Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto has found himself at the center of a controversy in his native Mexico after a news report alleged he has failed to properly manage the Mexican national orchestra.
Prieto, a world-renowned conductor who has been widely praised in New Orleans for helping resurrect the LPO after Hurricane Katrina, leads several orchestras in both the U.S. and Mexico, including the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de México, based in Mexico City.
But on Monday, Excelsior, a Mexico City newspaper that is considered among the most influential in the country, reported on government documents that suggested Prieto, as head of that orchestra, spent unreasonable amounts of money on foreign guest performers.
In addition, the newspaper reported that members of the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional were unhappy with Prieto's leadership, and were anonymously requesting that he be removed from his position in part because of a lack of concerts throughout Mexico and a failure to issue performance recordings throughout his tenure.
Prieto, 53, disputed the claims raised in the article and has pushed back vehemently against the allegations, particularly those alleging he overpaid guest performers.
“This is a 'lost in translation' situation,” said Prieto, whose jobs in Mexico and in New Orleans with the LPO are among his four conductor gigs. “I am kind of saddened (because) I don’t want this to give a bad impression of my country, and it saddens me this … was published without verified information.”
Excelsior's article cited documents from the Mexican government’s Ministry of Culture that said Prieto directed the symphony to pay more than 13 million pesos — roughly $690,000 — to four international artists for visiting performances in 2015 and 2016, compensation that well exceeded typical rates for musicians of their caliber.
Excelsior took issue with the amount because the monthly cost of the orchestra’s 105 members is about 2 million pesos, or about $105,195. The newspaper also reported that two of the performers had earned several times more than some of classical music’s brightest stars command for performances.
The author of the Excelsior article, Juan Carlos Talavera, provided online links to several government documents, including a database page that showed prominent American cellist Lynn Harrell had received a payment of $282,000. The page converted that to more than 5 million pesos.
“For now, I have no documents disproving (the story),” Talavera said. “(Prieto’s camp) has asked me for time to provide the information to me, but for now it’s just allegations.”
Prieto contends that the government and newspaper have mistaken payment amounts made in pesos for U.S. dollars, and then reconverted the amounts to arrive at a new peso amount that was roughly 19 times higher.
Columbia Artists Senior Vice President Stefana Atlas, who represents Prieto and Harrell, backed up Prieto on Tuesday.
She provided The Advocate with an online link to a contract that showed the Mexican symphony had paid 282,000 pesos — or about $15,000 — to Harrell in November 2015, far less than the 5 million pesos alleged in the government document.
“We should all be so lucky” to earn the higher amounts, Atlas said Tuesday. “But somewhere down the line, there’s been a discrepancy and an accusation that is false and not correct.”
Talavera said Tuesday that he had been made aware of Prieto’s contentions but stood by his reporting. “If the government made a mistake, that correction would have to come from the government, but for now it hasn’t arrived,” Talavera said.
Prieto, a violinist, became the LPO’s artistic director in 2005. In December, he received Musical America magazine’s prestigious Conductor of the Year award.
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The LPO — which receives local, state and federal grant funding — has extended Prieto's contract multiple times and in 2017 paid him a salary of about $131,000.
Prieto is also the conductor of the U.S.-based Orchestra of the Americas as well as two orchestras in his native Mexico, including the national symphony, which he took over in 2007.
The Excelsior report doesn’t focus only on the Mexican national orchestra's spending. It also quotes multiple, anonymous members of the orchestra expressing concerns with Prieto’s overall leadership of the group.
Their complaints included failing to step foot in 24 of Mexico’s 31 states; failing to produce a single audio recording of the orchestra performing in the last dozen years; and being sluggish in replacing members who retire or fall ill.
They urged Mexican officials to oust Prieto from his post, and they said any support he claimed to have among orchestra members is “either apocryphal or nonexistent.”
Prieto said it is difficult to produce audio recordings while making ends meet at the cash-strapped orchestra, and that the organization tried to compensate for an inability to travel as much as it would like by digitally streaming its performances online.
However, he declined to address the rest of the allegations.
“When you are in an orchestra for a number of years, there’s always voices that will (express) concerns about you,” he said. “However, I’ve always had the support and still have the support of the orchestra, just like I’ve always had it here (in New Orleans).”
An LPO spokeswoman on Tuesday said the organization had no comment on the Excelsior report. Then, on Wednesday morning, the LPO issued the following statement:
"The LPO’s artistic budget is approved annually by our Board of Trustees, with guest artist contracts being negotiated by the LPO’s Director of Artistic Programming and approved by our CEO. Contract fees adhere to the parameters set as part of an annual budgeting process.
Mr. Prieto has no involvement in the financial aspects of the contracting process. As one of seven voting members that make up our Artistic Programming Committee (the other being six musicians, per our collaborative model), his role is to provide leadership to the LPO’s artistic planning process, which includes the selection of guest artists.
Additionally, LPO guest artist fees fall well within industry standards of an orchestra managing an annual operating budget of $6M."
An additional statement from LPO chief executive officer James Boyd said:
“During his 13 seasons as the LPO’s Music Director and Principal Conductor, Carlos’ leadership has fostered tremendous artistic development in terms of the orchestra’s programming and performance standards. Evidence of his impact was on display during the LPO’s debut performance at Carnegie Hall last season, and has been further amplified by his recent honor as Musical America’s Conductor of the Year. Moreover, in our experiences with Carlos he consistently exhibits the highest ethical standard related to the LPO’s finances.”
Last month, Musical America presented its Conductor of the Year award to Prieto at a ceremony in New York's famed Carnegie Hall.
A Broadway World report said Prieto was selected because of his “enthusiastic championing of new music (which) is evident through the ambitious commissioning he has done and premieres he has given of over 100 works, with a particular focus on Latin American composers.”
Note: This post was updated since it was first published to add remarks from the LPO.
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