Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Robert Palmer's resignation at the end of May as General Manager of the Madison Civic Music Association is how hard it has proved to be to uncover any credible explanation for it. The MCMA is the umbrella organization for the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Opera, and the Madison Symphony Chorus. One would think, this next season being the last for outgoing music director Roland Johnson, that Palmer would at least want to see that through. One would think that the coming season's brightest opportunity -- the world premiere of Shining Brow, a new opera about Frank Lloyd Wright -- would be irresistible to a manager of Palmer's keen musical interests, long experience and excellent reputation. Certainly when I interviewed him in April this year, Palmer talked of these projects, as well as the forthcoming task of selecting Johnson's successor, as though he himself would be on the scene for them. If he had any intention then of resigning, it's very odd that he didn't refer to it in our friendly, wide-ranging conversation.
In a May 22 Wisconsin State Journal article announcing Palmer's resignation, MCMA Board member Alex Reisdorf is quoted as saying, "We did not ask (Palmer) to step down." Yet according to a credible source who wishes not to be named, Palmer did not resign willingly. Palmer himself would tell me only that I should consult MCMA President Marian Bolz's letter to the Board, and that if I wanted to know more, I would have to get it from a Board member. Bolz is out of the country and unavailable for comment. Board Vice President Terry Haller told me he would not be able to comment unless explicitly authorized by Palmer to do so. Efforts to get additional information from other board members have so far drawn a blank.
Palmer took the Civic Music job in 1975, after completing his degree in Arts Administration at the UW-Madison. During his 17-year tenure, public support for the music organizations has increased markedly, and there's no question in my mind that the Symphony's great growth in recent years owes much to Palmer's skill in implementing a variety of audience-building, financing and programming strategies. With all these successes to his credit, and with such exciting projects in the immediate offing, it's hard to imagine why he wouldn't want to stay on in the post, and it's very hard to see why the Board would not want him to.
Palmer's own reticence is perhaps understandable. In a trade in which much is done by managing vast sums obtained discreetly from major donors in the community, one does not gain the essential ingredient of trust by becoming the object of public notoriety. Palmer seems to managed such delicacies with great effectiveness and professionalism. There has never been the slightest whiff of malfeasance or impropriety, and it would be a great surprise to me to learn something like that was a factor in this case. Yet Palmer's ultimate reward for years of first-rate service adds up to what is in effect a summary pink slip, leaving him with the urgent necessity of finding a new job on almost no notice. That seems somewhat harsh, almost an act of retribution.
There's good reason to believe, Reisdorf's contrary claim notwithstanding, that Palmer was forced out. The various pieces of the story just don't fit together logically with any other explanation. If he was doing such a good job, and all reports indicate he was, it's incredible that his complex duties should so precipitously be entrusted by the MCMA board's executive committee to the relatively untested interim judgment of Bob Platte, a former administrative intern, who will hold the fort until the arrival of a permanent replacement this fall. Surely the impending changes at Civic Music, so full of challenge and opportunity, would be all the more reason to retain such an experienced hand as Palmer's at least through next year. That everyone seems so reluctant to talk freely about the reasons for his resignation makes me wonder even more what really happened here.
Isthmus, June, 1993
Copyright 1993 Jess Anderson