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July 26, 2006

Response to Sam Bergman

by Klaus Heymann

The three questions which I asked in my original contribution don't have to be asked by orchestras which are in good health and which can afford both a Musical Director and a Chief Executive; a Musical Director with a seven-figure salary and 100 musicians on six-figure salaries with 52-week contracts. But there is only a handful of these and all others will have to ask these hard questions [and probably others] if they want to survive and continue to offer good concerts and employ musicians full-time.

Regarding the musical director/chief executive issue, I am in regular contact with both chief executives and musical directors, both in the United States and in the rest of the world. There are quite a few chief executives who have excellent repertoire knowledge, know how to put exciting and commercially successful programs together and how to balance the books - the only thing they cannot do is conduct. Whether an orchestra with such a chief executive also needs a musical director is the question that needs to be asked.

But there are also conductors who are well organized and qualified administrators and whether they need a chief executive is the other question. I know what I'm talking about because, in the distant past, I was the general manager of a symphony orchestra. Furthermore, the Musical Director/Chief Executive formula is by no means the norm in the rest of the world which is why it is something orchestras in trouble may have to look at.

I agree with Mr. Bergman that there are not a lot of truly great conductors around today but that also was true in the past. The question is whether any conductor is worth a seven-figure salary [and whether he should demand it] given the fact that many orchestras can't really afford it. I don't think an orchestra will necessarily descend to second-class status if it doesn't employ a seven figure conductor and, instead, employs only an excellent musician to improve standards. I will never understand why the musical directors in the United States have to do the schmoozing - I think orchestras would be far better off hiring a professional schmoozer or finding an enthusiastic supporter of the orchestra to do the work [I know what I'm talking about because I once was the unpaid chairman of the fundraising committee of a symphony orchestra] and hiring a terrific six figure conductor instead. I was not suggesting that orchestras should get together and cap the salaries of their musical directors but simply that they pay no more than they can afford, given the difficult times. And when it comes to mistakes made by boards when appointing a new musical director, orchestra musicians are at least as likely as boards when it comes to making the wrong choices. Again, I know what I'm talking about - I actually drew up a checklist for several orchestras who were and are looking for new chiefs.

Regarding the size of the orchestra, every conductor I know wants to have the biggest possible orchestra but, in reality, most have to make do with what is possible. Basically, most works composed before 1890 can be performed perfectly well by an orchestra of 70 musicians - 50 string players [14/12/10/8/6], 8 wind players [2/2/2/2], 10 brass [4/2/3/1], a timpanist and a percussion player. These 70 musicians can play all the great favorites from Mozart [he only needs 33] to Brahms, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky and practically all great concertos. Of course, additional full-time piccolo and cor anglais players would be convenient and desirable and bring the total to 72 players. A third clarinet and a third bassoon and a harpist are also desirable but already a bit of a luxury. And I think the great majority of orchestras around the world makes do with about that number [74/75] of full-time musicians. All other positions are filled by extras, many of whom are regulars - I have to deal with this issue all the time when these medium size orchestras want to record repertoire that requires additional musicians - a third trumpet, one or two more horns, a few extra percussion players, etc. - it's referred to as "augmentation" and the question always is who will pay for it. Of course, ideally orchestras should not have to rely on freelancers even for Mahler, Ravel and Richard Strauss but if it is a matter of survival, orchestras will have to manage with a smaller number of salaried players and doing all the big jobs by adding freelancers. And, of course, orchestras will also have to look at their administrative structures and cut an administrator before cutting a musician.

I don't think our UK orchestras will agree that their prestige and artistic reputation have plummeted - these orchestras are actually not made up of freelancers [Mr. Bergman is not correctly informed here] - the players are actually stakeholders in their orchestras but they get only paid when they play, at least that's the situation of the top London orchestras. And they all survive and play many great concerts. Of course, they don't pay their principal conductors or musical directors seven figure salaries - they only get paid when they work. Most other orchestras are on salary.

Posted by kheymann at July 26, 2006 06:45 AM


Unfortunately, all of your ideas for combining MDs and CEOs into a single job (even for smaller orchestras) inevitably involve either elimnating certain duties, or transferring them to another person in the organization (your schmoozer-in-chief, for example.) The reason the "pro schmoozer" idea won't work is obvious - donors don't want to be schmoozed by some professional handler, they want access to the music director and the musicians. Ask any development official at any orchestra in the U.S., and they'll tell you that the most frequent request from donors is the chance to meet and talk with musicians, especially the MD, and to get the sort of "insider access" that every entertainment industry offers to those who bankroll it.

I still don't understand exactly how you're planning to hold down conductor salaries. You admit that there are very few good ones, but then make a logical leap to a world in which everyone just magically agrees (without illegal colluding) never to pay the best ones what their skills are clearly worth on the open market. How do I know they're worth that much? Because that's what someone's willing to pay them. (Any other measure of monetary worth is obviously arbitrary and subjective.) I don't like it any better than you do that Christoph Eschenbach is pulling down better than a million dollars in Philadelphia, but that happens to be the going rate these days. If orchestras become truly unable to pay these salaries, the salaries will, by necessity, go down. The problem with judging such things in advance is, obviously, that every orchestra hopes its new music director will improve or at least sustain its fortunes, and when that doesn't happen, they still have to fulfill the guy's contract. As to your assertion that musicians also make mistakes with MDs, I never said we didn't, and in fact, my own orchestra made such a mistake a little over a decade ago. But it is not the musicians who hand out unthinkable raises to MDs who are clearly dragging the ensemble into the toilet, simply to avoid admitting the mistake.

I'm not really going to engage the orchestra size topic too deeply, simply because I think that the feasibility of such an idea is bound up in all sorts of smaller issues that vary from city to city. The fact, as you pointed out, is that tons of smaller orchestras do operate with the numbers that you cite, and only the biggest orchestras have the numbers arund 100 that so clearly offend your sensibilities. It does seem to me, though, that the insistence that orchestras have too many musicians is much like saying that a football team shouldn't have to pay both a punter and a field goal kicker, because they can both kick the ball, and neither is on the field very much. Is it true that the team could survive without both? Sure. But they'd miss a lot of field goals and/or shank a lot of punts. If that's what you're looking for in your local orchestra, I really don't have an answer for that.

Finally, the argument over UK orchestras is really one of semantics. The idea that musicians in the London Symphony (for example) are "stakeholders" is a lovely bit of corporate doubletalk, but the reality is that they are hired and treated as "independent contractors." They are paid a wage, not a salary, and have no guaranteed minimum take-home amount in any given year. By any reasonable definition, those are freelancers, just as the members of the Orchestra of St. Luke's in New York are freelancers. (I'll defer on the issue of the UK orchestras' relative prestige, since it's a subjective judgment and always makes everyone angry.)

Sam Bergman
violist, Minnesota Orchestra
news editor, ArtsJournal.com

Posted by: Sam Bergman at July 26, 2006 07:22 AM

But really, how many music directors make seven figures? David Robertson? No. Osmo Vanska? No, at least if Minnesota's 2005 IRS990 is to be believed.

This is an issue facing a handful of orchestras, call them the Big 5 or 7 or maybe 9, that doesn't concern most other institutions.

No chief executive, mainly responsible for the bottom line, should have control over programming to the extent of a music director, either. They may know music history like Taruskin maybe even conduct like Bernstein, but their ultimate responsibilities don't lay with art.

And the virtues of full-time 3rd and 4th trumpeters shouldn't be brushed aside. When the Chicago Symphony played Messiaen's L'Ascension a few years back with an extra on 4th trumpet, you could tell it wasn't the CSO brass. A similar situation holds with extra woodwinds, and even if not enough regulars are there in the strings. Sam Bergman's right on that one. If it's art that you're concerned about, you have to field the best team for it, and find a way to pay for it. You might as well as the Chicago Bulls to play with four starters otherwise.

Posted by: Marc Geelhoed at July 26, 2006 09:16 AM

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