As they regroup in the wake of this summer’s cancelled concert season, volunteers with the Vermont Mozart Festival say they are optimistic that new leaders may emerge to take over the troubled but popular musical endeavor.
Just last week, Gene Richards said he received two unsolicited, “encouraging” inquiries from people interested in picking up and running the festival next year and into the future – one from New York and another from individuals with ties to Vermont.
Richards is the director of Burlington International Airport who has been volunteering with the Mozart festival board of directors this summer after Executive Director Michael Dabroski abruptly quit in June, a month before the festival was to begin.
In written communications from Cuba where he is pursuing other musical projects, Dabroski contended that the Mozart organization failed to pay him this spring. He said the board’s lack of support for his plan to build the summer orchestra with musicians from Cuba contributed to the festival’s demise.
Upon resigning, Dabroski called off the 16 performances scheduled for venues in Stowe, Shelburne, Charlotte and Burlington in July and August. The festival’s volunteer board of directors then began a scramble to sort through records, figure out refunds for patrons, and determine what happens next with the small nonprofit.
A longtime festival supporter with management expertise, Richards said he initially thought the main task was to orchestrate the orderly closure of the organization. But many calls and messages of support in recent weeks have shown that people have a strong connection to it, Richards said, and that’s been cause for optimism.
“The hope is to have it come back,” he said, recalling his own fondness for the summer concerts. “I keep thinking of sitting in my chair with my arms behind my head listening to this wonderful music on a beach on a beautiful summer night. And it wasn’t just me – it was like that for lots and lots and lots of people.”
In 2015, Dabroski resurrected the Mozart festival five years after it folded due to financial problems. Its original director, Melvin Kaplan, founded the series in 1974 where it built a loyal following that filled summer concert venues such as the Trapp Family Lodge meadow in Stowe, the Coach Barn courtyard at Shelburne Farms and the Charlotte town beach.
Dabroski dubbed his version “reimagined” because instead of hiring established professional musicians, he structured it as a musical fellowship recruiting early-career and student musicians from university programs around the country.
The focus now is settling the festival’s financial affairs with the goal of handing off to someone new.
“We’re looking for the best possible fit,” Richards said. “So that this amazing gift could be given back to the community and it could be around for a long time.”
The organization presently exists as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit. Board member Martha Hoehl said she has been working on IRS filings for 2018. This year’s budget anticipated expenses of $207,000 with income and donations around $235,000, which won’t be the case, she noted.
Richards said Dabroski has not been willing to cooperate without being paid, something the board is unable to do. As a result, financial details since the beginning of the year are murky, Richards said.
“There were many unconventional practices used such as using Venmo and writing checks to cash that are hard to back up,” he explained. “These are examples of what we found troubling. These are things I’ve never seen in nonprofits and I’ve been involved with many.”
Roughly $7,000 in ticket sales happened prior to Dabroski’s departure but the organization’s bank account contains only $2,000, Richards said. Other debts push the total owed to $9,000 or so, including a handful of vendors tied to the cancelled summer concert series and possibly individuals who paid deposits for a proposed trip in 2020 to Cuba, he added.
Meanwhile, board members still don’t have control of some parts of the business. Recent Facebook information, for example, has disappeared. A check online Tuesday shows only the site for the original organization that ended in 2010.
“We don’t have control over that,” Richards said.
Board member Andre Bouffard is bankruptcy lawyer at Downs Rachlin Martin in Burlington. When asked whether he advises the Mozart board take any legal action against Dabroski, he said no – that would bring negative attention and ultimately not be productive.
Dabroski did not respond to messages for comment for this story. His Facebook page shows new endeavors in Cuba and the Dominican Republic including a musical festival scheduled in Havana in November.
Last summer, Dabroski incorporated some musicians from the Caribbean into the Vermont Mozart Festival. Board members said Dabroski told them this spring that efforts to recruit U.S. musicians for this summer were falling short and he hoped to fill out the summer orchestra with players from Cuba.
Board members said they were wary of the plan given costs and time to arrange for travel. A golf tournament in May intended to be a fundraiser ended up costing money, Richards said, adding to the uncertainty for the summer series.
Bouffard said the board would have preferred if Dabroski laid out the problems sooner. Instead, his resignation was a shock.
“He was the captain of the ship and he jumped ship,” Richards said.
Now, Richards and board members say they are eager to hear ideas for taking the Mozart project into the future from people with a good track record.
“We would like to see a five-year plan and that they have business skills and experience in music – a good balance,” Richards said, brushing off concern that the turmoil this year would tarnish the brand.
“Ultimately, the festival’s appeal wasn’t due to its director. What it stands for and what it delivers is greater than any one person,” Richards said.
Of the two inquiries he recently received, Richards said one was confidential. The other came from violinist Kate Lisman, who lives in the Netherlands and is the daughter of Bruce Lisman of Shelburne, the retired Wall Street executive who was a Republican candidate for governor in 2016.
Kate Lisman’s partner in the request is concert pianist YinJia Lin, who lives and teaches in New York City.
“We were saddened to hear of the cancellation of the Vermont Mozart Festival 2019 season and immediately sat down to brainstorm a new model to keep a wonderful Vermont tradition going,” Kate Lisman wrote to Richards.
In addition to Hoehl and Bouffard, current board members are Eric Ode, Elliot Sandi, Martha Mitchell and Solomon Bayer-Pacht. Hoehl said ticket holders for cancelled performances may still request a refund. Alternately, requests to donate refunds would be greatly appreciated, she added, and donors would receive written acknowledgement of their contribution. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.