Thursday, May 08, 2008

Democracy in Orchestras

Chicago's coup of managing to hire Riccardo Muti certainly didn't go unnoticed in the American music scene. This is the same maestro that had turned down the New York Philharmonic, after all, which then decided to enlist a homegrown boy Alan Gilbert for the job, hardly a household name. I don't get excited about conductors as many of them are just overblown with ego and possess less talent than most realize. Muti is, however, a true musician and if things had gone as expected in Europe, he probably would have stayed there. He had declared never again to accept a position of Music Director in the U.S., following a less-than-ideal period at the helm of the Philadelphia Orchestra. We may advertise our brand of freedom but it is elsewhere that one sees democracy at work. The great Muti had to leave his beloved La Scala because the people under him had had "suffered" enough and protested, shutting down the institution with a strike. I wish people in American orchestras would have the same clout: our musical landscape would look very different as far as orchestras are concerned. I think Muti will fare well in Chicago, better than Barenboim who was at odds with many Jewish donors because of his political views, mainly about the situation in the Middle East. And in Chicago the orchestra is the name of the game, whereas in New York the most interesting concerts are given by visiting groups.

Every so often stories from another American landmark orchestra surface and resurface, this one in Cleveland. In the good old times they were about George Szell, the legendary dictatorial maestro in charge. Although his longtime concertmaster Josef Gingold never directly criticized his boss, he told enough details to make one understand that working under this man was not necessarily a joy, in spite of the high level of performances the orchestra consistently gave. These days the news of the Cleveland Orchestra are about their concertmaster for the past dozen or so years, William Preucil. In this time period he has managed to become a more powerful figure in the organization that anyone else. He also managed to get numerous close relatives, such as a sister, a brother-in-law and a daughter into the orchestra through what players claim have been most unfair auditions. This kind of nepotism is usually expected by the person on the podium, not a concertmaster. Finally last year Cleveland changed their audition procedures for the first time in 85 years, making it impossible for a family member to vote for his/her relative. As a sign of effectiveness of this change Mr. Preucil's violinist daughter didn't get in, and yet everyone knew that under the old rules it would have been a given. Naturally the concertmaster was very upset, and as a student of his from the Cleveland Institute at the same time filed a complaint about sexual harassment, Mr. Preucil went through a most unpleasant period. Unlike in many other cities, the local press had a heyday with these stories. I know conductors who view young females (and in some cases, males) as fair game and perhaps as "perks" of the job. They are not afraid of the consequences as these young players know that if they speak up, their careers are finished or at least greatly harmed.

I have sat through an enormous number of auditions during almost four decades, on two continents. In the past nobody had thought about screens and indeed a pretty young female violinist, often fresh from school, held a definite advantage to a middle-aged balding man with a beer belly, no matter how well the latter played and knew the repertoire. Without the identity being hidden, a conductor could almost always push his favorites (for whatever reason) through, as the orchestra members of the selecting committee didn't have the backbone to stand up against his/her boss. In the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra a violist, a girlfriend of a first violinist, was judged inadequate for the job. A little later she landed the principal position in Gotham city. She must have made remarkable progress in that relatively short time. With screens the amount of verbal commenting between the committee members seemed to increase. Often I would hear remarks that were dumbfounding in their stupidity, in the class of a music critic who praises someone's intonation when in fact it was highly erratic, or talks about "beautiful Mozart" when it was butchered enough to turn one's stomach. One of my favorite comments was about a cello candidate: "My wife says he's hard to get along with". The two of them had played in a chamber orchestra setting and they obviously didn't like each other enough. Needless to say, the candidate was disqualified based solely on this statement, as his cello playing was rather fine.

As in the finals the screens disappear unless someone has been invited directly to that round, it makes it easier for the conductor, or alternately the musician's friends, to push the person through. Yes, the players can prevent a conductor's favorite from getting a majority of "yes" votes, but the baton wielder can also decide not to hire someone that every musician has voted for. There have been bloody scenes where a brass player or a low string player hasn't made the cut and he had been promised the job in advance. But what function does a selection committee have if they are reduced to a mere rubber stamp? Instead of handing the job to the person with most qualifying votes, the conductor often acts like the Supreme Court which handed our President the victory in 2000, in spite of his lower vote numbers. Music directors sometimes like to be the jury, the judge and even the executioner.

Obviously it is stupid to determine how well a person would fit in based on a few measures of music. Some orchestras invite candidates to sit in for a week or two, sometimes based on their present job descriptions, not an actual audition. For instance, I got a call from across the border a few years ago. Someone wondered why two violinists titled "concertmaster" from this side of the border were sitting on the vacant leader's chair over there, in a B-class orchestra even under Canadian standards. The local "heroes" didn't seem to be to Canadians' taste as neither was considered for the post. In principle, the tenure system is supposed be in place to weed out misfits, but in practice it often isn't used properly. Some jobs remain vacant year after year, as a conductor is expecting a new Heifetz to plop down from heaven into his group. Likewise, tenure is granted to people who until that point have watched their behavior but then turn into little monsters.

With supposedly two million Chinese studying the violin seriously in the Mainland, their overtaking all jobs in orchestras here and elsewhere is just a question of time. They will be able to play perfectly and just as masterfully as they perform in gymnastics. They are more serious about achievement than anyone in the Western culture and work far harder. Also, as they don't have a long tradition of playing a certain way, such as those trained in Russia, making them ideal members for an orchestra. They're willing to do exactly what the conductor wants and will never question his authority or musical ideas.

The two million may not make the greatest soloists unless they have been exposed to Western tastes early on, but great musicians and orchestras have never made good bedfellows. After all, the great Fritz Kreisler in his 20s wasn't considered worthy a position in the Vienna opera orchestra's second violin section. This was at a time when a typical orchestra player was rather primitive by today's standards. As vibrato was a no-no, they must have viewed Kreisler's beautiful sound and style as an oddity. We were lucky as the score was 0 for the Orchestra to 1 for Music.