I’ve been tryin’ to get down to the heart of the matter, But my will gets weak and my thoughts seem to scatter. But I think it’s about forgiveness, Even if you don’t love me anymore.
— Don Henley
Sylvia Berry and Jane Willson, two of the most passionate supporters of the arts in Albany, used the same word as they discussed the surprise firing of Albany Symphony Orchestra conductor Claire Fox Hillard Monday.
Both said they, other supporters of the orchestra, and Hillard and his family were misled into believing Hillard would return as conductor of the orchestra at the start of the new year after serving a suspension in the wake of his August arrest in Camilla for loitering/prowling.
Willson, one of the orchestra’s primary benefactors, said she and others she’s talked to were caught off guard by the Albany Symphony Association board’s actions.
“I had no idea this was going to happen; I was shocked,” Willson said Monday evening. “I, and others who support the orchestra, was under the impression that Claire would return to the orchestra at the start of the new year.
“Frankly, I was under that impression when I decided to make a ($100,000) donation to the orchestra earlier this year. They were near bankruptcy, and I didn’t want us to lose something that means so much to this community. What Claire did with that group was phenomenal: He took a volunteer orchestra and made it one of the finest in the state.”
Willson stopped short of saying she would no longer support the orchestra.
“I will say that I’m more than disappointed; I’m distressed,” she said. “I’m very concerned for the orchestra and for the Hillard family.”
Berry, who taught music for more than 30 years and whose husband, Arthur, is an acclaimed artist, said Hillard and symphony supporters were “blindsided” by the board’s actions.
“There are tremors in the community among those who support the arts,” Berry said. “The fact that such a vital part of the arts community might fall apart just scares us to death. Claire built that orchestra into something special over his 24 years here.
“I’m just amazed at the people around here who talk about forgiveness, but are not willing to forgive.”
Berry said she was “appalled” by Hillard’s actions at the time of his arrest. In addition to being found wearing only a towel that was given him by the owners of a Camilla flower shop, he initially said he had been attacked and robbed by two black males. Although he eventually recanted that statement, many in the African-American community have condemned Hillard for what they say was a racist accusation.
“By no means is anyone happy with Claire for what happened that night,” Berry said. “In fact, most are appalled at what he did. But it’s time that Albany grew up. It’s time that those people who preach forgiveness on Sunday mornings took the opportunity to actually put those words into action.
“I love the orchestra, and I just don’t know where it will go without Claire. And after talking with him, I know he feels betrayed by this board’s actions.”
Albany Symphony Association Executive Director Karen Allen said on Aug. 30 when announcing Hillard’s suspension that she “expects Hillard to come back to lead the orchestra in January.”
Hillard said at the time, “I seek forgiveness and the opportunity to work to rebuild the trust and respect placed in me over the past 24 years.”
It now appears neither’s expectation will be realized. And the question that many in the community are now asking is will the orchestra be able to survive?
Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at firstname.lastname@example.org.