As a reporter, there are moments when you find something — a great quote, an unearthed record — and your heartbeat quickens. You know, “Yes, OK, I have a story.” In 2006, I experienced one of those moments.
I was a 25-year-old transplant from Florida and a staff reporter at Scene. I had recently written a feature about an alleged sexual predator at Notre Dame College and the school’s mishandling of the accusations.
Not long after, I got a tip: Look into William Preucil, the Cleveland Orchestra’s concertmaster, and his interactions with female students. I dug around and heard talk of an alleged settlement. The Cleveland Institute of Music, where Preucil was an instructor, had paid for one of his students to go to another school in exchange for her silence, I was told.
At the time, I didn’t totally understand how much the orchestra meant to Cleveland and how entwined it is with the city’s power structure. Nor did I fully comprehend the pull Preucil — considered the best living concertmaster in the world — possessed and the orchestra’s pride in wooing him.
I was not a musician. My single foray into music was failed flute lessons in fifth grade. But I worked for a paper that relished its investigative chops and gave me support to chase the story. Over many months, I pounded the pavement (not so easy in the sky-high heels I often wore). The problem, my sources said, went beyond women feeling uncomfortable around him. Preucil, as an orchestra leader, seemed to have free reign.
At the time, the Cleveland Orchestra did not use screens in auditions, a common practice to prevent biased judging. My sources thought the lack of screens had enabled nepotism by Preucil. Three of Preucil’s relatives were given coveted spots while he sat in on their auditions.
But Preucil’s alleged sexual aggressiveness toward female musicians came up a lot too. In one story, Preucil allegedly made an unwanted sexual advance on one of his students, who had been chosen to appear in a CIM student-faculty recital alongside him, my sources said. The student complained to the dean and president, her friends told me. My sources said CIM agreed to pay for her education elsewhere in exchange for silence.
Once the story was solidly sourced, the paper’s lawyers wanted to get Preucil to comment. But I was not sure he would. One day I arrived at the newsroom to a waiting email.
“With respect to your question regarding my work at CIM, I can only presume that the rumors you hear are based on an incident that occurred a few years ago when there was a dispute over the nature of an interaction I had with a student,” Preucil wrote. “The issue was fully reviewed by the institution and was resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.”
We officially had a story. The article on Preucil ran as Scene’s cover story on Feb. 14, 2007. It extolled his virtuosity as a musician, but also outlined his unchecked reign and the story of the female CIM student.
The morning of publication there was a snowstorm. But I was buried in a flurry of emails and comments. Some were dismissive and angry. Others were appreciative. Some expressed hope. This was the first time anyone had ever printed what, to many, had been an open secret. They thought something might now change.
In the newsroom, I too awaited an official response: an orchestra statement announcing an investigation or CIM parents demanding action. But if any of that happened, the public was never told.
The closest thing the paper received was a note from an orchestra member in October 2007, alerting us that audition practices had changed. Screens would be required at first-round auditions and relatives were banned from judging family members.
Preucil remained in charge. He continued to teach at CIM and sit in the first seat at performances. To my sources — and me — it felt like we had been screaming into a pillow.
For a long time afterward, I tried to understand why there was no public reckoning. Back then, sexual harassment allegations weren’t enough to end a powerful career. The #MeToo movement hadn’t happened yet.
But other local outlets didn’t lift up or build on the story either. So powerful institutions, like the orchestra and CIM, didn’t feel pressure to admit wrongdoing.
I left Scene and full-time journalism in 2008. From time to time, I would wonder how my sources were doing. Their bravery in speaking out, in putting their careers at risk, astounds me, even to this day. We eventually lost touch. The story faded.
Then in March, I got a message from Anne Midgette, chief classical music critic at The Washington Post. She and an investigative reporter, Peggy McGlone, were looking into accusations against Preucil and other classical music bigwigs. Midgette wanted to cite my story.
The Washington Post’s expose on Preucil, and two other musicians, was published in July. It cited two more times Preucil allegedly made unwanted advances. Violinist Zeneba Bowers alleged that after she rejected Preucil, he threatened to blacklist her. Another young female musician recounted a time Preucil allegedly propositioned and threatened her, saying, “I can see you at the audition next month or you can come upstairs and let me lick you all over.”
Preucil was suspended from the orchestra. In August, the orchestra announced it had hired a law firm to investigate Preucil’s tenure there. He later resigned from CIM. Both released carefully worded statements.
“The Cleveland Orchestra was not aware of the allegations reported by The Washington Post about William Preucil in their July 26, 2018 article,” said Andre Gremillet, the orchestra’s executive director.
“CIM has zero tolerance for behavior that puts our students at risk,” said Paul Hogle, president and CEO of CIM.
Those statements sounded ridiculous to me. Local institutions apparently had amnesia. Follow-up stories from The Plain Dealer left out the Preucil allegations from 11 years ago. When my husband wrote Tim Warsinskey, managing editor of The Plain Dealer, he said my piece was not referenced because it hadn’t been “directly sourced.” Funny. That hadn’t stopped The Washington Post or The New York Times from citing the story. To me, local power was protecting itself.
But not everyone reacted that way. Ideastream devoted a segment to why justice was so delayed. After the Post article ran, I reached out to Midgette to congratulate and thank her. She turned the conversation around, and said it was actually my piece that made the Post’s lawyers comfortable publishing. “We quite seriously are standing on your shoulders,” she wrote.
Today, as the director of volunteers at the National Council of Jewish Women, I support self-esteem classes for teens aging out of foster care. I teach volunteers to write testimony on issues that matter, such as reducing gun violence. I urge them to speak out, even if it seems as if no one is listening.
My story is a reminder that their voices can resonate for years to come. Justice can be found — even if it takes 11 years.