Friday, November 27, 2009

Reinventing the Wheel

Let’s face it: the current, or past, form of classical music business is no longer viable. There are many reasons for it, from grossly inflated expenses to general diminished interest in the art form. We were never intended to have 52-week seasons for orchestras or such fat paychecks for musicians, some of whom only work a few hours per month.

Shrink the size of an orchestra to about 60, large enough to play the classics we love, and hire extras when needed. Of course a contrabassoonist or other such instrumentalist will complain, but when it comes to making money, you’d be surprised for how little people are willing to play. Perhaps an individual chose such an instrument in the first place knowing what an easy life it would be after getting into a group.

Reduce salaries and change the pay scale, similar to what people earn in many other professions. How about a base salary of $30k, plus then a per-service fee? The more you work, the more you earn. Obviously the per-service compensation would be slightly higher for an extra musician. Get rid of doubling and cartage. And what prevents a musician from grabbing a chair and a stand, freeing the need for so many stage hands, expensive as the latter are due to union contracts?

No one could imagine a ballet company where most of the dancers are well past their prime or weigh 300 pounds. The company, in order to be competitive, wants to have new young blood continuously. Everyone knows that a dancer’s career is short. Injuries set in and the body at 45 isn’t as flexible as it was at 20. Unions representing ballet dancers can’t promote seniority and prevent new fresh talent from coming in.

The same should be true for orchestras. Just because an up-in-years flautist brags that he has never played as well in his life doesn’t mean much. Maybe he’s truthful and his skills were lousier before. I bet  there are hundreds or perhaps thousands of younger ones without a  job who can play circles around this old man. An elderly brass player’s lips cannot possibly be in the same shape as someone else’s who just graduated from Curtis or Juilliard. Yes, the experience may be lacking with the youngsters, but as instrumentalists they are far superior and learn fast on the job.

In the past model a string  player gets a position and receives his/her tenure, which simply means there is not real reason to keep in shape. Playing in a large section makes intonation become nontonation as orchestritis rapidly sets in. Yet there are an enormous number of young violinists, violists, cellist and bassists who play remarkably well but who don’t have a chance to show their stuff as the old fuddy-duddies refuse to step aside.

When you go to a game, you expect to find the fastest and most skilled players on the field. Yes, in professional sports some are paid fortunes but they also have tens of thousands of paying spectators, willing to make the circus possible. To a sports fan and an audience member in the arts, entertainment value is the only criteria that matters. Leave all out the nonsense about “artists”: someone sawing away on the violin is nothing but a worker bee, a slave to the organization. An instrumentalist has to accept the ideas of the conductor, no matter how much they go against his own.

Many ballet companies take care that their dancers have something to fall back on, by schooling them in another profession. Why don’t orchestras follow suit? Make every personal contract a short one and at the end of the initial five years, have the individual compete for the job with outsiders, behind a screen, in other words re-audition. This could take place in, let’s say, two-year intervals after the first period. In the meantime the orchestra will have sent the musician to a community  or other college to prepare for “real” life. That would be money well spent.

The President of the country is elected for four years, with a possibility of another term if people agree. Why should we treat music directors or principal conductors any differently? There is a lot of deserving talent out there who never get a chance in our present system. And how much does the President earn annually? Isn’t running the country more demanding than waving a stick in front of a half full, gray-haired hall? Tie the salary to that of a public servant. Orchestras are non-profits, after all. With a lot of new openings a capable baton wielder should have no problem finding a new gig, at least for a while. How would the audience benefit from all this? There would be a lot of new and interesting interpretations for one.  And wouldn’t seeing new faces and hearing fresh musical voices be exciting to an audience? I have always envied the audiences in the Big Apple, not because they have their boring same–old–same–old resident orchestra, but because new ones visit the city every week. Old man Heifetz played well indeed, but never hearing other violinists would have kept people away in no time. And Heifetz was unique, our orchestras are not.

I shall continue reinventing the wheel so keep tuned in. Make the pitch a bright 442, a nice compromise between the Europeans and us.