catherine Cahill summoned Currier backstage to an emergency meeting.

Cahill told Currier that the performance was running long, and he faced significant overtime costs unless he made cuts to his piece. Flabbergasted, but lacking the funds to pay overtime, the composer attempted to salvage the situation by cutting three movements from the middle of Act Three, thereby ensuring the finale would still be played.

But instead of adhering to the cuts, at 10:45 pm, the orchestra apparently decided on another solution and abruptly ended the piece (overtime would begin at 11 pm). The New York Times savaged the oratorio in a review, saying the composer “seemed unable to end the work,” and that the concert stopped “as the piece neared the three hour mark.”

Justice David Schmidt allowed for the lawsuit to go ahead on May 5. Currier declined to discuss the case, but wrote in an e-mail: “I am happy that Judge Schmidt has been giving his attention to the case, and hope that it gets resolved soon, as I believe that Gaian Variations, which concerns how our planet self-regulates, is not only still relevant, but in fact is becoming more pertinent to our society by the day.”

The Gaian Variations is said to be based on the Gaia theory, which views the Earth as a single self-regulating entity.

Currier's lawsuit hinges on the interpretation of union rules for intermissions. Some officials at the Philharmonic believed that the musicians were entitled to two 20-minute breaks during the performance while other officials understood the breaks should last no more than 12 minutes. What followed, according to Currier, was a concert with two breaks totaling 29 minutes, timings that he had not anticipated.

“The record demonstrates a sharp disagreement, even among the employees and officials of BPO engaged in producing Gaian Variations over the proper interpretation” of the intermissions, Justice Schmidt wrote in court documents. He added that while Currier did not articulate at his deposition the damages he's suffered, “that does not defeat his claim.”

Mars, the orchestra’s attorney, said the suit could severely damage the orchestra, which has a recent history of financial troubles. He added that it could be as long as a year before the suit goes to trial, should his appeal be denied.