Meet the orchestra: greedy overseers, middling managers, and obstinate, do-nothing players

Frame of reference: orchestra in a moment of triumph. (Wikimedia Commons)
Frame of reference: orchestra in a moment of triumph. (Wikimedia Commons)

This week Alex Ross, music critic at The New Yorker, interviewed Hungarian conductor Iván Fischer. Fischer has helmed groups like the National Symphony and the Vienna State Opera, in addition to composing and playing an assortment of instruments. Fischer was in full DGAF mode in this particular interview, suggesting American orchestras have lost their edge, that the audition process is completely effed, and that orchestra bureaucracy and players’ unions have totally hamstrung creativity.

Predictably, pro-union folks like Robert Levine snapped shots right back at Fischer. Levine takes a fantastic voyage back to the not-so-fantastic early sixties, when orchestra unions were a new thing, when job security was like a cool concept that we could theoretically work towards, that in practice had very little bearing on the day-to-day doings of the orchestra biz.

In those days, when the money started flowing and audiences came regularly, orchestras started toying with the idea that maybe these day-laborers they hired — also known as “artists” or “musicians” — deserved a few things, like healthcare and steady salaries. While they mulled over it, the market got competitive, and musicians toiling in obscurity were suddenly in demand. Unions sprouted up and started formalizing player demands.

As an arts organization, if your every move is greeted by well-wishers and deep-pocketed donors throwing crisp Franklins, it’s NBD to spread the love around a little. Pay 30 music librarians! Hire those full-time harpists! F**k it, book that international tour on the double! But when the checks slow and you’re refreshing your online banking every few minutes to see if payments magically clear, things change. The landscape shifts. That long night of revelry becomes an eye-squinting afternoon hangover. And you start feeling flinty.

That may be where we’re at right now. There is still a tremendous appetite for classical music, in all forms and fashions. The problem is that arts groups of all sizes need regularity. They depend on dollars, in-kind donations and major gifts, the kindness of strangers and government support. They need a stream of money. Meanwhile the audience just gets its music wherever — Spotify, Pandora, Youtube — and starts to forget about the orchestra-hall experience.

Forgive the American orchestras if they’re just programming the hits. That’s what got people in the door and kept the players paid, and everybody hopes those go-go days will last forever. But Iván Fischer’s calling their bluff. The more times you play the hits-and-just-the-hits, the greater the chance your audience will just ghost away (and/or die). What Fischer’s calling for is some risk-taking, old-fashioned weird-ass music, mistakes, all in the hope of uncovering something brilliant.

Photo: Éole Wind, Flickr,
Photo: Éole Wind, Flickr,

The players’ union and orchestra overseer controversy is a tougher nut to crack. There was a French philosopher (I’m sorry, bear with me — justifying college reading here) (I used SparkNotes) called Jean-Francois Lyotard. He floated the concept of the “differend,” where two sides basically have such vastly different viewpoints there’s no way for them to ever come to common ground. Lyotard spent untold pages agonizingly over a concept that was easily shorthanded as “agree to disagree.”

Players, overseers and other normal humans start acting shady if they’re holding all the face cards. But somewhere in that balance of power resides a place where nobody’s really happy, but everybody’s still eating. You can dicker over vacation days and number of concerts, but you need that creative spark that gets the people in the seats, first and foremost. Players & playaz, bosses & bawses, let’s agree to disagree for now. The message behind Iván Fischer’s flame-throwing is this: you need a strong orchestra and reliable product, but it’s pointless if nobody’s buying.


By dubuquecello

I'm a Dubuque, Iowa native. Interested in cello, tennis, donuts and other things. I'm a classical music optimist.

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4 replies on “Meet the orchestra: greedy overseers, middling managers, and obstinate, do-nothing players”

Fischer’s comments were simply a gross overstatement – if not outright falsification – of where most American orchestras are now. And his “recipes for success” would mostly serve to increase the power of conductors. That was my point.

Auditions work just fine most of the time; certainly they result in good outcomes more often than do most other industries’ hiring practices. Unions do protect musicians, and generally in ways that are fair to both the musician and the orchestra.

I don’t see that the “differend” exists in most places. I find that a large majority of orchestra musicians fully understand that, for them to be paid, orchestras need to be strong financially. If Fischer has a long list of places that have gone under because musicians haven’t been willing to make concessions, I’d love to see it. I can provide a list of places where concessions have helped, as well as one where concessions haven’t.

Musicians don’t run orchestras; boards do (at least in the US). Orchestras that are successful have strong boards; those that aren’t successful generally don’t. Whether or not musicians are willing to be more “flexible” is besides the point if the board and staff aren’t making good decisions and doing their jobs well.

Many great points. Robert, if it’s all right with you I’d like to excerpt your response in my weekly emailer:

Let me know if that’s okay, and thanks.

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