Audubon String Quartet Lawsuit Mixes Music, Business

Members of one of the top string quartets in the world are ordered to pay more than $500,000 to a former colleague. The violinist claimed other members mistreated him when they tried to fire him. WHYY's Joel Rose reports.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel, with a story about music, friendship and business all gone awry. The members of the Audubon Quartet, a top string quartet, have been ordered to pay over half a million dollars to one of their former colleagues. He was a violinist in the group who sued, claiming the other three members mistreated him when they tried to fire him. From member station WHYY, Joel Rose has the story.

JOEL ROSE reporting:

They were once considered one of the better quartets in the country.

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ROSE: After the Audubon Quartet was founded in 1974, it won several top international string quartet competitions, recorded albums and played for President Jimmy Carter. By the 1980s, it was the quartet in residence at Virginia Tech. But by the end of the '90s, cellist and founder Tom Shaw says the quartet was falling apart.

Mr. TOM SHAW (Cellist; Founder, Audubon Quartet): We had had a severe period of time of disagreements and arguments inside the quartet. They had to do with money. They had to do with balance issues, artistic differences.

ROSE: String quartets are tightly knit groups. The friction between musicians is routine. Such famous groups as the Budapest and Tokyo string quartets had well-publicized internal quarrels. Arnold Steinhardt has been the first violinist of the Guarneri String Quartet for 42 years. He wrote a book called "Indivisible by Four" about the group's internal politics.

Mr. ARNOLD STEINHARDT (Guarneri String Quartet; Author, "Indivisible by Four"): It's a little bit like living in a spaceship, four guys in a spaceship. We do everything--almost everything together. We travel together. We rehearse together. We perform together. We go to parties together afterwards. And so it takes some skills that are in addition to playing your instrument well and being good musicians. And I guess most groups that break up don't break up necessarily for musical reasons; it's just that they can't ultimately get along in this compressed atmosphere.

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ROSE: Steinhardt once taught Audubon Quartet cellist Tom Shaw, who said the turmoil pitted himself and two other members against violinist David Ehrlich. The Israeli-born musician joined the quartet in 1984, but by 2000 the relationship between the musicians had become strained.

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ROSE: That year, Shaw says he and the other members found out that Ehrlich had been trying to persuade Virginia Tech to buy a new million-dollar violin for his use without telling the other musicians. Ehrlich later claimed in court they not only knew but supported him. Nevertheless, Shaw says the quartet had a fateful confrontation in February of 2000.

Mr. SHAW: David pulled out a piece of paper and he instructed us to listen. He was going to read a statement. He went on to tell us in his opinion that the quartet was spinning out of control and that he was going to take steps to put a stop to that. But the blow came when he announced that he had initiated two lawsuits against me.

ROSE: David Ehrlich would later testify that he had not yet filed any lawsuits and was hoping to push the quartet into therapy. But second violinist Akemi Takayama says emotions had escalated to the point that she knew the musical relationship was over.

Ms. AKEMI TAKAYAMA (Audubon Quartet): It's as if he brought a gun to the studio and then pointed a gun to Tom's head and said, `I'm going to do what think unless you listen to me.' And I can't go back. It was not possible to even think about playing music with David again.

ROSE: So Takayama and the other members of the quartet took steps to fire him. Within two weeks, they gave Ehrlich a letter of termination. A few days after that, he sued them. David Ehrlich would not speak on tape for this story. His lawyer, David Alpern, says Ehrlich objected to the way he was asked to leave the group.

Mr. DAVID ALPERN (Lawyer for David Ehrlich): To fire him without notice and without any opportunity to ameliorate the problems that apparently existed. He felt that there were other remedies that should have been taken by the other three rather than his abrupt dismissal.

ROSE: Ehrlich filed suit in Pennsylvania, where the quartet was incorporated as a non-profit. It's not unusual for chamber groups to incorporate; they do this for tax purposes and so they can apply for grants. In some way, says violinist Arnold Steinhardt, a string quartet is just like any other business with four equal partners.

Mr. STEINHARDT: I don't know that this is any different in a string quartet than it would be, let's say, with four people who are running a business of one kind or another. How do they do it? How do they do it if they're in the dry cleaning business or whatever? There has to be some kind of give and take.

ROSE: For the members of the Audubon Quartet, that proved impossible. After a failed mediation attempt, the case went to court in October of 2000. David Ehrlich said the other musicians had violated his rights by removing him without adequate notice or compensation. Tom Shaw argued that as the corporation's president, he was entitled to fire the violinist. Even before the case wound up in court, the musicians had gone public with their dispute. Ron Brune(ph), a former labor attorney and music critic in Maryland, says that was a mistake.

Mr. RON BRUNE (Former Labor Attorney; Music Critic): It's highly unusual for a major string quartet to let the cat out of the bag to members of the public, the university they work for, the newspaper even. And after three, four years of this, their reputations, all four of them, are so blackened that I've never seen the like of it.

ROSE: It got worse for three of them. The judge sided with Ehrlich and ordered the other musicians to pay his legal fees, a quarter of the quartet's assets at the time of his firing, plus a quarter of the quartet's value as a corporation. The judge determined the quartet was worth $1.6 million. Violist Doris Lederer, who is married to cellist Tom Shaw, says the three musicians can't come up with the more than $600,000 they're being told to pay.

Ms. DORIS LEDERER (Audubon Quartet): We'd lose everything, everything that we own. Tom and I own our home. I own my viola. Tom owns a cello. I mean, it's one thing to lose your home, which is traumatic enough. But when they start talking about taking away your instrument, which to musicians, it's like your own voice; it's like cutting off a limb off of your body.

ROSE: After the ruling, Lederer, Shaw and Takayama say they made more settlement offers to David Ehrlich, offers they say he ignored or refused. They contend that Ehrlich is being vindictive by insisting on the full amount of the judgment. It's a charge his attorney, David Alpern, denies.

Mr. ALPERN: This is a tragedy. This is a tragedy from his point of view as well as from the debtors' point of view. He lost his job. He was unemployed. He has spent what for him I'm sure is a small fortune in exercising his rights, in addition to it distracting from his professional career.

ROSE: Virginia Tech has since rehired Ehrlich. Lederer and Shaw work at nearby Shenandoah College, and they still perform as the Audubon Quartet with Takayama and a new violinist. But it appears the judgment against them will soon come due. A bankruptcy court in Virginia may authorize the seizure of their property and instruments as soon as next week. Attorney and music critic Ron Brune says the outcome is indeed tragic.

Mr. BRUNE: For years and years and years, so many decisions were arrived at musically through the members of the quartet, but they couldn't sit down for 20 minutes and arrive at equitable decisions involving their assets.

ROSE: Instead, says Brune, it appears the story will end with four losers and no real winner. For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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