08/24/2007 01:35 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Conductor Sues

There's a curious new twist at the intersection of art and litigation: Douglas Sanford, the conductor of the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra has brought suit against: six members of the orchestra's Players Committee, two individuals affiliated with the American Federation of Musicians Local 553, an individual affiliated with the Saskatchewan Arts Board, and the Musicians Local and the Arts Board themselves. The claim, filed in the Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench, claims damages for defamation with consequent injury to reputation, emotional distress and embarrassment. Press reports indicate that the offended maestro is seeking in excess of $200,000 in damages.

Since none of the stories that appeared on this litigation have so much as breathed a word of Il Maestro suffering any form of economic injury (such as a claim that he lost bookings, suffered a cut in earnings, etc.). I suspect that he will have a difficult time convincing a jury that the alleged defamations are worth $200,000, whether in U.S. or Canadian currency. It does not require much of a leap to expect that in the next few days we will see stories about how "this is not about the money, it is about the principle." In my practice, I have a standard reply to prospective clients who make such an argument: "Well, then, if it is not about the money, I am entirely prepared to fight to your last dollar." That usually ends the conversation right there.

Of course, had this litigation not been brought it is unlikely that very many of us would have known much of anything about tensions between the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra and its conductor. Indeed, few of us would have noticed that we are incapable of saying one true thing about the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra -- or about Douglas Sanford for that matter. One can only hope that an attorney in Saskatoon, when consulted about litigation in this case, gently told Maestro Sanford something to the effect of "Look, we can try to resolve this dust-up quietly and diplomatically. But if we bring suit it becomes public record, the media are likely to pick up the story, and the entire world will know all of the juicy details."

Whether such advice was given or not, it plainly was not heeded. It is now a matter of public record that Maestro Sanford has been accused of -- among other things -- having a "dictatorial style," engaging in "...abusive bullying tactics, shouting down, ridiculing or ignoring a player who tries to say something he disagrees with," taking "... credit for concerts which have been rehearsed and performed without his participation," that he "smelled of alcohol" at a concert, and (gasp!) that his "tempos are aberrant."

Lest you think that this is a case of "sue now and think later," we have been assured by the StarPhoenix newspaper that "Sanford said he agonized over the decision to sue but finally had to go ahead with it." Nonsense.

It seems that this litigation is based on the following set of facts: A "steward's report compiled by the players committee on the 2006-2007 season ... contained the views of various members of the symphony regarding Sanford's leadership and conduct in rehearsals and performances." This "steward's report" made it into the hands of the Board of Directors of the Saskatoon Symphony; I assume that the report was intended to be seen by that body but, unfamiliar as I am with the organizational structure of Canadian arts organizations, I cannot be sure. Maestro Sanford's attorney was quoted as indicating that had the "steward's report" stopped there, nothing actionable would have occurred.

But then, somehow, the "steward's report" made its way to the Saskatchewan Arts Board and thence to the Canada Council. This, according to Sanford's lawyer, was not OK. The lawyer was quoted as saying that had the report stopped at the level of the symphony's board of directors there would not have been a lawsuit "...because there would have been no damage."

This is a deucedly idiosyncratic view of the law of defamation. According to it, it is perfectly fine for a group of musicians to say any number of horrible things about the conductor of the orchestra for which they all labor, so long as the defamations are kept "in house." It is, thus, only actionable when the report makes its way to the folks who provide a measure of financial support for the organization.

It may well be that Maestro Douglas Sanford has a case that is cognizable under Canadian law and that he is entitled to substantial damages -- although precisely from whom and under what theory or theories is unknown. Regardless of how the litigation turns out, he has now been branded as a tyrant, a fraud who takes credit for performances he had nothing to do with, and a drunkard. Worse, he has given currency to the allegation that his "tempos are aberrant." And although the musical world has shown itself over the decades to be astonishingly tolerant of tyrants, drunks and men who take credit for the work of others, it comes down hard and fast on anyone with aberrant tempos. I cannot imagine the mental upset and distress that has been caused by the allegation that Maestro Sanford's tempos are aberrant.

I wish him luck in his lawsuit. He has, in my view, already lost.