Saturday, March 13, 2010

Orchester, Oркестр & Ορχήστρα

For now, let us leave the bleeding American orchestras alone in their misery and look at what of interest is happening elsewhere.

Herbert von Karajan was a male chauvinist, no one can deny that, and during his long reign the Berlin Philharmonic was a men-only club. In the Teutonic culture this was not unusual. When there was an opening in an orchestra in German-speaking countries, the ad would clearly state is it was for a man (Geiger), usually in the first 4 stands, or if a woman could also be considered (Geigerin). The few women who appeared as soloist with the Berlin orchestra were expected to "behave" properly. Today's hip-gyrating babes would have been banned. Karajan's prodigy Anne-Sophie Mutter looks like a porcelain doll in video recordings with the maestro and his band, with absolutely no facial expression, as an ideal German Fräulein should.

Even Karajan couldn't live forever and since then the Philharmoniker has had to admit numerous females into the group. A year ago I was still regularly watching their concerts transmitted over the web. Although the general level of playing was always high, the orchestra sounded pretty much the same, sort of Wurst und Bier, no matter who was on the podium. The cameras focused on the same people and I soon noticed how many of the string players were slackers, playing over the fingerboard and thus not contributing much to the overall sound. I hate to admit this but it seemed to me that a good portion of these musicians were female. Perhaps it was a cultural thing: women were not supposed to play like men. Before you readers react, let me assure you that I am 100% pro-women. Listening to late Ginette Neveu's recordings it doesn't take long to realize that her playing is more "masculine" (in a good sense) than that of most of her male colleagues.

Österreich or Austria is another story.  Vienna, for many the capital of music, used to have an uneasy mix of Jews and Gentiles. Fritz Kreisler, although raised as a Catholic, couldn’t get a position with the Opera Orchestra, also known as the Philharmonic. During an interview late in his life, he said that had they accepted him, he might still be there playing in the pit. Although the Nazi party was outlawed, its sympathizers controlled musical life long after the war, especially in Salzburg. The Vienna Philharmonic, consisting of chosen members of the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera, was strictly all white male until 1997 when their harpist for 26 years, Anna Lelkes, was admitted as a member. This was done just prior to a U.S. tour and was a result of an uncomfortable newspaper article questioning the orchestra’s sexism. Until that time only her hands had been seen on widely watched New Year’s concerts and she was never present in the ensemble’s photographs. Ms. Lelkes retired soon afterwards in 2000.

The orchestra’s tour to the U.K. this year was the cause for another article, this time in the Independent, about the sensitive fact that only three percent of the members are female and none are non-white. A small number females have been accepted into the orchestra during the last decade, just to be fired later on. A woman was appointed as concertmistress in 2008, soon after the only one outside the string section, an oboist, was fired. Many saw this move as political, intended to quiet critics. The orchestra had a Japanese tuba player but he was fired in 2003 before his trial period was over. This in spite of the Philharmonic’s Chairman stating that Mr. Sugiyama was perhaps one of the best in the world in his field.

Let's go next to Russia, although this story involves us Americans. The Moscow State Radio Symphony Orchestra is on a tour of the U.S. and Daniel Wakin wrote an interesting article in the N.Y. Times about the low pay and substandard accommodations the musicians are stuck with. Other publications and web sites soon joined in. Yes, $40 a concert seems like a little and sharing a room in a motel may not be what some American musicians consider adequate. However, many of us work for that amount or even less, sometimes even for minimum wage. Every tour I did with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra involved long bus rides and one could only get a private room by paying the difference. Another orchestra, which shall remain unnamed, offered single rooms but paid the musicians more if they agreed to double up. Isn’t this just another way of making one pay for privacy? The same people eager to complain about the Muscovites'  low pay would no doubt rather buy piece of clothing, coming from a foreign sweatshop, for less money than what an American-made one would cost.

For those Russian musicians the $40 fee may be a lot;  they also get an opportunity to travel overseas and perform for audiences other than their usual crowd. Surely they all would love to stay in a five-star hotel and be paid $500 a night, plus a hefty per diem. But with that price tag, would they be invited to visit here? Of course not. For that much money you could instead get one of the two famous orchestras mentioned above. I don’t think people are dying to hear the rather unknown Russian group, no matter how well they play. I toured a couple times with  the great Helmuth Rilling and his  fabulous Gächinger Kantorei. Unless I remember incorrectly, every one of those singers took a month off from work and personally paid for all their expenses, airfare and all.

Now I’m off to yet another country with funny-looking alphabet. Greece has been lately in the news frequently, especially on the other side of the Atlantic. Its financial problems threaten the stability of the Euro and if Greece can’t keep up with its obligations, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and others might well follow in the wake of its collapse. In the true Balkan style, Greek people are used to corruption and strong unions; sometimes it is difficult to tell which is which. I read with some amusement how many professions over there are considered so dangerous that early retirement is encouraged, if not required. People in our military retire early, but how about hairdressers because of the chemicals they have to handle? What about people in the media who have to hold microphones which might be contaminated with dangerous microbes? With that logic any profession which requires turning door handles would qualify. My favorite hazardous profession is playing a wind instrument. Those poor musicians “must contend with gastric reflux as they puff and blow”, according to the NY Times.

Now I understand why so many of those musicians are so sour, with all that acid backing up. As they get older, reflexes are replaced by refluxes! Conducting might also be dangerous as a baton wielder’s blood pressure could easily rise, increasing the risk of a stroke (we wish). And all that yelling at the orchestra members must be harmful to his vocal cords. While we are making these colleagues retire, let us not forget the hazards a Concert-Mistress might face daily: those tight Wonderbras cannot possibly be harmless and the spike-heel shoes must be a torture to wear every day but mandatory in the job. I can’t fathom how anyone over 40 could continue under the circumstances.
in pictures: Johann Strauss
ancient Greek wind player