Norman Lebrecht on shifting sound worlds
Congratulations, Michael Henson!
Hey! It’s probably more “sustainable” (whatever that’s supposed to mean) this way!
Seriously, what could possibly justify this kind of loss?
and there’s such a huge shortage of talent waiting to fill those spots! oh wait…
Yep – that’s definitely “management” (mis-management?) thinking. Not that they would know the difference between a seasoned symphonic artist and a cruise-ship lounge musician. Unfortunately for them, and the orchestra, the paying public does. “Talent” of the same caliber will not come flocking to an orchestra which has lost it’s reputation for having a competitive contract. Wake up and smell the decay.
are you seriously arguing that there is a shortage of accomplished classical musicians in the USA? Of course you aren’t. You can call it “management thinking”, but it’s otherwise known as reality that accomplished ocnservatory graduates are dying to fill those spots and will do a bang-up job when they do so.
Bang up job is right…….all that conservatory experience, all that ensemble experience. Yes a lot of fingers, but blend and experience seem to be criteria of the past……..think again my friend. I think managements are so keen on getting rid of collective bargaining that they miss out on or are unaware that music making is in itself a collective experience on stage..unless you are a merely making music by yourself.
you sound so nasty about the abilities of people, some of whom you probably taught. If new musicians are such clods, what does that say about the teaching abilities of older musicians?
cztof, you don’t sound nasty. You sound knowledgable. Ignore the “graeter” troll, for the “greater” good.
Shall I tell you about the number of Juilliard grads I know who eagerly took job as “cruise ship musicians”? you sound out of touch.
When conductors in their 20′s are given directorship of major orchestras, and hold these positions with apparent success, it is difficult for many non-musicians to understand why orchestra players should be viewed as elite, uniquely skilled professionals.
And, in all honestly, the listener experience at most symphony concerts in the United States would be improved more by better concert hall acoustics and larger string sections than it would by increasing the salaries of the players. Few listeners are knowledgeable enough to perceive the difference between musically good and musically outstanding. Almost all listeners, by contrast, are gratified by an aural experience that is loud, lush, immediate in character, and detailed.
This, not in any way to excuse the actions of Mr. Henson at the MO, which are morally reprehensible. But greater lucidity, on the part of the musicians, is certainly called for. ‘World Class’ hyperbole does not long inspire audiences. Exciting concert experiences do. The fact that Mr. Henson has been able to close shop while continuing to draw his own salary indicates very clearly that many MO listeners find life without their resident orchestra quite tolerable. Musicians should be asking themselves, “why?”
I think that too many orchestra directors and managers have followed in the footsteps of composers and forgotten the audience. “Who care if you listen”, so long as we get paid…
Jeff – rather too often the unspoken motto of the musicians on the stage, I suggest.
“Few listeners are knowledgeable enough to perceive the difference between musically good and musically outstanding.”
Actually, I think it’s that few listeners are able to articulate the difference between musically good and musically outstanding. But they can perceive it. If they couldn’t, then Osmo Vänskä’s concerts in Minneapolis wouldn’t sell any better than Eiji Oue’s did, and Gerard Schwarz would be more or less as big a box office draw as Riccardo Muti is.
Good acoustics do make a big difference, yes. As for 20-something conductors, I think that most potential audience members are aware on some level that someone like Gustavo Dudamel (whatever some orchestral musicians may think of him) is an exceptional case and that hiring music directors that young is not standard operating procedure.
there is a case to be made that hiring 20-something music directors young should be SOP. They are healthier, more enthusiastic, eager to learn, and grown on the job …. imagine giving them 5 or 6 decades in which to grow. We don’t wait for soloists to turn 50 before we deem them world class. Why should it be different for conductors?
Graeter…are you implying that there is a line of musicians stretching around the corner, waiting to fill these spots?
First of all…quite a few slots have been open for a while – they’ve either been subjected to clumsily arranged auditions with awkward and undgraceful contract offers (subsequently turned down by the winners for better positions in healthier organizations) – or simply not filled. And that was BEFORE the lockout.
Who do you think is going to jump at a chance to work in Minnesota? How long do you think Osmo will stay, while this is going on? The “talent waiting to fill these spots” are not going to be the most experienced, the brightest rising stars. They will be the younger, less experienced players (who don’t have mentors or advisors cautioning them against working for Michael Henson’s organization.)
A terrible thing has been done here.
Amy is absolutely right. Even under normal conditions, positions in orchestras take a long time to fill. There are lots of qualified players, but only one ‘right’ player from the scores of applicants who apply and the dozens who are invited to audition. And auditioning for even one seat is a very expensive process for any orchestra. Consider having this many to fill and it becomes very daunting. I’m afraid that great harm may have been done to a very major ensemble, and it could take years to undo the damage.
I took another look at that picture and from what I see, there are several principal positions open. That’s really serious. Yikes!
absolutely I am. It’s a fact. every year schools like Curtis, Juilliard, Manhattan Eastman, Northwestern, Indiana, Boston, Cincinnati, Oberlin … and a great many other schools that escape me right now, graduate reams of talented players who would only grow in stature if given the opportunity to play full time in an orchestra. THIS HAPPENS EVERY YEAR. You must not know very much about the world of music.
You must have no experience sitting on audition panels. When it comes to an orchestra of Minnesota’s caliber, there is absolutely a shortage of qualified applicants, and there is a fight for talent. Juilliard graduates many students every year, and the reality is most will never achieve the level necessary to play in a top orchestra. Sorry. That goes for every single conservatory (with Curtis being the sole possible exception, but they aren’t flooding the market with graduates). Most conservatory graduates will never win a single orchestral audition, regardless of school, instrument, or orchestra level. A top-tier orchestra? Forget it. Huge difference between college and the pros.
that is complete BS. Many musicians in Minnesota probably were not even admitted to Juilliard. You also seem to posit that musicians who audition for major orchestras are the finished product when the win the audition, and grow in the role not at all. what utter nonsense. and Curtis? may not be flooding the market with graduates, but they certainly graduate more musicians than there are spots in major orchestras on a year by year basis. You don’t sound too knowledgable, “anonymous”. I smell an agenda.
Cool it, please. You are verging on abuse.
i am sorry to be “verging” on the abuse, but i find many of these attitudes blinkered at best. musicans have to have strong egos, but the atittudes on display here are “verging” on the sorry spectacle of musicians eating their young. this is precisely what makes the world of classical music sclerotic. I have a dangerous notion to posit: maybe playing an instrument really well is not such a rare accomplishment anymore. Maybe more people can do it than we previously realized. If that’s the truth — and it seems to be — we have to engage it instead of insisting it doesn’t exist despite the evidence.
Also note that many of these same musicians profited nicely from teaching music for decades. Lo and behold: their students are gaining on them and might want heir jobs! suddenly the skill of their students is a threat.
I think graeter makes an important and accurate point (aside from his rudeness) when he says that there are many young musicians who play at levels compared to top professionals. For decades I’ve seen young people enter top orchestras and hit the ground running. Places like Juilliard, Eastman, Curtis, and New England fairly often turn out instrumental fanatics who are really great. In a country where so many people have little access to excellent orchestral playing (short seasons, expensive tickets, orchestras that can’t tour because the players have to have day jobs, etc.) it is unfortunate that this talent and ability often goes to waste. Experience is important, which only makes the lack of jobs even more problematic.
I can assure you my knowledge of this business is not surpassed by yours. I am a titled member of a major orchestra overseas, and played with many major orchestras back in the US. Before this I made my living as a quartet member and recitalist. Having heard hundreds of auditionees from every conservatory in the US (and many international as well), I’ve got harsh news for you–the vast majority of players don’t play in tune and don’t play with consistent rhythm. You would be shocked at the number of violinists I hear who play a fabulous Sibelius concerto, but can’t play a slow one-octave E-Flat scale in tune (as in the opening adagio of Mozart 39). Out of 100 auditionees, we hear on average 10 people who are truly ready for a major job. Perhaps another 10 who would be well served learning the repertoire in a second-tier orchestra before re-auditioning. The other 80 I can safely say will never, ever, ever win a job of any sort. My years of experience have shown this thesis to be correct repeatedly.
I feel you made one accurate point: that some skills can be learned on the job. This is true–one learns how to read the music director, how to blend with the section, how to anticipate the gestures of the section principal, etc. However, errors I see in auditions are not things you “learn as you go” in a major orchestra. That’s what summer festivals and regional orchestras are for. If you don’t know the tempo of Beethoven #3, I don’t care how great your concerto was. If your bow stroke in Schumann’s Scherzo is the same as Mendelssohn, you’re not ready. If you can’t play the last mvt of Mozart 39 at several different tempi, you’re not ready. If your string crossings are uneven at the beginning of Brahms 2, you’re not ready. Yes, there are many talented players that graduate from Juilliard every year, but many simply haven’t honed the skills necessary to play in a major orchestra. It’s a completely different skill set than playing the Tchaikovsky concerto. It sounds harsh because it is. We play 45 different programs a year with 30-35 different conductors. We don’t have time to teach some things. In our world, soloists cancel and we change programs immediately. We might perform a symphony on one-hour notice. Most of these skills are evident in auditions and trials–and I absolutely profess that the pool of highly-qualified, major symphony orchestra caliber auditionees is far smaller than you think.
Anonymous, thanks for your comment. you yourself confess that there are 10 people “ready” (your words) for every job you audition. That’s a 10 to 1 ratio right there, a fact which only serves to buttress my point, to wit: classical musicians are replaceable. They just are. sorry everyone.
Please allow me to correct several basic, elementary failures in your logic. You assume a 10-to-1 ratio of qualified applicants to openings, based on what I said in my post. What you fail to realize is that if Boston Symphony hears 10 qualified violinists, and Chicago the following month hears 10 qualified violinists, they are the same 10 violinists. There is not a separate pool of people for every audition. The major talent on the audition circuit all go to the same auditions, and once you get to the level where you are consistently making finals, you see the same handful of people over and over again.
I said we might hear ten players who are ready for a big job, but they might not be ready for OUR job. Every orchestra has different criteria they use to evaluate players, and when you get to the top echelon of orchestras, each excerpt becomes incredibly specialized–this is why when I was in school, I sought the advice of 10+ concertmasters for excerpt guidance. Each concertmaster looks for different sounds in Mozart 39 and Mendelssohn Scherzo, and you must be able to anticipate the tastes of each group. This is also true for music directors as well–do they prefer period performance of Mozart? Do they take Beethoven Scherzos at original, marked tempi? Not all of the talent at auditions puts in this level of study pre-audition.
Your assertion that there is a glut of ready talent also fails the most basic test–reality. If your assertion is true, then every orchestra should hire players at every audition. This is absolutely not the case. Ask someone on the audition trail how many auditions they take where ultimately, no one is hired. 40%? 50%? The three auditions I took immediately before winning my current position did not select a winner. Some orchestras have auditioned the same position up to six times before selecting a winner. This is reality. Committees truly want to hire candidates, because continually hiring subs is terrible for ensemble and morale. But if no suitable candidate exists, orchestras will not hire.
As a musician who heard dozens of auditions in a major American orchestra, I can tell you that we are lucky when there is ONE candidate who is ready for the job, which is why in many cases we were unable to hire anyone after listening to as many as hundred applicants, or sometimes even more than that. A set of skills and qualities that is required to be a member of one of the top orchestras is a very rare commodity.
Here’s an article that everyone should read about the audition process, and how hard it is to find qualified players–from Barrick Stees, bassoonist in Cleveland Orchestra:
No, Graeter. This does not happen every year. This debacle is special.
As to “You must not know very much about the world of music.”….It is a kind of an honor to be insulted by such a young, naive person. Thanks.
Ask players in the big orchestras, when you meet some, someday. Ask how many reams of talented players they accept under normal circumstances. Ask them how it works.
please read more carefully. i said conservatories graduate accomplished musicians every year. and by the way, i am not young, I am 45 years old. You seem to be arguing made-up nonsense with yourself, living in a fantasy world, like so many other musicians who think they are the ONLY possible player that could do an orchestra justice.
“Lo and behold: their students are gaining on them and might want heir jobs! suddenly the skill of their students is a threat.”
Unless they were able to realize that a student might be a threat early-on. They do have ways of trying to deal with that…
Henson stuffed our pension scheme when he was at Bournemouth so sorry to say he has a track record for this sort of thing.
Henson will never work in orchestra management again, after destroying the Minnesota Orchestra. Happily for him, the orchestra’s Immediate Past Chairman (such an impressive title!) is CEO of a too-big-to-fail bank, so there will be other options for Henson in banking, no doubt.
I’d like to hear more about Henson at Bournemouth, personally.
I wish the information were more specific than just these ghost images. It looks like 22 people have left the orchestra, but it does not say when. One ghost is the bass trombonist, but he resigned in the spring of 2012 and his position was already advertised in May of that year before the lockout had begun.
This was about the time that the orchestra laid off 15 staffers to trim 450k from their budget to help with a 3 million deficit, so financial security might have been an issue but not the lockout. Does this apply to some of the other 22 players as well?
Of course, one has to ask why spend 50 million on a lobby renovation when the orchestra is facing lay-offs, but this photo with ghost images is curiously unspecific.
William, it’s hard to sum up all the ghost appearances in a caption, so it’s more effectively used as an image to spark discussion and curiosity. Checking the MOA website, you will see seven unfilled positions (i.e. Assistant Principal Second Violin). You will see names of players who have left Minnesota and formally taken positions elsewhere, but are still contractually listed as MO employees. They’ve taken a leave of absence, and will formalize it at the appropriate time for all the human resource departments involved. Still other names are listed, but those people haven’t yet officially announced their decisions. The musicians know who is gone. The audience knows, too.
All these changes took place at vrious times…some saw the writing on the wall. Some hated the workplace atmosphere. Day 1 of the lockout was NOT the beginning of a bad situation…it began well before.
It’s true that the lock out was not the beginning of the problems. The orchestra has had financial problems for some time, so what would be the right balance between the two sides, even if our sympathies justifiably lean toward the musicians? What are some of the various constellations of concessions both sides could make? Which concessions are out of the question?
There are several valuable topics in this discussion such as hiring policies toward young players, the possible excessive caution in hiring practices that end up as a sort of abuse in themselves, and management agreeing with the musicians to leave positions vacant to solve budget problems. It’s too bad these issues are only now being raised in the context of a questionable lockout.
In short, I think the problems our top orchestas have faced in recent years is in part due to the musicians also having views that have been too narrowed — if not a bit too self-serving. To genuinely solve these problems musicians will need to begin taking a broader and more proactive approach to the health of orchestral culture. This article addresses some of the problems involving hiring practices:
I see the URL I gave doesn’t work. Google this and you will find a link to the article:
“Help Wanted: Orchestra Musician. Job May or May Not Actually Exist”
that is a really unfortunate process described in the article. NYPO has had ten year vacancies? There can be no excuse for that. And whence the notion that once you hire someone they are there for life, no going back? In most professions there is always a probationary period. dysfunction galore.
William, several of the Minnesota Orchestra staff members laid off were modestly-paid employees whether in ticket services or gift processing who, in appreciation for longtime loyal service, were instructed to pack their things and escorted off the premises the same day, Another low point in Mr. Henson’s approach to management.
It almost looks as if there was a bit of a hiring bubble in management, so that sharp cuts could be made quickly and pointed to, as examples of sacrifice. This seems in keeping with all other management actions.
Actually, the comment by Anonymous made good points about what distinguishes fine orchestra players from talented conservatory graduates. And I hardly think that the Juilliard, Curtis, or other conservatory orchestras sound better than the Berlin Philharmonic, or Chicago…..or Minnesota, etc.- certainly not on a day-in day-out basis.
At the same time, Graeter is correct as to the number of talented players graduating from Curtis, Juilliard, or any number of other conservatories, and, ya gotta say, the kids these days do have technique up the kazoo.
Furthermore, there is something about tenure in an orchestra that does seem to encourage dead weight. (I can’t tell you how many wretched NYPO players there used to be hanging around, either as regulars or subs, who used to terrorize conductors, including fine ones like Maestro Masur who really did make the orchestra sound better, even if it may have made his life miserable sometimes.) So, yes, the younger ones may be hungrier (e.g., those youthful (and beautiful) female Korean or Japanese string players who likely start on their instruments at a very young age and are brought up in cultures that respect authority and follow orders- sorry to sound politically incorrect, but sometimes it’s better to be correct). Yet, I’d take a great player who was experienced, and tried and true, over a highly talented one that was not. That doesn’t mean orchestras don’t, or shouldn’t, hire young players- of course they do. But that is different from an unenlightened manager paying a drastically reduced wage because he’s substituted his judgment for that of an experienced orchestra audition committee, and thinks that, like widgets, there’s no qualitative difference between players, so that compensating them should be determined by an indiscriminate “free market”.
Face it, to develop the skill set is very, very costly. Lessons are not cheap, scholarships are not always easy to come by, loans are sometimes predatory, one often needs a job or two on the side, even in school, the necessary skills cannot be developed without many hours of study and practice- which means the “opportunity costs” are high (e.g., what one could have earned with a business school education) – and for a string player, the cost of a fine instrument? Forget it. So, if an orchestra values and compensates a player based on what it probably cost him or her to develop their skill, and what one had to give up to become a fine player, it really must pay.
The problem is that this new paradigm of management looks at labor as something fungible, and does not see a difference, or a reason why someone in an orchestra should be compensated differently than so many others who are talented but lack the same opportunity, even if they would be willing to accept less to get through the door. It is viewing the labor market for musicians in almost the same way as for factory workers. Taken to its extreme, one can visualize players forced to give up their right to overtime, or health benefits, or pensions, or sick leave, or travel expense, or royalties, etc., etc., because right now we are still in a deep recession, and people need to survive.
Singers are more and more getting screwed, dancers have ALWAYS been screwed, now this new management of hedge fund crooks and corporate raiders would like make musicians the latest “screwees”. It’s all about market power, and how players and unions are able to use the legal and political systems to fight and protect their interests. So, instead, why not respond by nationalizing some orchestras, or, better yet, the financial services or energy industries? (And for our British cousins, why not really leverage the system and convert the City of London into a piggy bank for everyone, or send an expeditionary force to the British Virgin Islands to mine another 20 trillion?) So, have courage, get cracking and use every trick in the book to beat the tricksters. It’s not yet a lost cause.
” I hardly think that the Juilliard, Curtis, or other conservatory orchestras sound better than the Berlin Philharmonic, or Chicago…..or Minnesota, etc.- certainly not on a day-in day-out basis.”
JUst to be clear, I don’t recall anyone arguing that point. A complete and utter lack of seasoned players is not going to compare to an institution with some continuity … (although to the uneducated ear, the difference would be negligible, I’d wager).
It the information in the article I list above is correct, the Met is required to hire a musician at every audition, and yet they are a fantastic orchestra. What would explain this discrepancy, especially since they have a very low rehearsal to performance time ratio? (I do not think the musicians in Minnesota should be replaced. I am more interested the discussion about the auditioning process of orchestras.)
I also wonder what the musicians of the Florida Orchestra thought when it was closed and replaced by long-term guest residencies of the Cleveland Orchestra. When it comes to job security, I wonder if the perspectives of the union, ICSOM, and the musicians aren’t a bit too selective. Why should we respect the jobs of the musicians in Minnesota if Cleveland is not going to respect the jobs of the Florida Orchestra? See:
The Miami area that was served by the Florida Orchestra has a population 5.56 million, which is slightly larger than entire population of Minnesota at 5.3 million and 42% larger than Minneapolis.
The Minnesota Orchestra has been playing for sometime with reduced numbers/open positions and sometimes subs, as a way to reign in costs. Tony Ross, Principal Cello of the Minnesota Orchestra, played an amazing Prokofiev Sinfonia concertante for Cello and Orchestra last season on the first half of the program – brilliant. He then surprised the audience by also playing the second half of the concert. When asked why he persisted in playing the second half when most soloists perform only their featured piece, he said he had won agreement from management that he could play the full concert, so the Orchestra could have a fuller cello section that week.
That speaks volumes about the apathy and ignorance in the management of the MOA.
Author, novelist, broadcaster, cultural commentator.
Follow him on FB: Facebook and on Twitter @NLebrecht
More Lebrecht @ normanlebrecht.com
Enter your email address:
April 12, 2014 3 Comments
April 11, 2014 4 Comments
April 11, 2014 22 Comments
April 11, 2014 11 Comments
April 11, 2014 1 Comment
April 11, 2014 Leave a Comment
an ArtsJournal blog