Conductor’s firing sparks rift in Atlanta Boy Choir

Last month, the board of the Atlanta Boy Choir asked conductor David White, its artistic director for the past eight years, to resign. In terms the board laid out for White’s severance pay and benefits, he was asked to leave quietly.

White refused the offer. His immediate termination, with no severance, launched an emotionally volatile confrontation between the board that felt it had lost control of the 52-year-old organization — now more than $250,000 in debt — and the conductor who claims the board didn’t meet its financial responsibilities.

Perhaps understandably, when the fate of children is at the center of a dispute, a few of the young singers’ parents reacted fiercely, lobbing e-mails and Facebook messages at each other and the board, expressing outrage and confusion.

Some of the parents are backing White and the rival group he’s helping to organize — the Georgia Boy Choir.

For Atlanta’s arts community, the meltdown might seem reminiscent of those at other notable institutions in recent years — from conductor Yoel Levi’s acrimonious split with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to the Atlanta Opera’s overhauled leadership to the community group Orchestra Atlanta, whose volunteer musicians mutinied and renamed themselves the Georgia Philharmonic.

At the Atlanta Boy Choir, in what conductor White calls “a nasty ugliness,” most of the bare facts are not in dispute but motivations and shortcomings are subject to withering criticism.

“I feel no remorse,” said White, 45, whose compensation at the Atlanta Boy Choir totaled about $130,000 — in salary, health benefits and free accommodations (for his wife and three children) in the choir’s historic mansion on Ponce de Leon Avenue. “I did my job with integrity and elevated the choir to the best of my abilities. The trustee leadership did not meet its financial responsibilities and will not meet its mission in the short term, but I wish them well.”

Tania Maxwell-Clements, a professional violist who teaches at Georgia State University, had enrolled her 6-year-old in the choir but they might sit out the coming year to gauge the situation. “I thought [White] was excellent working with the boys,” she said. “[White] was ambitious for the choir and rubbed the board the wrong way, but he didn’t sign the checks.”

One board member, treasurer Tom Underwood, acknowledges the board held ultimate financial responsibility, but said White “obliged the choir to a lot of expenses before the board knew about it.

“With David, there was no compromise to meet the financial realities. So after pleading with him for more than a year, we voted unanimously to make a change in artistic leadership.”

The unpleasantness began to boil last summer, both sides say. Just before a planned tour to Russia, White announced that the summer 2009 trip would be to Vienna, Austria — part of a pay-to-play tour with other choirs. Each parent would need to contribute about $4,500.

But the recession hit, fund-raising slowed and many families applied for financial aid. One line item on the budget had the board contributing $50,000 (its actual donations came in under $10,000).

Already $96,000 in debt, the board decided to take out a line of credit on the Ponce de Leon mansion. That helped cover Vienna and other expenses but left the choir $250,000 in the red.

Then White floated the idea of a 2010 tour to China.

“We said, ‘No tour till we pay for the last one,’ ” said David W. Davis, a choir alum and trustee. “In the end, we did a poor job putting a fence around what the artistic director can do.”

Another point of contention was over “America’s Got Talent.” An NBC producer contacted White and asked the choir to audition. White thought it would boost the choir’s image and help fund-raising. At least one trustee agreed with White. Others, however, were vehemently opposed: “That’s not what we’re about,” Davis recalls saying at the time. “It would be an embarrassment, it’s a gross misuse of the Atlanta Boy Choir brand.”

Arguing that the board never officially voted on the matter, White sent in an audition video. The choir never heard back from NBC.

On July 14, the board handed White a letter demanding his resignation, with a confidentiality clause.

White now says he initially tried to renegotiate the terms. “They never came to me and said, ‘David, we’re not happy with you.’ Just the opposite. Then they act like the debt is a surprise.”

Trustee Davis says the choir’s lawyers are looking into allegations that White or his supporters are using “proprietary information” to help form the rival Georgia Boy Choir.

“It’s presumptuous for [the Atlanta Boy Choir] to think they own concert dates or control access to the parents,” White said. “There’s room for two boy choirs in Atlanta.”