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.