Sour Notes

Underneath its glossy exterior, the Cleveland Orchestra has a dark side. His name is William Preucil.

William Preucil Cleveland Orchestra
Severance Hall is a seductive place. Its high-ceilinged walls were patterned after the wedding dress of John Long Severance's deceased wife. With its Gothic archways, the building is like a monument to romance.

The heart of the room is the stage. Weekend nights, women in long black gowns and men in crisp tuxes play music of passion and love. Their eyes and bodies express sorrow, desire, and joy as their bows move urgently across the strings of their instruments. To sit in the hall, listening as the notes meet, merge, and rise heavenward, is to understand fully the weight of romantic emotion.

As concertmaster, William Preucil is the most powerful man in the Cleveland Orchestra. Situated in the seat closest to the audience, the 49-year-old crouches over as he plays, his rangy body curved into the shape of a "c." To the audience, it appears that his violin, tucked firmly under his chin, is an extension of his body. His feet begin to tap, his chest sways, and his head nods rhythmically. When the notes turn dramatic, his bow cuts so furiously into his violin that it looks as if the instrument might break. It's easy to fall for the man's grace, power, and aura.

Many have. When he arrived here 12 years ago, he was celebrated as a savior, a gifted concertmaster who would cement Cleveland's place in the upper echelon of world orchestras.

"Bill is one of the greatest concertmasters in the world," says Gary Hanson, executive director of the Cleveland Orchestra. "It's only appopriate for him to be playing for one of the greatest orchestras in the world."

But soon after Preucil arrived, he began to use his power for his own benefit, pushing for his family members to gain prominent spots on the orchestra floor, several members say. And as a teacher at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Preucil made an unwanted advance toward one of his students, say several people who know the woman involved. When the relationship threatened to become public, CIM paid for the student to transfer schools and continue her musical education elsewhere.

Now, as the consequences of Preucil's arrogance mount, some within the orchestra are wondering: Will the man who was supposed to save the orchestra end up destroying it?

When William Preucil arrived in 1995, the Cleveland Orchestra had been working without a concertmaster for a year and a half. The former concertmaster, Daniel Majeske -- a man best known for his enthusiastic Christianity -- died suddenly of prostate cancer in November 1993.

So when it was announced that Preucil would be taking the job, people were understandably excited. The concertmaster, an esteemed violinist who sits in front of the orchestra, is considered the most important member of the group. He sets the tone and pitch, and is the person other members turn to when they're lost in the notes. In many ways, the concertmaster is the voice and face of the orchestra.

Preucil had the perfect résumé for the job. He was known worldwide as a virtuoso who wasn't afraid to take musical risks. He also owned a proud pedigree -- his father, William Sr., served as the former principal violist of the Detroit Symphony. His mother, Doris, played violin in the National Symphony and started the acclaimed Preucil School of Music in Iowa. His brothers and sisters were scattered at orchestras across the country.

"If the Preucil name is behind someone or something, people in the music world listen," says Paul Landefeld, CEO of the International Suzuki Association.

After graduating from Indiana University, Preucil worked as concertmaster at the Nashville, Utah, and Atlanta symphonies. In the late '80s, he took a job touring with the Cleveland Quartet, a group considered to be the Beatles of classical music. But the group also kept rock- star hours. In the early '90s, Preucil expressed a desire to settle down. Orchestras around the country leapt at the opportunity to hire him. Philadelphia publicly and aggressively courted him. But in a major coup for Cleveland, Preucil chose to move to Ohio.

"The Philadelphia Orchestra is a great orchestra," he said at the time. "I have great respect for everyone there. All that said, it's Cleveland where I need and want to be."

The feeling was mutual.

"When he first came, we found him to be absolutely delightful, funny, and friendly," says Martha Aarons, a former member of the orchestra.

Preucil made himself available all hours of the day. Once, when the orchestra was on tour in Hong Kong, a new member asked Preucil to give her a few pointers. With no sleep, Preucil gave the member an hour lesson and wouldn't accept any payment for it.

"When you're a lowly performer, most experienced players won't associate with you," the orchestra member says. "He was different like that."

Critics treated Preucil as if he walked on water. In 1997, a reviewer for The San Diego Union-Tribune wrote that a Preucil-led concert "transcend[ed] all ordinary musical bounds and enter[ed] the realm of near mystical." Other critics called Preucil's playing "heaven-sent," "ethereal," and "luminous."

Preucil's acclaim also benefited the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he began teaching. Just having him on staff spiked the number of applications.

"He's the concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra and an amazing teacher," says Susan Schwartz, spokeswoman for the Cleveland Institute of Music. "That's an amazing draw."

Students worshiped him as well.

"He's just a charming, witty guy," says former student Josh Roman, who would time his cigarette breaks to coincide with Preucil's. "We used to sit around and listen to his recordings all the time in the dorm."

Unlike many orchestra members, Preucil traveled by himself on tours, leaving his wife and young child at home in Cleveland. To keep himself busy during the two-week stretches, he'd spend nights playing poker.

The Cleveland Orchestra has long been praised for its artistry and precision. In 1994, Time magazine declared it "the best band in the land," and in 2005, The New Yorker proclaimed the orchestra "the finest in America."

Cleveland, however, runs its operations differently than most top-flight orchestras -- especially in regard to auditions. In most other cities, a screen is erected between player and judge to ensure an unbiased opinion of the playing.

"Having a screen forces [judges] to be much more objective," says Ariane Todes, editor of The Strad magazine, the bible of the violin industry. "It's the most fair way to listen to anyone and evaluate them."

In Cleveland, however, the directors claim there's no need for a screen.

"It's always been that way," says Hanson, the executive director. "The quality of our orchestra is the best argument for the success of our audition process."

But experts say that without a screen, it's much easier for judging to become corrupt. And since William Preucil has come on staff, some orchestra members say that's exactly what happened. His sister, brother-in-law, and daughter have all won coveted spots in the orchestra. Preucil sits on the audition committee at every violin tryout and has never recused himself.

"It's an abuse of power" when relatives are allowed to judge each other, says violist Eliesha Nelson.

In 1997, Preucil's brother-in-law, Steve Rose, was the first Preucil family member to receive a spot in the orchestra. Later, Preucil pushed for Rose to receive the position of associate concertmaster, members claim. In meetings with other members of the judging committee, Preucil trashed other candidates for the job and claimed he couldn't work with anyone but Steve.

"It was complete character assassination," says violinist Lev Polyakin.

Rose didn't get the part of associate concertmaster, but he did earn a coveted spot as principal second violin, a prestigious position that comes with a salary increase and an automatic seat on the audition committee. The Preucils now had two seats on the judging panel, which typically consists of between 5 and 10 members.

In 1998, a free spot opened up in the violin section for the orchestra's China tour. Without calling for an open casting, the position automatically went to Preucil's younger sister, Jeanne -- Rose's wife -- despite the fact that she was not a member of the orchestra.

Members were outraged. "She went on a tour just because she was a sister of Preucil," says Polyakin. This was Preucil's way of getting his sister an advantage in future auditions. "Once she had one leg in, it was easy to get the other one in too," Polyakin adds.

In January 1999, Jeanne was granted a full-time position in the orchestra.

Orchestra members began whispering about nepotism. The cries became more pronounced, however, when Preucil's oldest daughter, Lexi, auditioned.

A reedy girl with her father's eyes and her mother's grace, Lexi had recently graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Music. In her studies, she'd showed promise as a violinist, though she'd never performed with a major orchestra outside of Cleveland.

Preucil's daughter, along with twenty-some other musicians, auditioned for an open seat. Her tryout was judged by both father and uncle. Despite her youthfulness and inexperience, she was one of just six hopefuls to advance to the final round -- even though she was one of the least impressive applicants, according to one member.

Ultimately, Lexi wasn't given the spot, but her father has nonetheless found ways to get her onstage. On last summer's European tour, Lexi was asked to fill the seat of a senior member out on maternity leave, leapfrogging more experienced members and outside performers for the prestigious position.

"It obviously has a high level of unfair written all over it," says one member of the orchestra, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution from Preucil.

Preucil, for his part, denies that he has any influence over the selection process.

"The Music Director makes the hiring decisions and, like every member of an audition committee, I have no special status in the process nor any authority or influence over the Music Director's decisions," he wrote in an e-mail response to Scene's questions.

Hanson, the orchestra's executive director, backs Preucil's claim, saying in a written statement that "in no case has Bill Preucil or any other audition committee member held or attempted to hold undue influence over an audition outcome."

But that doesn't quiet the suspicions of some orchestra members, who wonder if anyone will have a chance of beating Lexi in the next audition.

"We're starting to get a reputation: 'Why should I fly out there?'" one orchestra member says.

All of this has given rise to questions about whether Preucil has too much influence over the prestigious institution. Says one orchestra member: "If you took an anonymous poll today, 85 percent of the orchestra would say Preucil has too much power."

Employees of the Cleveland Orchestra and CIM have long talked about Preucil's affinity for female students. His gaze, they claim, lingers a bit too long on a woman's chest. His comments are a bit too sexually charged for the teacher-student relationship.

"Preucil and his girls -- oh God, yeah, he's legendary for it," says one member of the orchestra, who didn't want his name used.

In 2004, one such "girl" came forward with specific accusations. The woman, whose name Scene is withholding to protect her identity, had been a student of Preucil's since her freshman year.

Junior year had been a tough one for her. According to multiple sources close to the student, she and her boyfriend had just broken up, and she was feeling insecure emotionally and musically.

Preucil provided his student with the confidence she needed. He took a fatherly interest in her, taking her to dinner and giving her private lessons to boost her confidence, her friends claim. The woman was grateful for the personal attention.

But the relationship changed after the young violinist was chosen to appear in a student-faculty recital alongside Preucil, her friends say. During a private rehearsal for the show, Preucil overtly hit on the young woman, rubbing himself against her and making a lewd advance.

Shaken, the woman went to the dean and president of the school, her friends say. A deal was struck. In return for the woman's silence, the school would transfer her to another teacher's studio. At the end of the year, it would pay for her to audition and fly out to other music schools. It would also pay for her education at the school she chose. The deal was good, however, only if she kept it confidential. It is for this reason, sources say, that the woman couldn't speak to Scene.

School spokespeople will neither deny nor confirm the allegations.

"We don't respond to rumors," says Susan Schwartz. Pressed to provide a better explanation, she says, "When a rule is broken . . . we handle it internally. It's kept confidential for many reasons . . . If it's taken care of, why would the student want people to know; why harm a faculty member needlessly?"

The next week, CIM e-mailed an official statement from the president, David Cerone, which reads in part: "The Cleveland Institute of Music is exceptionally sensitive to the welfare of its students and is thoroughly committed to providing a safe and comfortable working and learning environment for all of its constituents . . . When any issues are brought to the attention of the CIM administration, it has consistently taken prompt, immediate and decisive action to gather the facts and confidentially resolve the matter in full accordance with CIM's published policies."

The woman now attends a prominent music school on the East Coast.

People questioned about the scenario weren't surprised at the idea of Preucil, a married man, flirting with a student.

Preucil, for his part, doesn't deny the allegations regarding the student. In response to a question left on his answering machine, he sent an e-mail that read: "With respect to your question regarding my work at CIM, I can only presume that the rumors you hear are based on an incident that occurred a few years ago when there was a dispute over the nature of an interaction I had with a student. The issue was fully reviewed by the institution and was resolved to everyone's satisfaction."

Arrogance and entitlement have a price. Some members of the Cleveland Orchestra feel that the cost has gotten too high. They believe Preucil needs to be reined in.

As a world-famous violinist, Preucil often travels the country giving private lessons and holding solo recitals. It's a way to increase his spotlight and fatten his wallet. But it also means that Preucil is often absent from Cleveland. This hurts not only his own playing, but that of the section he's supposed to be leading, members say.

"Bill travels as much as any conductor," says one orchestra member, who didn't want to be named. "Just like a conductor, he's here only 12 or 13 weeks. He's on a plane the rest of the time. And when he's here, he's not really here."

Members worry about the future of the orchestra, especially with the way that auditions are being run. Not only does Preucil favor family members at auditions, he also favors his students -- many of whom have never played in a major orchestra.

"We've been lucky so far," says the orchestra member. "A lot of people see 'Cleveland audition,' and they roll their eyes. They know there's no screen here, that something weird's going on, and they won't try out."

Additionally, there's the problem of money. During the past six years, the orchestra has lost 5 of its top 10 corporate bankrollers. Ticket sales have stalled, The New Yorker reported in 2005.

Meanwhile, Preucil was the top-paid concertmaster in the country during the 2002-2003 season. The average concertmaster salary was $190,113. Preucil made more than three times that.

"If he's going to be paid so much and have so much power, he needs to be here a lot more," another member grouses.

But orchestra administrators dismiss these concerns.

"Bill is a great leader of the Cleveland Orchestra," Hanson says. "He came here with a style of playing that fit in beautifully."

And despite the allegations of misconduct, CIM says it has no plans to get rid of Preucil.

"I can't predict the future," says Schwartz. "But I don't believe there's any reason we would ask him to leave."

In the end, the music community is an insular world. For orchestra members to speak out publicly against one of their own is considered a betrayal. After the CIM student stepped forward with her accusations against Preucil, she was ostracized by peers, her friends say. She still worries that her career will be forever sullied if her name is outed.

Meanwhile, on a recent Friday night, the orchestra members played a sweeping, two-hour concert. Through it all, William Preucil sat front and center. When the performance was over, the conductor shook Preucil's hand, as is usual, to acknowledge his leadership. Preucil looked briefly toward the audience. The applause was thunderous.

Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.
Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.