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Law report: Performance stops, composer sues

The composer Nathan Currier has been given a green light by the state supreme court to sue the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra for stopping the premiere of his evening-long oratorio before it finished. Currier, 53, had paid $72,000 for the performance of Gaian Variations, but at 10.45, with overtime looming at 11 pm, the orchestra stopped playing.

The composer wants his money back. The orch says that would cause them financial difficulties. Not the finest hour for either side.

More here from Brian Wisecurrier.

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  1. Greg Von Notias says:

    Has this sort of thing happened before? *Note to self* Compose shorter grand works.

  2. Frances (Australia) says:

    Pardon me for possibly sounding a bit dumb, but didn’t the orchestra know how long the performance would be, before the Public performance? I am also wondering if it went later than expected, did it start later than it should have? I hope that the composer wins his lawsuit.

    • The composer says he hadn’t figured in two 29-minute breaks for the musicians.

      • Maybe he hadn’t but, again (pace Frances’ post above), surely the orchestra would have been aware, in advance, of the total duration of the performance including intervals? Leaving themselves potentially vulnerable to legal action of the kind that may now be contemplated by the composer is surely at best rather careless and at worst downright absurd, especially in today’s economically challenged climate in which orchestra the world over (not least in US) are already suffering financially.

        • Quite. And if overtime starts at 11pm, why finish playing at 10.45 rather than 10.58 ?

          • Michael Becker says:

            I guess, wiping the strings, folding the score and packing up is still considered working-time under the respective unions. That much about bureaucrats ‘living the arts’.

      • I’ve just noticed from Mr Wise’s article (which I’d not read when submitting my previous post on this subject) that the performance in question took place on April 21, 2004; has it really taken 9 years to get to this point? If so, why? There’s something fishy going on here, methinks…

        • It’s called legal process…

          • Rosalind says:

            … and that’s why all the string instrument playing lawyers I know have far more valuable instruments than your average soloist!

          • Convoluted and protracted though legal process can sometimes be, I cannot believe that the sole factor accounting for this extraordinary affair! Nine years in which no one appears to have said anything publicly about a matter which, whatever else might lie behind it, must surely be of limited complexity? Surely not!

          • In fact, Rosalind, some lawyers who don’t play any musical instruments also have in their possession more valuable string instruments than average soloists.

      • Ok, this is what the complaint says.

        The piece was never run from top to bottom in a dress rehearsal. They had no idea how long it actually was. The idea that it would be 2 hours long was only in Currier’s head. Then, supposedly, in performance the conductor took very slow tempi so each movement was more than an hour long.

        There were, in fact, two intermissions of 15 minutes each. This is only 5 minutes longer than Currier had supposedly budgeted for. So, the problem had nothing to do with the union breaks.

        The problem was that the Orchestra never rehearsed the piece properly to figure out the real timing. Currier’s estimate of 2 hours and 5 minutes was either laughably wrong, or in good faith and based on his metronome markings or piano play-throughs, in which case the conductor must have taken extremely slow tempi to add an entire 25 minutes of performance time.

        In any event, this seems to be entirely the fault of the Orchestra for mismanaging the rehearsal process.

  3. Rosalind says:

    Surely it is the orchestra at fault here? Isn’t one of the golden rules of orchestral management that you have a running order – with timings – for concerts, in order to avoid issues like these? Presumably the piece had been rehearsed? (But re-reading the above makes me wonder if it actually was…) So management would have at least a rough idea of actual duration (with breaks) and of course add on a few extra minutes to be on the safe side re overtime etc.

    Would be interesting to hear from composers on here about this.

  4. PK Miller says:

    I’m incredulous as well–NINE YEARS???? I’m also w/those who question why the length wasn’t noted during rehearsals. Something is fishy & it’s not the Hudson River.

    • The Hudson River is fishier than it used to be, thank heaven. You certanly couldn’t call it pristine yet, but it’s cleaner than it has been in generations, thanks to anti-pollution laws.

      For what it’s worth …

  5. It is very difficult to imagine how the Brooklyn Philharmonic could have allowed themselves to be put in this position. As pointed out in other comments, the management should have been aware of the precise running time, with breaks. The composer should have been informed well before the premiere that he would incur overtime costs. One wonders what the audience made of all this… And, wouldn’t Nathan Currier be well within his rights not only to request a refund, but various damages as well?

  6. JT Hill says:

    I’d be more impressed if the orchestra stopped performing the work if they decided it was just too damn long and lousy and they couldn’t bear to play it any further.

  7. Martin Locher says:

    The orchestra seems to be pretty straight forward in requesting money. Seldomly seen such a misplaced, “in the face” BUY button on a concert calendar page, than the one on their site:

  8. How do you have two 29-minute breaks? A standard orchestra service in the U.S. is 2.5 hours with a 20-minute intermission, or 3 hours with a 25-minute intermission. Operas are often 3+ hours with two 20-minute breaks. Just how long was this piece? And no provision in the contract for overtime? I can understand how they might not accurately know the running time of a never-before performed work, but there does seem to be some management incompetence here.

    • The source makes it sound like 2 breaks totaling 29 minutes, not 2 breaks of 29 minutes each, which makes no sense. But it’s not clear in the article.

  9. The official report, which contains some details about the facts underlying the dispute, can be found at:

    Having read it, it strikes me that communication both within the orchestra and between the orchestral management and Currier was poor, and it is not entirely clear where the blame lies. Perhaps Currier underestimated the length of his work (which he cited at 2 hours, 4 minutes, 54 seconds when rendered at the keyboard) and had written unrealistically fast tempi. Perhaps the conductor took the work too slowly.

    It seems that both Currier and the orchestra’s producer were unfamiliar with the minutiae of the union regulations governing this performance (specifically, the rules governing the length of breaks and the bearing this has on the definition of overtime), and that the latter had failed to get the matter properly cleared by the orchestral management (specifically, the personnel manager). Alternatively, it might be that the personnel manager’s interpretation of the rules was at fault. The crux of the issue is that Currier decided to have two 12-minute breaks, based on the understanding that the rules required a minimum of 20 minutes cumulatively across the three hours and that no break should be under 10 minutes; however, according to the personnel manager, there is the further caveat — unbeknown to Currier and the producer — that any individual break cannot be reduced below 20 minutes for the purpose of avoiding overtime, hence why overtime was defined as starting at 10.44pm, not 11pm. If I had been in Currier’s position and fully informed of the facts as interpreted by the personnel manager in advance of the performance, I think I would have opted for having one 20-minute break between acts 1 and 2 and no break between acts 2 and 3.

    Based on the evidence I have read, it seems that Currier was not fully informed of the implications of his decisions regarding breaks, owing to an erroneous understanding of the union rules amongst some of the orchestral management, and divergences in the interpretation thereof that would not have occurred had the producer and the personnel manager fully discussed the matter in the advance, which surely should have happened even if no overtime issues were anticipated. Then again, maybe the correct interpretation of union rules was specified in the contract (without seeing the contract, I do not know), and the onus had been on Currier to have read and understand it?

  10. rvslkal says:

    With no disrespect intended, there seems to have been a cascade of ‘magical thinking’ at work here (based on my reading of the facts from the ruling in question):

    that the composer’s play through at the piano, much less a computer-generated ‘midi’ performance, would give an accurate real-world timing for the music

    that 7.5 hours of rehearsal would be sufficient to bring a brand new full evening work for large forces consistently up to tempo

    that the conductor in question, a highly respected and experienced new music professional who nonetheless did not have any particular history leading large orchestras, would be in a position to corral his forces given the time constraints

    (from the management side) that even though a complete run-through was never managed by the end of the last rehearsal, a contingency plan did not need to be decided on before the concert….

    (BTW – I find it interesting that no one has seen fit to mention the role of the conductor in this matter…)

  11. The WQXR article ambiguously says there were “two breaks totaling 29 minutes.” I interpret that to mean two breaks of about 15 minutes each. I’m not sure why there would be two breaks of a half hour each, unless there was scenery to be changed. The composer claims he thought the only breaks needed were two union-mandated 12 minute breaks, suggesting the intermissions only overshot by 5 minutes. This whole thing is so bizarre.

    I still don’t understand how they couldn’t figure out the timing of the piece during rehearsals.

    Also, the review in the NY Times is hysterical.

  12. From the comments at the linked article:

    > Next time hire non-union players.

  13. This will certainly help get him more performances…

  14. Linda Grace says:

    Wow, I thought “vanity” performances were limited to orchestras in Eastern Europe. I am glad to see that US orchestras are getting some of the monies, too.
    All in all, this “Juilliard trained” composer probably shouldn’t have brought the lawsuit if others are thinking what I am thinking about this.
    Like, where did he get the money? Works selling insurance, like Ives? Has a rich wife, like Stokowski? and so on.

    • Linda, it happens everywhere. London orchestras do it too (to their shame, since they then tend not to have the pick of players who avoid some of those sorts of dates, and deliver a lacklustre performance of often not top-quality music. To the paying public, it still looks like a ‘proper’ concert, and the audience leave disillusioned because they’ve just heard not-great music played averagely and without enthusiasm. No-one wins).

  15. Michael J. Stewart says:

    I would imagine they entered into a contract with the composer to perform this work. If they didn’t factor in the performance timings, and also, didn’t even rehearse the piece in it entitity prior to performance I would say that they breached the contract on at least two counts.

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