Concert Groups Woes Win Owner Bad Reviews

It’s a story that’s almost operatic, the tale of a charming and ambitious impresario and a cast of characters who trusted her and now accuse her of betrayal.

The plot involves a trio of African-American tenors, a large secondary cast of performers and volunteer music-lovers, a growing chorus of lawyers and a stunning number of bounced checks that could total as much as $2 million. Its final scene, not yet written, may decide the fate of a beloved artistic institution known as Community Concerts.

For 75 years, Community Concerts has brought the arts and such luminaries as Beverly Sills and Isaac Stern to small-town America. For much of that time—before the advent of television—Community Concerts had associations all over the country, including Webster Groves and Alton.

Community Concerts has pulled out of the bigger markets. But the concept continues to flourish in smaller communities like Jefferson City. These days, the sopranos and violinists have been supplemented by Irish step dancers, jazz ensembles and acts like Hudson Shad, an all-male vocal group.

But now the whole enterprise is in jeopardy, with Community Concerts dismissing employees and leaving a trail of bounced checks, unpaid performers and dissatisfied presenters in its wake. And many are pointing to Brenda Trawick as the cause.

Trawick is a native of Chipley, FL., a small town in the Panhandle not far from Pensacola. It was there, she proudly noted in an interview, that she first heard classical music— through Community Concerts. She bought the company from Columbia Artists Management Inc. in 1999.

The Community Concerts circuit had been a useful way for Columbia to get additional work for its artists. But in recent years, according to industry insiders, Columbia’s honchos had simply lost interest.

Trawick has a background in music and in interior design. She has run a modeling and theatrical agency. She started Trawick Artists Management Inc. to represent her husband of more than 30 years, Donald Hamrick, an operatic tenor. Their son, Jacob Hamrick, is now vice president of the company. Trawick once had offices in New York, but she now operates out of Charlotte, N.C.

Those who know Trawick describe her as charming and well-meaning. But the agency, they say, was making only a modest profit. Trawick had bigger ambitions.

Trouble with Tenors

Community Concerts operated on a simple basis. The organization auditioned and contracted artists to perform for local volunteer “associations.” The associations—currently 340 of them, according to Trawick—choose which acts they’d like to feature out of an average of 80 to 90 offerings. They then sell subscriptions to a series of at least three performances per season. They pay Community Concerts one-third of the fee upfront, and the rest in equal portions during their seasons.

The system worked well. But early last year, Community Concerts’ checks to its artists started bouncing.

Joseph Pastore Jr. of New York, a manager and producer for 30 years, said that he and his artists, for example, are owed $37,000.

Glen Rose, a performer based on the West Coast, has been collecting information from the other affected artists. “Bounced checks are the order of the day,” he said. He said his numbers add up to a total of over $1 million. A recent report in MusicalAmerica.com estimated $2 million in uncovered checks.

“When you call them to complain, they say, ‘We have no money to cover those funds,’ and change the subject,” Rose said.

What went wrong? According to Trawick, it’s the economy. “We are hampered by what is going on in the economic world in general,” she said. “We are trying to stay in touch with the artists, make a payment plan, and work our way back to extremely solid ground.”

Why did the checks bounce? “There have been certain things that were on the table that were to materialize at a certain point,” Trawick said. “We thought they had materialized, and got some surprises on our side.”

Trawick’s critics say her financial woes began with a high-profile project called “Three Mo’ Tenors.” According to court documents Trawick filed in the state of New York against her former partners in that venture, she—through a corporation called BT Productions—initially put $35,000 into the act and then agreed to invest up to $1.5 million in an accompanying PBS special in the summer of 2000.

“Three Mo’ Tenors” is an African-American riff on the familiar high-note franchise. It was originally intended, Trawick explained, “as a concept. There would be lots of ‘Three Mo’ Tenors’ going around singing,” with interchangeable performers. And the tour was planned on that basis.

“But once we mounted it, once it was on PBS, it was clearly about these three guys, and the chemistry they were able to create on stage,” Trawick said. The public, she said, wanted the original three, as seen on TV: Victor Trent Cook, Rodrick Dixon and Thomas Young.

Between that and the fact that the show was “the most vocally demanding evening imaginable,” said Trawick, with “limitations on how many evenings a week it could be done,” the original schedule couldn’t be met.

Did Trawick shift money from Community Concerts to BT Productions? “I certainly own Community Concerts, and I certainly own BT Productions, and I own them 100 percent,” she said. “The internal workings are at my discretion. I’m not going to discuss them openly.”

Living on Credit Cards

Trawick is, as she puts it, “at legal odds” with Willette Klausner, Trawick’s erstwhile partner in “3MT.” Trawick’s 12-page legal filing in New York says that Trawick agreed to put up to $1.5 million into the “Three Mo’ Tenors” production.

What happened to the money?

“We’re still trying to figure it out,” said Klausner, a Los Angeles-based producer whose track record includes a Broadway show. “When I get that answer, it will be a wonderful day for me.”

Community Concerts’ checks began to bounce last spring. For the performers, who often live from hand to mouth, that’s a problem.
Community Concerts has a clause in all its contracts that allows substitution of performers at short notice. Said Pastore: “That’s (Trawick’s) secret weapon, a masterful substitution of artists.” According to Pastore, when some performers balked at the bouncing checks, Trawick simply hired someone else.

“In the spring of 2002, I was called by Jake Hamrick and asked if I had an artist who could fill in some dates for Community Concerts,” Pastore said. “I inquired about why the dates were available, and was told a member of a group had gotten ill. I got violinist Eugene Fodor to fill in. I expected payment in a timely manner—but I did not get payment in a timely manner.”

Soon after that, Community Concerts contracted another of Pastore’s clients for 36 performances, beginning last October. Hamrick assured Pastore that the problems were being cleared up. As evidence of good faith, Pastore said, Hamrick pointed out that the principals in the company were selling their homes in New York and moving to North Carolina, to cut costs.

But soon checks started bouncing. By Thanksgiving, said Pastore, he and his clients were owed $37,000. Pastore said that he asked Trawick on two occasions whether she was involved in any litigation concerning the “Three Mo’ Tenors” TV show. She denied it twice. Pastore went to the New York Supreme Court and found Trawick’s filing against her partners.

Said Pastore, “She elected to put $1.5 million into a television show…I asked her repeatedly where the money came from, and she rebuffed me.”

Whatever the cause, the artists and the associations who hire them are suffering as a result of the nonpayments. And they’re bitter over their treatment by Community Concerts and Trawick. “We put $15,000—for sidemen, rental cars, hotels, food—on a credit card,” said guitarist Frank Vignola. “We go on the road and tour for three weeks, and we don’t get paid a dime.” Since he has three children under the age of five, that’s an extra hardship.

Lorraine Rennie manages a group called Dancing on Common Ground—combining Irish step dancing with tap and clogging. She booked the group for 67 performances from October 2002 through April 2003.

The payment for two shows last fall cleared. The checks for two more shows arrived late – and bounced. And bouncing has been the rule since then, she said. Owed over $100,000, she’s had to cut two performers from the original company of 12. “I’m breaking under this debt,” Rennie said.

Problems in Jefferson City

Community Concerts was always aimed at smaller towns. The St. Louis-area associations went under in the 1980s, unable to compete with offerings from colleges and other presenters. But the Jefferson City Community Concerts Association is alive and kicking—and having problems with Community Concerts.

“They canceled artists on us ten days before performances, and basically gave us whatever (performers) they wanted last year,” said Julie Goth, the association’s former president. “They canceled ‘Three Mo’ Tenors’ 30 days before the concert was scheduled.”

Current president Cotton Walker concurred, adding that Community Concerts got them this season’s schedule months later than usual, in June. “It’s horrible to sell memberships that late,” he said.

For now, he said, “We’re talking to other booking agents, and preparing for a future without Community Concerts.” He says he has yet to hear anything directly from them.

Pastore and Rennie report that Trawick asked their artists to take pay cuts, and to accept reimbursement at $500 per month over a period of several years, at a 1.2 percent interest rate. They declined. Trawick refused to comment but said, “I understand their frustration.”

Is there anything she would do differently if she could go back in time? “I would have preferred that the bottom not drop out of the economic world, but I didn’t have control over that,” replied Trawick. “Closing our doors and going home would have been easy, but I’m not about easy.”

Meanwhile, the desperate artists are banding together, working directly with the associations —and going to lawyers. So are some of Trawick’s former employees, who also are owed money. One New York lawyer, Gil Lazarus, says he has filed four actions against Trawick and Community Concerts so far. The associations are trying to figure out their own futures.

“I tried to impress upon her the extreme hardships she’s put us all under, owing so much money to artists,” said Lorraine Rennie. “She said to me, ‘If you want to make me out to be the bad guy, go ahead.’ But she is the bad guy, and she will not accept any responsibility for what happened. She refuses to admit that it could be anything she did.”

© 2002 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Reprinted with permission