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Why European maestros despair of US orchestras

Stumbling into the new season, Minnesota has become the third orchestra to lock out its musicians, after Atlanta and Indianapolis.

In San Antonio,  a head-on showdown has just been settled before both sides went into fixed positions, but the financial outlook remains fragile. Atlanta has meantime forced its players into a humiliating capitulation. There’s a war on out there.

It doesn’t have to be like this. And it is damaging the outlook for US orchestras.

The Hungarian conductor Ivan Fischer told me this summer that the reason he turned down the chance to become music director in Washington, DC, was, in his compound noun, ‘the rulebook.’

Too much of what a music director might try to do was inhibited by thick legal agreements between two potentially hostile forces, management and musicians. Too much of a conductor’s time was taken up finding wriggle room in the interstices of a dusty contract. Not a job for an idealistic or progressive  musician, said Ivan.

Several others have privately voiced similar sentiments.

There has never been a time when the conductors most admired in Europe turned their backs on the US en masse. That time is now. We have a situation where Gergiev, Rattle, Thielemann, Chailly, Fischer, the two Petrenkos, Pappano, Oramo, Gatti, Nelsons, and several more – have never taken the music directorship of a US orchestra, no matter how high the fee. Most have no intention of doing so.

Something’s gotta give if US orchs are to resume their status as magnets for maestro talent. The mood music has to change.

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  1. Unless you get hired by one of the five or six major US orchestras, I would think that the level of social involvement required (dealing with donors and the famous ladies’ committees, hustling for financing, doing promotion and PR work, not to mention performing for a relatively uneducated, unsophisticated public) would deter those conductors whose main concern is the music.

    • another orchestra musician says:

      Jetlag and loneliness are two things no amount of money can cure. Why would a symphony conductor, who has family in Europe, and who earns a good wage conducting very good orchestras in Europe, want to spend several weeks of the year in airports and airplanes, and several months of the year in a hotel room? To a thoughtful person already earning a comfortable living, an extra paycheck zero in front of the decimal point is no substitute for a spouse’s smile, or an afternoon at the zoo with a child.

      And despite the technical prowess of America’s top orchestras, the music-making often is more fluent and natural in Europe. Moreover, performance venues are generally of a more appropriate size and atmosphere in Europe than in America. I don’t think it’s the internal politics of American orchestras that deter European maestros; I think it’s good common sense.

    • Paul D. Sullivan, Arlington/Boston US says:


      ” not to mention performing for a relatively uneducated, unsophisticated public”

      Land O Goshen, yes, thank you fur that thar kind comment. Now, if ya all pardon me, I must go out and slop them hogs, whilst listening to G&S on me gramophone (it be sooo purdy). It be gettin’ dark soon, and Maw, she sez them candles don’t be grow’in on trees! Ya’ll take care now!

      Pretty typical from what I’ve learned following this site of the opinions from “across the pond”. Your and your ilk so kind. As a member of the great unwashed masses I truly appreciate your insight.

    • Greg Hlatky says:

      “Dear me, I had no conception the lower classes had such white skins!” – attributed to George Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston.

      If I wanted to kill off any support for government funding for the arts, I could do no better than to point out the commentariat here and their contempt for the public they ostensibly serve: “Hey, rubes! See what the sensitive aesthetes who want your tax dollars really think of you.” Any post mentioning the US inevitably features the usual America- and American-bashing from supercilious Europeans and oikophobes.

      Yet, amazingly, every October this nation of knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers will win most if not all of the Nobel Prizes in the sciences. Mysterious.

  2. And don’t forget the three year contract cycle for musicians …

  3. 3-year cycle for musicians–where??? In most US orchestras, the probationary period is 2 years; in a handful it is only 1 year.

  4. America is a large, wealthy, well educated country. Why do they need these Europeans??

    • Eric Benjamin says:

      It’s a good point, Luciano, and something Norman might address. And there are still plenty of European and Asian born conductors in place in directorships across the US – Philly, Cleveland, and in plenty of less prominent posts.

      We have seen how Great Britain and Finland do a terrific job of identifying and training native talent. The US system either does not produce qualified people (arguable) in sufficient numbers OR there is a reverse-provincialism at work in agencies, management, and audiences that puts a higher premium on the European imports.

      It is very true that the management vs. labor model, and the entire patronage system that has provided shaky support for the US orchestral endeavor, are both at the point of collapse.

      • Philly’s music director isn’t European-born; he’s from Montreal.

        Of the Big Seven (yes, we have to add LA and SF), only Cleveland and Chicago currently have European-born music directors (though Boston may soon acquire one).

        Of the next tier – Pittsburgh, Detroit, Minnesota, St. Louis, DC, Atlanta (though probably not for long) – half are European-born, half are American.

      • Yannick N-S is Canadian, not European or Asian

    • Good question. What do you think?

    • Large? Yes!
      Wealthy? Yes!
      Well educated? I’m not so sure…

      Anyway, it’s besides the point. Being a conductor requires a very special education. Maybe it involves usually growing up in an immersive classical music environment. And where do you have those the most?

  5. The tragedy is this will be the end of the regional orchestras in the United States. There is a waning interest in the Country for classical music and currently in the regional orchestras there is a dumbing down of the repertoire to attract what audience there is. Orchestra managements are having to spend more money on marketing to bring in what audience they can. Orchestra members under these conditions, many who double dip as teachers and members of smaller ensembles appear greedy. End result is some of these orchestras will shutter their doors immediately, others will fade out when donor support is no longer enough to keep the orchestra operating. You will end up only seeing the majors left.

    • I think there’s a possibility that the little ones will be left standing, but the middle-budget orchestras go south.

    • Referring to teaching and playing in smaller ensembles as ‘double-dipping’ is inappropriate when applied to musicians in regional orchestras. With the salaries offered by most of them, ‘moonlighting’, or simply ‘making ends meet’ would be more correct.

      • William Safford says:

        Good point.

        As I posted elsewhere, my local per-service ROPA orchestra offers a typical player a salary of about $5,000. How could anyone support him- or herself on such a salary, without teaching or playing in other ensembles?

        This is an orchestra that has played in Carnegie and has recorded extensively.

  6. When you think about it, the “rules” are all about money and job security, with a big emphasis on money. We need to throw ALL the rules out, starting with the unions. But the biggest problem of all is that because it has never occupied the same social position as Europe, the orchestra in America depends upon the so-called 1% and would cease to exist in any other guise. Imagine Haydn in a huff leaving Esterhazy and trying to start his own “peoples orchestra” in Vienna. He would have been laughed all the way to the insane asylum.

    • William Safford says:

      “Doug,” you rail against musicians receiving a fair wage and having some form of job security as if there’s something wrong with that.

      Of course this is at least in part about money and job security — two items that were notably lacking before the unionization of American orchestras.

      I agree that there is a fundamental problem with the financing model of American orchestras.

  7. Hmmm. “Maestro Myth” still comes to mind. ;)
    An orchestra which focuses more of its budget on paying and keeping great players – is going to be a better orchestra than one which splurges on some million dollar name with an ego to match. My humble opinion.

    • True, but then have you ever tried talking to those orchestra members who are not so great and also not willing to improve, to step aside and make room for better ones? Egos are everywhere. “Maestro myth”? I raise you the “we-are-great-without-overrated-conductors” mediocre orchestra player’s myth.

  8. Sam McElroy says:

    The first time I saw a giant stop-watch on stage in rehearsal, I knew there was something wrong with music-making in the US! I was looking around for Usain Bolt! And when my girlfriend, a certain pianist known for exciting audiences by improvising her encores, was asked (on her first contact with anyone from management since her arrival three days earlier) before her second of three performances (with one of the orchestras now in crisis), “Can you please cut your encore shorter tonight, because last night we were 15 seconds from overtime”, I knew we were living in the wrong country, let alone working in it! Her reply was fabulous, by the way: “Are you sure you wouldn’t like me to play the 2nd movement at double tempo, while I’m at it?”

    • Well, that’s not screwy. Musicians are employees, they’re at work, and they need to know when they’re going to be home to let the babysitter off or avoid paying parking overtime, etc, just like any other worker. That’s why these union rules exist, and entitled idiots like that pianist might just choose a shorter encore.

      • Perry Groves says:

        And yet, in most other countries it is considered a part of the job, and not to be measured down to the second. I think that’s rather the point of the article.

        Not surprised that at least some Americans missed that entirely…

        • weezeedee says:

          Sadly, some conductors will take advantage and rehearse inefficiently if there are no rules on the books. The rules are codified to prevent things like trumpet players blowing their brains out two hours before an important performance. Overtime is paid in 30 min intervals usually, so it makes sense for a soloist not to require 30 minutes of extra pay for a full orchestra so she can have 15 seconds extra time for an encore. Considering a soloist often gets paid in one night what an orchestral musician gets paid for a year, this all makes sense to me. We do not have the government funding in the US that Europe does, so an extra $5000-$10000 resulting from overtime would have to be raised in the tedious manner of phone calls, letters, etc.

          • Without such exacting rules, managements run roughshod over the orchestra, making up things as they go along and conductors are afforded unlimited abuses and talking ad nauseum. The Union needs to make some changes for, sure, but boy I’m glad I’m in one.

  9. In America, the problem starts here and just gets worse. Most America audiences don’t know very much about music, to begin with. Read this blog post for an idea about how poor our music education system is. Add to it poorly run and top-heavy management organizations, symphony boards and wealthy patrons whose understanding and love of music is based more on social prestige and expectation rather than a genuine and intrinsic love of music, and a labor union whose objective is to look out for its members at best, and demonize the management at worst, and you have a recipe for the complete meltdown of our American orchestras. It is no wonder that no fabulously well trained European conductor would want to step into this cesspool. I have had several students who have “jumped ship” and moved to Europe in order to have viable careers, and my own children (a musician and a visual artist)are making noises about doing so. It is a sad state of affairs, and points to a fundamental flaw in the way we educate our children and our future artists. When money dictates the values of an entire culture, that culture is bankrupt in more than the financial sense.

  10. it’s like cheese and wine. the psychology: that which is imported is superior

    • Perry Groves says:

      Or, just maybe, the millions of people who have sampled them from all countries and come to the same conclusions, may just possibly realise the truth…

  11. I neglected to attach the link to the blog. Here it is:

  12. Ivan Fisher claiming being offered NSO music director? That’s laughable to me, someone who knows. Blaming musicians in American orchestras, he sounds like a sour grape to me.

  13. Galen Johnson says:

    Many–maybe most–American orchestras have non-American conductors, whereas one finds American conductors most frequently in Europe: Nagano (Canada, too, of course), Axelrod, Sloane, Fiore and many more.

  14. It is grotesque, and growing tesquer. But look on the bright side – maybe US orchestras will finally hire American conductors. The US produces plenty of fine talent that isn’t taken as seriously as someone with a name that’s difficult to pronounce.

  15. Sixtus Beckmesser says:

    The assumption that European conductors are somehow superior and thus a sine qua non for American orchestras is rooted in American’s sense of cultural inferiority and is not borne out by reality. Why, one wonders, do so many of them study here at Juilliard, at Curtis, or at Indiana University? And the anti-musician bias implicit in your columns boils down to class warfare. All most musicians care about is attaining a basic middle-class standard of living while practicing the craft they love so much. The ambitions (certainly not the level of talent) of those on the podium are of an entirely different order. They aspire to a place among the top 1%.

    • Why, one wonders, do so many of them study here at Juilliard, at Curtis, or at Indiana University?

      To cash in. Pure and simple.

      • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

        The same reason that so many Brits are now running US Orchestras, music schools and, of course, Carnegie Hall (Over $1 million for the bossman). That pot of gold at the end of Judy’s rainbow is now half empty (or is that half-full?). How long will it last?

  16. Silvio Interlandi says:

    Dear Mr. Lebrecht,
    Can you feel a strong tone of provincianism on all these patriotic
    comments you get? It is so ridiculous and naive as thinking that
    the New Haven symphony have musicians only born in New Haven.

  17. Mort Valtash says:

    The typical U.S. orchestra and their management exemplify all that is wrong with the United States. First, the entire organization is based on two antagonistic and polarized entities, the musicians versus the management. Second, the most American vice of all, appalling GREED, which manifests itself in every aspect of American orchestras, from the outrageous salaries of their CEOs (some above one million dollars!) to the outrageous salaries of their musicians (many principals earning upwards of $350,000), to the offers they make to court their music directors (often above $2 million dollars per year for twelve to fifteen weeks of work). Third, a board of directors, usually made up of distinguished and very rich locals, who basically know nothing about music or managing an orchestra, but relish the ability to network and rub elbows with Maestros and other stars. Fourth, a public that, for the most part, is not very music literate or intellectually curious and want and expect the standard repertoire played over and over, leaving little room for new or modern music and all that it brings. Fifth, with few exceptions, an extremely provincial press and media, unable to educate, critique on a high level and support a modern approach to concert life or orchestra development. Like the U.S., it all looks, feels and sounds like something leftover from the 60′s, without the vibrancy that the United States had in those years. It is no wonder that European conductors and soloists are bored to death with the American experience.

    • Well-stated.

    • Robert Levine says:

      If musicians were “greedy,” they would have become lawyers or investment bankers. The number of principals in American orchestras earning over $350K p.a is probably between 10 and 20. Given that there are well over 500 salaried principal musicians in American orchestras, the idea that “many” are earning surgeon-like salaries is simply false.

      • Do you mean greedy “investment bankers” like Henry Higginson who founded the Boston Symphony with his own resources, or James Wolfensohn who worked so hard to save Carnegie Hall?

      • Mort Valtash says:

        Even if 10 or 20 musicians have agreements with salaries above $350,000, the rest are also making, by international standards nearly double the average. Most rank and file players in the major U.S. orchestras have entry level compensation around $100,000 per year. Are you aware what players in the London Symphony Orchestra, the Concertgebouw, or the Vienna Philharmonic make? About half that amount and they are all ranked as superior to any U.S. orchestra. Their executive management are not paid salaries near to and above $1 million dollars a year (Debrah Borda (LA Phil.), Zarin Mehta (New York Phil.) The U.S. orchestra model and its big bucks approach to classical music is over and is what is destroying it and giving it a very very bad image. In spite of the global realities and clear comparisons, the fact that U.S. orchestras stubbornly continue down that doomed path is scary. They let money get in front of the reality and refuse to see that reality, as greed and avarice is what drives them all.

        • All ‘ranked as superior’ to any U.S. orchestra? I didn’t realize there had been an orchestra olympics.Many of your treasured european musicians would just love to come get a fair living wage, commensurate with their level of accomplishment.
          My european colleagues bemoan their lot of having no job security WHATSOEVER (LSO), or having to run around Europe and Asia giving classes to make their salary work(Concertgebouw, Vienna).
          Don’t attack american orchestral salaries by comparing them to the grossly underpaid Concertgebouw.musicians. They’re there for the tradition, but they certainly aren’t happy about being paid what they are.
          Honestly, I’m not sure which is more annoying: the simplstic jingoism of some American apologists, or your equally simplistic rejection of all things American.
          We don’t have state funding here. That makes comparison extremely difficult.

      • Yeah, don’t you like how our opposition cherry-picks concertmaster salaries in public discourses to cite musicians salaries?

        • … which seems fair if you are comparing to a conductor or soloist salary to orchestral salaries: the concertmaster comes the closest out of the orchestra in terms of the responsibility they have, which is why they are paid what they are.
          Otherwise it’s like comparing a top Premiership footballer with a local mini-league tennis player: the comparison is largely meaningless.

          You could argue a case for comparing to Principal salaries only, as these are the jobs an orchestral player might aspire to achieve; but comparison with rank’n'file seems a little fruitless.

  18. sense of entitlement musician says:

    Who ARE you people? Geez…..

    • Stephen Carpenter says:

      Some of us are without an orchestra.
      Some of us have a deep curiosity and thirst for understanding what the phenomenon called “Classical Music” really has going for it.
      Some of us just want to hear a Mahler or Bruckner, Barber, Shostakovich, Corigliano orchestral piece in a hall, live, and well played.
      Most of us are crying for that opportunity because the “business model” does not work to produce this experience.
      And a few of us, who have tried to educate and have failed, recognize that there is such a thing as unteachability and it might just come from constantly being reminded that C is an acceptable grade for anything. A’s and B’s and those who work to earn them are subject to scorn and ridicule.

  19. I think the picture is a little more complicated than that.

    I look at the situation here in New York, where there has been much hand-wringing over the past decade (and before) about the right person to take over the baton at the New York Philharmonic.

    I remember Sir Simon Rattle being feted for a while. Events since have borne out the wisdom of his decision that it wasn’t quite the place for him. I also remember a number of other widely-admired European conductors who balked at the greater fundraising and PR responsibilities involved in a move to America – and I can imagine the length of the contracts being a factor too.

    The point being, the conductors mentioned weren’t the first to “turn their backs” on American orchestras, and they won’t be the last. And I can completely see why America is not the best place for conductors of a more idealistic disposition. But it hasn’t been for many years.

    Yet it is clearly possible for US orchestras to thrive regardless. Alan Gilbert has of course now taken over at the New York Philharmonic after a lengthy series of more or less awkward mating dances with mostly European candidates. I’m far from alone in thinking that the orchestra and its programming under Gilbert is the strongest and most exciting of the fifteen years I’ve been an attender and observer – yes, stronger than under Masur.

    There are other success stories I could point to as a counterbalance to this doom and gloom – David Robertson in St Louis, or how the Detroit Symphony under Leonard Slatkin is forging an entirely new role for itself in the 21st century urban experiment that is Detroit today.

    However, Gilbert is a special example, having carved out a place for himself beyond the frame of the kind of opposition between Europe and the USA that you describe, Norman. I see a good deal of the new energy of the Philharmonic coming from Gilbert’s close and lengthy collaboration with the resident composer, the European Magnus Lindberg, in a transatlantic working relation that I suspect is closer and more extended than anything that has happened there for the past two decades at least. The extraordinary fruitfulness of this collaboration was plain for all to see and hear in last summer’s performance of Stockhausen’s Gruppen, in which each was a conductor.

    Norman, I agree that the classical music world is facing fundamental and daunting challenges and you deserve our gratitude for highlighting these concerns here and elsewhere. It’s just that your conclusion is just too much of a leap for me.

    • Simon Rattle has never agreed even to guest-conduct the New York Philharmonic, despite being offered guest engagements by the NYPO since the 1980s, let alone been “feted” as prospective Music Director. Rattle has never once appeared with the orchestra.

      The one European conductor actively courted by the NYPO, Riccardo Muti, did not “turn his back” on American orchestras—he went to Chicago.

      The Saint Louis Symphony is not a success story. Annual paid attendance is less than that for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, which plays in venues a fraction of the size of Powell Hall—and annual paid attendance in Saint Louis is between one-half and one-third annual paid attendance at the Minnesota Orchestra, which itself has attendance woes. Had not the Taylor family of Saint Louis donated tens of millions of dollars to the Saint Louis Symphony within the last decade, the orchestra would have gone under—which, surely, is its long-term destiny unless it downsizes to something along the lines of the orchestra in Oklahoma City.

      “21st-Century urban experiment that is Detroit today”? Goodness gracious! Even the Detroit police department is cautioning visitors to stay away! The city of Detroit is going the way of Troy, and its orchestra is destined to follow (or else relocate to Grand Rapids, or some other thriving city, like a sports franchise on the move).

      The New York Philharmonic is plagued with problems at present. Within the last two years, it reported its largest deficit ever—$4.6 million was the figure, if I recall correctly—and attendance is the lowest since Philharmonic Hall/Avery Fisher Hall opened in 1962.

      Concerts are being papered like crazy for nights on which Alan Gilbert is on the podium. For next week’s concerts, Joshua and I, two snot-nosed kids from the Twin Cities, easily obtained sixteen papered tickets spread over four nights. We can decide at the last minute which night to attend and where to sit (or decide to skip the NYPO entirely)—for concerts receiving the most aggressive marketing campaign of all this Fall’s NYPO subscription weeks.

      Until the NYPO brings in a good conductor, things will not improve. The NYPO, for now, is a totally irrelevant orchestra, of no importance whatsoever, no matter how many ridiculous articles are printed in The New York Times.

      Wasn’t there some gentleman named Norman Lebrecht who wrote, upon Gilbert’s appointment, that it would have been cheaper for the NYPO to hire a metronome? Mr. Lebrecht was, perhaps, more prescient than he realized at the time.

    • Christina says:

      What about Michael Tilson Thomas?, or David Zinman?

  20. Ivan Fischer turned the job down (so he says…can we have a source at the NSO to confirm?), leaving the National no choice but to hire that bumpkin Christoph Eschenbach, who if I recall hails from Sioux Falls, SD.

    And setting aside the numerous compelling counter-examples (Dudamel, van Sweden, Wesler-Most, Muti, Morlot, Vanska), you make it sound like Europeans turning town work in America to be a terrible thing. Why not just acknowledge the two different musical cultures, and applaud those who are savvy and self-aware enough to know what’s a fit with their temperament and goals, and what’s going to be a disaster?

    • Mort Valtash says:

      Often, some European conductors have no choice. You mention Eschenbach. He was thrown out of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Orchestre de Paris at the same time, totally detested by the musicians and by much of the public and was seen (and still is by many) as a total loser, who has long past his sell-by date. The fact that the NSO took him is an absolute mystery, as he is a fraud, as far as I’m concerned, having lived in Philadelphia for two years during his tenure there and witnessing some of the most abhorrent massacres of great scores and a collection of mediocre soloists that he championed. Still, not everybody has the choice, so a post in the U.S. may be a life-saver, as it was in Eschenbach’s case.

      • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

        Christoph Eschenbach needs no defense from me. But I would like to set the record straight, at least as I know the facts, having been in Philadelphia during those years and actually worked closely with Maestro Eschenbach when he volunteered his services to conduct annual concerts with the local conservatory orchestra.

        He is a musician of great integrity with tremendous intellectual capacity and emotional involvement but there is no question that he was not a perfect match for the Philadelphia Orchestra, primarily because of “deep throat” (as in Watergate) members of the ensemble who fed details of his rehearsals to the local press who in turn fanned the flames of public discontent (my opinion). He was not “thrown out” but resigned when contract renewal negotiations began and it became clear that management (the infamous Board of bankruptcy renown) wanted him to assume a reduced role after his 5 year contract would expire in 2008 (he began in 2003). In November 2006, Phila Orch announced his resignation effective summer of 2008. (PS: he was at Orch de Paris for 10 years, the typical run in that town). Phila Orch had no succession plan and they were caught in an embarrassing situation. They asked Charles Dutoit to become “chief conductor” (not MD) from 2008 until this past summer thereby alienating two of the world’s most sought-after conductors. Yes, I know the musicians say that Eschenbach isn’t always clear technically (and Gergiev is of course) and that his tempi were always too slow or too fast (Bernstein comes to mind) and that his programs were not always to their liking (Riccardo Muti comes to mind with his choice of certain Italian composers, living and dead). Everyone wishes Yannick Nezet-Seguin well because he will have to provide leadership in every way to save this great ensemble and this once-great organization.

        But, and I can speak to this from personal experience, CE’s greatest musical talent is working with young musicians. He brings a commitment, both physical and emotional to the podium. that captivates them; and he has no problem “schmoozing” with adults for fund-raising purposes or with students to discuss music and answer their questions. He is not the same person described by local press and by some disgruntled professional musicians when working with young aspiring professionals in Philadelphia or Japan. One wonders why Christoph Eschenbach’s tenure in Houston was deemed a success. Must have been an accident and the talk of his willingness to roll up his sleeves and do fund-raising and some of the other dirty work that Europeans allegedly shun must be an urban legend.

        “A total loser, who has long past his sell-by date?” Not in my opinion, He is 72 and when his NSO tenure ends, I am sure than he can find at least a few gigs coming his way to help pay the rent.

        • Eschenbach is a typical example of someone who should never have started conducting in the first place. He was such a wonderful pianist, why lose his/our time in counducting, which he does quite poorly. I live in Paris so I had the occasion to witness many a disaster under his baton. Some people should stick to what they do best.

  21. Norman, since my book, or perhaps my conducting has touched a nerve, and we all seem to be searching for some answers, I offer yet 2 more excerpts from my book: “Wie Großartige Musk Ensteht…Oder Auch Nicht”

    It is not available yet in English, but I think it merits more clarity to quench the thirst of our readers……

    In response to the idea that European conductors reject American orchestras. Perhaps the “rule book,” but as I know from my colleagues, there are other factors ….It just ‘aint what it used to be….

    From Chapter 2:
    Orchestras and their Idiosyncracies: Generalities and Stereotypes from around the world and how orchestras reflect those stereotypes (and the exceptions to the rule)

    ……..But by the 20th century, most artists and conductors chose to come to America only for two reasons: To be more European, through the import of their old world pedigree, and to make money. It is no different today than it was in the early 1900′s when Mahler, Strauss and Toscanini came to America. Strauss premiered his Symphonia Domestica in Wanamaker’s Department Store in New York City. Mahler, the maestro of the Vienna State Opera, was fired as Music Director Designate of the Metropolitan Opera for programming Strauss’ Salomé (though he had apparently offered a sublime Tristan, a heroic Fidelio and a reformed Don Giovanni), an effrontery to the evangelical Americans even in 1907, only to be saved as the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic (then Symphony) by a pair of sympathetic sponsors. And Toscanini replaced Mahler at the Met with a kindler and gentler Puccini.

    Even today, the Europeans are on the most podiums and most American conductors (again, there are always exceptions to every rule) must pay their dues in Europe before being accepted in their own country. David Robertson, now Music Director in St. Louis, got his training in Paris and Lyon. Alan Gilbert of New York was Music Director of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. Kent Nagano, now Music Director of the Montreal symphony, had to make his name in Hallé and Munich. Even yours truly has had to be Music Director in Switzerland and France, and I’m still considered too young and too American for my own country. Such is the culture of America. The music is a means to an end: A bigger bottom-line. Brahms is bound to his bank account. Entertainment for the rich and charity for the poor. And if you have a European name, all the better.

    taken from Chapter 7: Imperialism to Immigration to Interactivity: The audience and its orchestra, and the importance of the Middle Class

    ……Entertainment for the Rich, Charity for the Poor….

    Today, classical music is attacked by some as music by dead, white European males, having little relevance to a modern population. For most, it is a luxury, an elitist form of privilege, education and entertainment. For others, it is a legitimate, cultural inheritance for all levels of society. For most of the public, it is irrelevant. As the social revolutions of 2011 drew a distinction between the 1% rich and the 99% rest of us, classical music seemed to belong to that 1% and the rest of the world said, “Boo.” Curtain call.

    I have made the argument that orchestras and their conductors are culturally anthropological reflections of the politics of its time. If our politics are dysfunctional and revolution is in the air, then so are our orchestras: co-dependent, corrupt and ignorant of the demands of the public they serve. The formula of entertaining the rich, funded by governments, corporations and foundations, while condescendingly outreaching to the poor though their “inner city” programs, no longer serves any functional or satisfactory purpose. The rest of the public has to get involved. All statistics confirm that subscription audiences are dying. Just who is our public of the future?

    The excellent writer Anand Giridharadas wrote at the end of the 2011 in The New York Times on the political rise of the Middle Class: “A long line of thinkers, going back to Aristotle, had spoke, of the middle as an enforcer of democracy and the rule of law. But here was a new secessionist bourgeoisie, enthralled by globalism, freed by gadgets and gated communities to disconnect from their compatriots and live with few responsibilities to their surroundings in a flashy globoscape.” *10

    If classical music in the concert hall is meant to be a shared experience, touching both the universal and the individual, it cannot mean very much when its future public is more online than inline buying tickets and when they have less and less to do with each other on a socially connective level. How does an orchestra touch its public when the public cannot touch each other? YouTube may expand appreciation, but it does not measurably increase subscription sales. More people are following revolutions on Twitter and Facebook than feeling revived by a classical music concert.

    All signs point to an emerging middle class civil society fed up with business as usual, with politics that are self-serving, and with religious institutions failing in their traditional roles. The orchestra has been linked to the exclusive establishment for too long and will be rejected by this new public, unless the orchestra once again begins to listen to its public and serve their needs.


    The 1998 study by the Andrew Mellon Foundation paints a depressing picture, which is not that much different in 2012. Orchestras do not adequately understand the historical, social, cultural, and political factors that influence their communities.

    “When orchestras talk about their community roles, they generally speak in terms of ‘outreach’ or marketing activities that suggest delivery of orchestra services rather than an assimilation of community values or traditions into the organization’s mission, operations, and decision-making. As a result, they continue to make an artificial distinction between their core artistic values and their community role. Failing to understand the principles on which the community operates and which in turn influence the community’s perceptions or expectations of the orchestra reinforces the orchestra’s isolation and limits its ability to reach important new constituencies. The result is that orchestras think of community needs as infringing on their artistic goals rather than supporting or enhancing them.” *15

    If the orchestra always thinks it knows better than its public, then it should not be surprised when the public no longer supports the orchestra.

    Of course, I may be totally wrong. Maybe some people need to be guardians of that great tradition called classical music and are entitled to public support, whether people come or not. Public opinion be damned. There are some musicians who say they have a duty to play only for the public who cares for this repertoire. For the others, why should it matter ?
    Even Plato criticized public opinion, believing democracy causes the corruption of people through public opinion and creates rulers who do not actually know how to rule, but only know how to influence the “beast” which is the Demos, the public.

    But, if “Music hath charms to sooth the savage breast,” as William Congreve wrote in 1697, the Demos can be our friend. These days, classical music could use a few more of those.

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      First, let me compliment you on the clarity of thought and expression in these excerpts (I found the previous translated quotes from the German text rather stilted and assumed that they were a “quickie” rendering into English). I don’t necessarily agree with every point but I do agree that we need a frank discussion from performers like you, John Axelrod, who are willing to search for answers instead of just searching for high-paying gigs like so many jet-setting carpetbaggers. Please continue to speak out and, to quote a great Roman philosopher: “Illegitimi non carborundum.”

      Ernest Fleischmann banned the word “outreach” over 10 years ago (It’s now called “community engagement”) and he had a point about the condescending tone of the word and of many programs stamped with that moniker. His “community of musicians” sounds a lot like today’s Berlin Philharmonic. Although I was never a great fan of his brusque style, I agree that new ideas, like Fleischmann’s, from thoughtful musicians and musical administrators are the only way to resolve the symphonic cacophony in the USA.

      • Thank you Mr. Fitzpatrick, I appreciate your words of support. May I elaborate on your eloquent points by posting the epilogue of my book which includes more quotes from Mr. Fleischmann:

        ….According to the 1998 Andrew Mellon Foundation Orchestra Forum Report, Ernest Fleischman, then managing director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, proclaimed in 1978 that “the symphony orchestra is dead.” *35


        Wither and Whence Classical Music? The good news is that that even more than 30 years after Fleischman’s prediction, we are not dead yet.

        Fleischman went on to “decry the shortage of inspiring conductors, the lack of imagination exhibited by administrators, and the increasing boredom and frustration of musicians. He called for the dismantling of the rigid organizational structure of orchestras in favor of a flexible ‘community of musicians’ that could operate as a variety of musical ensembles. Thomas Morris, then managing director of the Cleveland Orchestra, said instead that the problems among orchestras resulted not from the structure of the artistic ensemble, but rather from a diffused leadership structure that gives no explicit authority to managers and results in ‘decisions by default.’ Morris criticized what he saw as a fundamental lack of leadership, governance, and strategic focus. Better artistic planning, a consistent approach to programming and repertoire, and strong boards are the keys to revitalizing orchestras, he said.” *36

        So, here we are again. An orchestra representing its audience. A community of musicians. Programming for the public. Strategic focus and strong subscriber support. Good ideas that continue to resonate today. These men knew what was coming.

        Now we have arrived full circle. All variations lead back to the main theme. This book has given a perspective on how different cultural influences make a difference in how a composition is performed by a conductor and an orchestra. And how the music and the performance are culturally perceived by the public. And how leadership, musically and administratively, is probably the most important criterion to sustain that instrument of the orchestra for the benefit of its public and preservation of its culture. How that leadership and all other absolutes are applied will determine the future for this art; whether, anthropologically speaking, it goes the way of the DoDo and becomes extinct, or the orchestra remains lebendich und voll auf – alive and well- as one of Mankind’s greatest instruments of musical expression.

        For an orchestra, the need to find ways to resolve conflicts so as to go on making beautiful music together, in one city or around the globe, is paramount to achieving not only success, but survival. The people taking back their orchestra is part of the process. The continuing story of our anthropology will no doubt grow richer.

  22. I wish “NSO Musician” would weigh in!
    I disagree completely with this assertion that the workplace rules of American orchestras are what would keep Mr Fisher from accepting a post, if I am to believe it was even offered to him.
    I would like to know what rules would keep him from doing his best work? Hire and fire? MDs in Europe have even less power there. Rehearsal length? Even less time in UK, continental Europe also doesn’t let conductors arbitrarily add more rehearsal time. So, what’s left?
    The only thing I can think of would be his objection to performing fundraising duties. Awwww, poor baby! Having to wine and dine the people who contribute towards an NSO MD salary of $2.4 million? Barenboim said something similar. Isn’t that great. We pay these guys insane amounts of money and they resent what it took to pay them.
    It just goes to prove, the more you pay conductors , the less they actually want to do for their orchestra. That sort of pay breeds entitlement. That the best musicians simply want to maintain being middle-class to upper middle class for their year-round dedication does not even compare to the sickness of many MDs.

  23. Alexander Prior says:

    for some reason my comments never get published…

  24. Galen Johnson says:

    One probably should compare the time-at-the-podium requirements and salaries of European orchestra music directors with those of American orchestras. American orchestras demand fewer weeks, and pay larger salaries–sometimes hugely larger–so maybe some social occasions and golf games with the donors might not be so onerous.

  25. You did not mention Manfed Honeck, Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony.

    I would actually pay good money to hear Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony perform.

    Now lets see the conductors Norman mentioned above: “Gergiev, Rattle, Thielemann, Chailly, Fischer, the two Petrenkos, Pappano, Oramo, Gatti, Nelsons…”

    Except for Nelsons and perhaps Fischer I’d listen to Honeck any day.

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