Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Orchestra Flu

Those of us who have been frightened by the spread of the avian flu (H5N1) have done so for a reason. Fresh studies are out proving that the deadly Spanish flu of 1918 was indeed another type of bird flu, jumping directly to humans and spread via person-to-person contact. That flu killed more people than WW I and there have been estimates that should the present threat mutate to an easier-to-transmit form, the number of deaths could reach 150 million this time. Nature may well be fighting back an ever-increasing human population, as so often in history.

A different type of a 'flu' is attacking the music world. Like the world population, orchestra budgets have increased past the point where they are sustainable. Very recently the New Jersey Symphony announced cuts to both the length of their season and salaries as well. Yet the pay rate in this group is just a fraction of what most important American orchestras spend on their musicians, and obviously their players have to augment their income by free-lancing or teaching on the side. Pittsburgh started their season with a strange concert where balloons were loudly popping throughout the performance. Perhaps it was an omen, bubbles bursting, as per their contract, enormous pay raises will have to happen at a time when the orchestra can ill afford it. One thing they have done right, though: instead of a dictatorial music director they have a troika in charge. These three conductors can each concentrate on repertoire they are best at. Let's face it, none of us can master all varieties of music equally well. Boston's Lhevine said in a recent interview that there are many important composers whose works he won't conduct. He simply isn't comfortable with everyone; we all should be that honest.

What to do about an orchestra's financial ills? First of all, be realistic with regard to musicians' salaries. Perhaps the pay should be tied to the amount of work one actually performs. But an even more important issue is to reduce the amount of money paid to soloists and conductors. If every orchestra agreed that those fees are too high, the price tag would quickly come down as the only option these artists would have left is not to perform at all. Or they could try to do something in the style of the Three Tenors: perform in stadiums and arenas with an inexpensive pick-up orchestra for a star-struck audience. As it stands now, it is an insult to the ordinary musician that someone makes as much money during one run of concerts as they do in a year. Of course, a lot of money would also be saved if music directors and general managers wouldn't be paid such astronomical sums. Without an orchestra, the most expensive conductor or manager won't be able to create music. The same isn't true in reverse.

All these problems would, of course, be instantly solved if Halliburton got involved in the classical music business.

New Year

Rosh Hashanah

Happy New Year to my Jewish friends and readers. It is the time of the year when synagogues become exclusive clubs and charge an arm and a leg for a ticket to let a person take part in a service. What happens to all those people who don't have an extra few hundred dollars to spend? Are the less fortunate ones purposely kept out of sight? It is not so long ago when Jewish people were very poor, especially back in the Pale. I don't think charging admission to attend a service would have been an acceptable idea under those conditions.

In front of G-d we are all supposed to be equal, rich and poor alike. How is it then that the society holds the well-to-do in higher regard, no matter how their money has been made? I can name people who couldn't have cared less about their religion in their younger years. The same men who wouldn't have been interested in Jewish girls and bragged about their Gentile conquests then, are now honored members of a congregation, having finally settled down with a Jewish wife, perhaps in a second or third marriage.

My journalist daughter pointed out to me that her name shows up on the official Kahanist list of the top "Self-Hating and/or Israel Threatening Jews." She is there with Noam Chomsky and Daniel Barenboim, in good company. She doesn't write much about Israel but has brought up the suffering of Palestinian women in the past. I guess anyone who believes in peace and isn't a pro-Israel militant is a danger. But in reality, religious extremists are a threat to mankind, not depending on what their beliefs are. Christians, Muslims and Jews can be equally dangerous, even to their own brethen who happen to see life in a different light. Just think of what's happening in today's Iraq or what took place in Northern Ireland.

Have a wonderful year.