Saturday, July 30, 2011

I have been vindicated....

“The Philharmonic tour, despite its artistic success, has been an intellectual failure. In fact, the extensive programming of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Kabalevsky has had repercussions in our consulates and has got all the ‘bright boys’ in Europe saying that we are playing Russians because we have no composers of our own."

..."the highbrow climate in the United States has never been overly hospitable to homegrown compositions."

"America’s best composers merit more than a passing nod on their anniversaries or a story about their disappearance from the concert hall."

William Schuman
As I have been saying.....and yet, these are not my words.  The first quote is from American composer, William Schuman, referring to the New York orchestra's 1955 European tour.  Numbers two and three are from Dartmouth College Associate Professor of Music Steve Swayne, whose article, "Two Composers, Honored Silently," just appeared in the New York Times.  Dr. Swayne vindicates my contention that, all too often, American composers are overlooked in favor of their more renowned European counterparts.  Who knew that 2010 was the centenary of the birth of both Schuman and Samuel Barber?  But I'm sure that the entire world was aware of important anniversaries of Leonard Bernstein (he would have been 90 in 2008) or the other Schumann (Robert with 2 n's), whose 200th birthday was acknowledged (along with Chopin) in 2010.

Samuel Barber
The great Metropolitan opera, Swayne notes, had a golden opportunity to honor Barber and one of the great American operas (mentioned in one of my earlier posts) in his centenary with a performance of Vanessa, first performed in 1958 on a commission from the Met, but not seen in that house since the 1960s.  Instead of acknowledging one of America's (and that company's) great contributions to the art, Mr. Gelb and company elected to dust off Puccini's less inspired La Fanciulla del West, which did receive its first performance there in the year of Barber's birth.  But still.....

When was the last time we heard Yehudi Wyner's Piano Concerto, Henry Brant's Ice Field or Wayne Peterson's The Face of the Night, The Heart of the Dark?  Can't be crap; all have won the Pulitzer Prize in music--in 2006, 2002 and 1992 respectively--and yet, I've never heard (nor heard of) any of them.  Houston, (or substitute any major American city) I think we have a problem.


Karel Husa
By the way, Vanessa won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1958; of course, a Pulitzer is not necessarily an imprimatur of greatness.  Karel Husa won the 1968 prize.  Music for Prague right?  Nope, the third string quartet.


Husa celebrates his 90th birthday on August 7.  Let's not blow this one.  Everybody send him a card.

Všechno nejlepší k narozeninám Karel!

What is America's great music (Part 3 of a series)

St. Petersburg's palace of music:  the Mariinsky
As maintained in two previous posts, there exists a sorry commentary on the state of American art music in which our own orchestras do not reflect its existence when playing in the country's greatest showplace--Carnegie Hall--or on tour throughout the world.  It is a demonstrated fact that the great German and Austrian orchestras elect to play German and Austrian music, the Czech's play their music (better than anyone else, I might add), and the Russians present primarily the music of their country.  To support my latter statement, one need only examine the most recent U.S. tour by the renowned Mariinsky Orchestra.  Although the tour culminated with highly regarded Carnegie performances of several Mahler symphonies (in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of that composer's death)  other performances in city's such as Chicago, Ann Arbor and Chapel Hill, NC included Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto and the 15th Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich.

One is left with my previously posed questions.  Are there great American symphonies?  Are there great American operas that have become a part of the international repertory?  What of incidental music, film music, choral works, etc.?  Why must we apologize for a lack of depth (in strict terms of a shortened national chronology) with an almost complete ignore-ance of the music of our time and place?

God bless the people behind the Naxos label, which is almost wholly responsible for increasing the footprint of American (and other country's) music upon the world.  It is this label that has brought us recordings of the symphonies of Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, Roy Harris, Charles Ives, George Rochberg, and William Schuman.  Looking for a great American symphony?  We could certainly start with these guys and it would be a good bet that only Bernstein and Copland are very well-known beyond our borders.

U.S. Opera tells us that, "Through much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, American operas had trouble gaining a foothold in the opera house. Today, that is slowly changing, although new productions of American works are still rarer than they should be. However, a few works have managed to stay in the repertory, and others have had cultural impacts despite having only a few performances."  Among this group of works includes:
  • Carlisle Floyd's Susannah
  • Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe
  • Gian Carlo Menotti's The Consul
The most well-known American works are Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors (performed by groups of varying abilities and sizes throughout the nation during the Christmas season) and George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.  The U.S. Opera article also notes unknown and practically unperformed operas by Scott Joplin (whose Treemonisha was not premiered until 1975 performances by the Houston Grand Opera) and George Whitefield Chadwick, who wrote The Padrone in 1912 for the Metropolitan Opera but its premiere was shelved "due to its depiction of life among the American poor."

Cutting edge at the stodgy Met?  Maybe under Gelb
Samuel Barber's Vanessa, composed for the Metropolitan in 1958, was intended as a vehicle for Maria Callas, who refused to sing it.   The company truly "played it safe" from 1973 (Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts) to 1991 (Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles).  Since that time the company has been more actively pursuing new American works, including productions by Philip Glass, John Harbison, William Bolcom, and Tobias Picker, as well as new works from other lands.

A 2006 New York Times article by Anne Midgette notes that, "that new American opera — pieces by American composers based on American stories — may be the future of a field fighting the perception that it is static, Eurocentric and outdated."  There are works such as
  • Mark Adamo's Little Women (1998) presented by over 40 companies as of 2006.
  • Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking
  • Philip Glass's Appomattox, which--in 2006--was his 22nd (!) opera.
  • John Musto's Volpone 
  • and of course, John Adams's Doctor Atomic, seen in nationwide live broadcast by the Met.
In my own personal experience, I have made it almost a crusade to present American music to foreign audiences, AND it has been unanimously well-received.  Of course, I have conducted stalwarts such as
  • Copland's Rodeo, the original chamber version of Appalachian Spring (Czech Republic), Billy the Kid (Russia) and An Outdoor Overture (Poland)
  • Bernstein's Candide Overture (Czech Republic and Romania)
  • Barber's Adagio for Strings (Czech Republic and Poland)
as well as lesser-known pieces such as
  • Howard Hanson's Symphony No. 2, "Romantic" (Poland)
  • George Whitefield Chadwick's "Jubilee" from the Symphonic Sketches (which may have been the Russian premiere of the piece.)
Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962)
And all of this is just a small sampling of the music that is available to contemporary American orchestras.  There is music by American women: Joan Tower, Libby Larson and Jennifer Higdon come immediately to mind.  There is wonderful literature being turned out by contemporary "Romantics" such as Karl Jenkins and Joseph Curiale and of course, our music schools and conservatories continue to turn out extremely gifted young composers with unique voices whose music deserves to be heard.

We have the repertoire.  We just need somebody to step forward and play it:  here and for the world.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Another view of the modern orchestra and other musings on the "end of summer"

Is this our fate?
I have decided to take a day or two hiatus from my own discussion of the repertoire of the American orchestra.  Despite all the tales of gloom and doom emanating from places as far and wide as Honolulu, Holland and, of course Philadelphia, Norman Lebrecht insists that their is indeed hope for the symphony orchestra in these troubled economic times.  Many may disagree with him...

Detroit's Michigan Theater-now a parking garage

"....You can shut a theatre but you cannot keep a good orchestra down. There will always be an audience for what it has to offer.

And why is that? Because in a lifestyle of wall-to-wall wi-fi and instant tweets, the concert hall is one of the few places where we become reachable, where we can switch off our lifelines and surrender to a form that will not let us go for an hour or more. The symphony orchestra is our relief from the communicative addiction. It forces us, willy-nilly, to resist the responsive urge. It is a cold-turkey cure for our reactive insanity, our self-destroying restlessness.The more concerts I attend, the more I see how they restore balance to over-busy lives. It may well be that we, as a society, need the symphony orchestra now more than ever before. How we pay for it will have to be reconfigured over the next two or three difficult years, amid challenges from rival art forms and digital distractions. There has never been such heated competition for every nanosecond of our supposed leisure time.

But after 30 years' close observation of orchestral ups and downs and half a century after the Arts Council pronounced that London needed just one super-orchestra, I have reached the irreversible conclusion that the symphony orchestra will always survive — not on the weary old argument that it is somehow "good for you" to listen to "good music", nor on any cod theories that classical music breeds clever kids and better citizens, but simply because there is a cogent human need for what an orchestra adds to the relief of city life. That need becomes ever clearer as the world speeds up."

The entire article can be read here

As one of my colleagues used to tell me, "You know that summer has begun when the Tri State Wind Symphony starts up again."  If that is, in fact true, then the summer has ended long before we "officially" note its department in late September.  The following is an open letter I drafted to the players, noting our accomplishments over seventeen years of concertizing as well as a truly inspiring final performance last night:

Friday, July 29, 2011
Dear Friends and colleagues:

Those who know me well are aware that I am not given to false or empty superlatives.  As a matter of fact, I am usually harder on myself because of the high standards that I place upon my music making and leadership.  That is undoubtedly why I often can come off as being a task master; know that it is all with the intent of making our ensemble the very best it can be and providing a quality experience for players and audiences alike.

Those unfamiliar with our history are unaware that we offered only three performances our first year:  one each in June, July and August and at two different venues.  Since that time we have grown incrementally, trying out various models of operation, and occasional outreach performances, until we have created a very special series of events in which our concert-going public now knows that they can expect to hear music at our beautiful site every week during the first two months of summer.

We have easily played over 100 performances and some of those performances may hold memories for each of you for entirely different reasons.  For me, last evening’s concert was something very special as we took our playing to an even higher level.  Our overall sound was at times almost overwhelming (in all the right ways) and at other times gentle, warm and tender.  But what struck me most of all, as I hope it did to each of you, was the musicianship that we demonstrated last evening.  There were times when I decided in the “heat of the moment” to pull back a phrase or push one forward and the ensemble was always there, almost to the point of wanting more. 

I have already had several messages indicating that this was THE best Tri State Wind Symphony concert in all our years of music making.  Quite frankly, I would find it difficult to disagree. 

I cannot thank each of you enough for taking the time to share your talents with the ensemble and the community and hope that this year’s experiences have meant as much to you as they have to me and you are already looking forward to next May when we will again join together in our eighteenth concert season.  Until then, I remain

Respectfully yours,

Brian Hughes, Founder and Conductor
Tri State Wind Symphony
 



Thursday, July 28, 2011

The smelly mess in Philadelphia

In Philadelphia, obviously a LOT of money!
What is a great orchestra worth?

How many times shall I write of the debacle that has become of the bankruptcy proceedings in the Philadelphia Orchestra.  Just today Norman Lebrecht writes that "the entire exercise stinks to high heaven" and points to an investigative article from reporter Peter Dobrin.

As I have intimated before, in short the losers in this mess are the players and staff, whom the orchestra is attempting to avoid paying its contractually-agreed-to pension obligations.  The winners to date include:
  • Bankruptcy lawyers Dillworth Paxson, L.L.P., which had contributed $75,000 to the orchestra and whose chair, Joseph H. Jacovini, is a member of the orchestra board, has thus far billed the orchestra fees totaling $1.05 million.
  • Alvarez and Marsal Holdings, L.L.C., listed as the orchestra association's "bankruptcy adviser," has to date run up a tab of $833,365.  A & M's web page notes that, "Understanding what fiduciaries seek when selecting legal representation for reorganization, bankruptcy or receivership proceedings is very important for developing a successful collaboration between counsel and management."  Um, I'm at a loss here; hasn't the orchestra association already selected legal representation, albeit one with an obvious conflict of interest?
All of these bleeding dollars are on top of the lawyer's fees generated by the orchestra association's regular labor attorneys who are in the midst of negotiating a new contract with the players.  Their cost to date?  $203,616.

Thus far the orchestra association has spent some $2.4 million out of an initial estimate of $2.9 million for the entire process!

The piles of money being tossed out the windows of this venerable institution, the second truly "great" orchestra I ever heard live (the first was Cleveland) is reaching epic proportions.  One can only hope that the orchestra of Stokowski and Ormandy can survive.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

America's great orchestras; Europe's great music (part 2)

The Rudolfinum, Prague
Yesterday's post focused on the repertoire that the world's orchestras (including our own) annually bring to America's musical palace, Carnegie Hall.  I noted that the Germans usually bring German programs and the Viennese offer Austrian concerts, while American orchestras almost ashamedly perform stalwarts of the "safe" European giants: a smattering of Brahms, Debussy, Beethoven, and lots of Richard Strauss.  I surmised (without adequate evidence) that the Czech's probably tour with their music.  A recent investigation into the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra's (CPO) performance at the 2010 BBC Proms (under John Eliot Gardiner, a Brit, no less) revealed that they played a program devoted almost entirely to Czech music:
  • Dvorak:  Symphony No. 8 and Carnival Overture
  • Grieg:  Piano Concerto
  • Martinu:  Symphony No. 6
  • Janacek:  The Ballad of Blahnik
I have heard this orchestra perform twice: once at Orchestra Hall in Chicago and again at their own home, the magnificent Rudolfinum in Prague.  The CPO unabashedly performed at least one work of Dvorak both times.  In fact, the Prague concert was an all-Dvorak program consisting of the three concert overtures, In Nature's Realm, Carnival and Othello--as they are intended to be performed!  The entire cycle makes such musical sense that it is now difficult for me to imagine excerpting one from the group (although I will admit that I have conducted Carnival alone).  The second half of the program was the Seventh Symphony, a work that I had heard in Chicago.  As I have said many times, this was a performance that they could have easily phoned in, but they didn't, because of the immense national pride in the ensemble and the composer.

Stavovske divadlo, where Mozart conducted
The same is true of Prague performances of Mozart's Don Giovanni, written for them after that city's embrace of The Marriage of Figaro with an outpouring of affection and adulation for this, arguably one of the greatest of all operas.  While I have heard otherwise unconvincing performances of other works, particularly at the city's two main opera houses, the Statni Opera and the Narodni Divadlo, I have never heard a substandard performance of Czech music in the Czech Republic.  How I long to visit that country during its beloved Prague Spring Festival (another item for my bucket list).

One might surmise that perhaps American orchestras fare better in offering truly American music when traveling abroad.  Unfortunately the facts speak for themselves:

Lenny's orchestra plays no Lenny, nor Mahler either...
New York Philharmonic:  November 2010 concert in Hamburg.  Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun; Sibelius: Violin Concerto; Richard Strauss: Don Juan; Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes from Weber's Euryanthe.

Maestro comments:  safe, Safe, SAFE!!!  There is nothing here to challenge the listener's ear and nothing by an American!  Did Claude Debussy write anything else but Faun and La Mer?  And why Strauss?  I have heard it rumored (I read it somewhere once, probably long ago) that Americans play Strauss's music much more than the Europeans do.  Possibly that's because most of it is overblown, highly post-Romantic....just plain over the top.  Why no Ives from this orchestra that championed his music under Leonard Bernstein?  Or better yet, why no John Corigliano?  I think he's related to some hack who used to play with the band....

Hindemith Symphony?  You're kidding, right?
Chicago Symphony: upcoming fall tour in Salzburg, Lucerne, Luxembourg, Paris, Dresden and ViennaBernard Rands*: Danza Petrificada; R. Strauss: Death and Transfiguration and Aus Italien; Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5; Hindemith: Symphony in E-flat; Prokofiev: Suite from Romeo and Juliet.

*While Bernard Rands (b. 1934) is an American citizen, it must be noted that he is British-born and received much of his early training in Wales, as well as a residency in Italy that brought him under the influence of Berio and Dallapiccola.  He also studied with Boulez in Darmstadt from 1961-1964.  One would think that his musical voice was already established when he moved to the U.S. in 1975.

Furthermore, Chicago Classical Review says of the work, "Danza Petrificada is that rare work that manages to be both intelligent and individual, while also serving its functional purpose as a lively, audience-friendly, nine-minute curtain-raiser—even with the abrupt coda."  To me that reads safe.

Maestro says: snore......Two Strausses?  Please!?!?!?!  And for that matter, didn't Shostakovich write more than his Fifth Symphony.  Granted it's a fabulous and moving work but enough already.  Give us some Russian music we don't know:  the underplayed Borodin Second or how about some Myaskovsky?  My God, the guy wrote 27 symphonies; there has to be a good one in the bunch.  Have you heard of Gliere, Mr. Muti?  Or possibly the under-appreciated Kallinikov?

Let's ban any performance of Bolero w/o dancing girls!
Cleveland Orchestra: upcoming fall tour to Vienna, Madrid, Paris, Luxembourg, Valencia, Cologne, Linz.  Mozart: C-minor Mass; Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 "Scottish"; Stravinsky: Agon; Ravel: Bolero; Weber: Overture to Euryanthe; Adams: Doctor Atomic Symphony; Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4; Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No. 1; Strauss: Metamorphosen.

Maestro says:  Taking a Mozart mass to Vienna seems to me to be the height of hubris.  Several of Cleveland's concerts end with Bolero.....Blech!  While the orchestra has to be given credit for offering a work by John Adams, could they not also find a "mainstream" American symphony?  I'll name a few later.

Philadelphia Orchestra: 2010 tour to Korea, Japan and China.  Berlioz: Roman Carnival, Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1; Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances; Ravel: La Valse; Stravinsky: The Firebird (complete) and The Rite of Spring (always performed consecutively); Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2; Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto.

It should be noted that the orchestra did perform at the Shanghai World Expo during that tour.  The repertoire presented included the usual cast of characters:  Bernstein: Overture to Candide and "Mambo" from West Side Story; Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue and Porgy and Bess, A Symphonic Picture; and Copland: "Hoe-Down" from Rodeo.

Maestro says: the stuff on the "classical" list is all old hat; nothing, absolutely nothing new here.  Two Stravinsky ballets back-to-back?  And that proves exactly what?  Here's what Igor wrote in 1910 and here's how he had progressed by 1913.  I'd much rather hear a Tchaikovsky ballet score followed by the Rite.  At least then one could make a point for a remarkable progression of music for the stage.


I'll take this fiddler any day!
And what's this "American" program?  It's, again, just about as vanilla and safe as one can get.  Bernstein, Copland, and Gershwin and all "cross-over" hits at best (regardless of my love for Candide).  The Germans bring them Brahms and Beethoven (I would assume) and we throw in a fiddle tune.  If we're really going in that direction, let O'Connor, Ma and Meyer hit the stage.  At least one of those guys has fiddle tunes in his blood.

It is more than blatantly obvious that, for whatever reason, American orchestras refuse to perform American music when on tour throughout the world.  Why?  Because our art music history is limited to the mid-nineteenth century forward (and yes, there were Americans composing during the Romantic era)?  Are there no great American symphonists?  Is Aaron Copland our only composer of significant ballet music?  Is there a truly great American opera that is a part of the international repertory?  And those questions are just enough to whet the appetite...

- TO BE CONTINUED (again?) -


           
 







 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

America's great hall; Europe's great music (part 1)

How I long to conduct here!
This next year 2011-12, marks the 120th anniversary season of that most venerable of American musical institutions, Carnegie Hall.  It all came about because of a fortuitous 1887 meeting in Scotland between Andrew Carnegie and Walter Damrosch, then conductor of the Oratorio Society of New York.  Immediately the two began discussions of a new concert hall for the city.  By 1889 Carnegie had purchased the necessary parcels of land along Seventh Avenue, engaging musician and architect William Burnet Tuthill, who himself acquired the Chicago firm of Adler and Sullivan as acoustical engineers.  The $1.1 million hall opened in May 1891 with a five-day festival that included performances conducted by Tchaikovsky himself.

Tchaikovsky
To state that every significant musician of the past 120 years has performed at Carnegie Hall would not be an understatement.  To mention a few memorable events:
  • (1891) Ignace Padrewski performs the Saint-Saens Fourth Piano Concerto with Damrosch and the New York Symphony.
  • (1892) Soprano Sissieretta Jones becomes the first African-American to appear at Carnegie, in the lower recital hall (now Zankel Hall).  She would return for an engagement in the main auditorium the following year.
  • (1893) Anton Seidl leads the New York Philharmonic in the premiere of Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, "From the New World."  That same year Sousa's band appeared in concert and the New York "Music Hall" gains its now world-famous moniker.
  • (1898) The Chicago Symphony makes its Carnegie Hall debut.
  • (1904) Pablo Casals debuts.
  • (1906) Saint-Saens plays the organ in a New York Symphony performance of his Third Symphony.  Illinois-born Maud Powell offers the U.S. premiere of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Philharmonic.
  • (1908) Gustav Mahler offers the American Premiere of his Second Symphony, "Resurrection," with the New York Symphony.  The following autumn he assumed the reins of the Philharmonic.
It is although the walls of this mighty edifice carry the echoes of the greats who have appeared on its stage:  Leopold Stokowski, a 16-year-old Jascha Heifetz, Caruso, Prokofiev, Gershwin, Stravinsky, and so many more.  1943 would include two momentous debuts, that of violinist Isaac Stern and a young American conductor filling in for the ill Bruno Walter:  Leonard Bernstein.

A young Isaac Stern
The famed hall was slated for demolition more than once.  When Mrs. Carnegie sold the hall in 1925 it was with the understanding that the building would remain standing until a "more suitable concert hall is built."  When the Philharmonic chose to move to Lincoln Center in the early 1960s, the hall was faced with losing 115 dates from its calendar.  It would be that young violinist Isaac Stern who would save the day (and Carnegie Hall) by lining up the philanthropic support to allow for the city of New York to buy the facility "to serve as a national center for teaching music and the development of young artists."  It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and remains to this day the concert hall identified with American music.

In the seasons leading up to the May 5 anniversary of the opening of the hall, the world's great orchestras appeared in the Isaac Stern Auditorium (as the main hall is now known), including:
  • The Berlin Philharmonic in November 2009 playing Brahms and Schoenberg.
  • The Vienna Philharmonic opened the 2010-11 season with two works by Beethoven:  the Seventh Symphony and the First Piano Concerto.
  • The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam presented Mahler's Third Symphony.
  • The Cleveland Orchestra offered concerts including Debussy, Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Toshio Hosokawa, as well as Schumann and Bartok.
  • The Chicago Symphony presented a concert version of Verdi's Otello as well as Cherubini, Liszt and Shostakovich.
  • The Philadelphia Orchestra offered Szymanowski, Debussy and Stravinsky in 2010 and returned in 2011 with and all-Stravinsky program.
  • The Boston Symphony, sans ailing music director James Levine, appeared with Harrison Birtwistle, Mozart, Bartok, Schoenberg, Mahler, Beethoven and Max Bruch.  A hearty feast scheduled over three programs, but yet something seems to be missing. 
The "official" May 5 anniversary of the hall featured the New York Philharmonic and a star-studded array of talent including violinist Gil Shaham,Yo-Yo Ma, Emmanuel Ax, and singer Audra McDonald.  The program?  Dvorak and Beethoven on the first half and (FINALLY!) Duke Ellington and George Gershwin on the second.  Still, what of American art music (not to denigrate the immense talents of either Ellington or Gershwin)?  Or, in the words of reviewer, Anthony Tommasini, "What this program lacked was something recent or, better yet, new. In the 1891 inaugural concert Tchaikovsky conducted his “Marche Solennelle,” eight years old at the time"

So the Germans and Viennese come to New York's great hall and play their music.  (I'd be willing to wager that the Czech's play Dvorak as I heard them offer his music in Chicago many years ago, and they're not afraid to play him at home either.)  And yet, American orchestras come to our hall and play somebody else's music.  Exactly what are we apologizing for?

-TO BE CONTINUED-

Where are the American conductors?

Leonard Bernstein's ascendancy to the music directorship of the New York Philharmonic in 1958 has often been hailed as a watershed moment in American music history.  Here was one of our "own"--an American-born conductor serving as the leader of one of America's (as well as the world's) great orchestras.  The Philharmonic itself wrote of a program offered shortly after Bernstein's death in 1990, “His 11 years as our Music Director [1958-1969] and 21 years as our Laureate Conductor were periods of brilliance in the Orchestra’s history. Mr. Bernstein will be remembered for his genius, his leadership, his humanitarianism, his ability to transmit his love of music to young and old, his dedication to our Orchestra, his service to young musicians, and his unforgettable, ebullient and caring personality. We are grateful for his legacy.”

I am left wondering what has become of Bernstein's legacy?  Where is the next great "American" conductor to assume the mantle of our "musician-in-chief" for Bernstein was not just a force on New York's podium but the world's.  He was not merely a conductor, but a composer, teacher, author, and lecturer (to audiences as diverse as his Young People's Concerts and the famous Norton Lectures at Harvard.

A run-down of the music director's in our major orchestras (let's call them the Big Five just for the sake of argument) shows the dearth in American leadership in American orchestras.

Since Bernstein's departure from New York in 1969, the following have held music directorships with major American orchestras:

New York:  George Szell, Hungary (music advisor, 1969-70) Pierre Boulez, France (1971-1977); Zubin Mehta, India (1978-91); Kurt Masur, Germany (1991-2002); Lorin Maazel, born France; raised and educated in U.S. (2002-09); Alan Gilbert, native New Yorker, (2009- ).
A native New Yorker at the Phil?  Sacre bleu!

Boston:  Seiji Ozawa, Japan (1973-2002); James Levine, U.S. (2004-2011); position currently open.

Philadelphia:  Eugene Ormandy, Hungary (1936-1980); Riccardo Muti, Italy (1980-1992); Wolfgang Sawallisch, Germany (1993-2003); Christoph Eschenbach, German (2003-2008); Charles Duthoit, Switzerland, (2008-present); Yanick Nezet-Seguin, French-Canadian (music director designate).

Cleveland:  George Szell, Hungary (1946-1970); Pierre Boulez, France (music advisor, 1970-1972); Lorin Maazel, (see NY Phil) (1972-1982); Christoph von Dohnanyi, Germany (1984-2002); Franz Welser-Most, Austria (2002-present).

Chicago:  Sir Georg Solti, Hungary (1969-1991); Daniel Barenboim, Argentina-Israel (1991-2006); Bernard Haitink, Netherlands (principal conductor 2006-2010); Riccardo Muti, Italy (2010-present).

Thus, since Bernstein's departure from New York in 1969, it is easy to note the dearth of music directorships in major U.S. orchestras being held by Americans.  Natives of this country seem relegated to the "second tier" of orchestras, if there.  This information is not to be skewed as any kind of xenophobia, but just a statement of the facts that too many American orchestras feel that they need to search elsewhere for music direction.  This is a sad commentary on classical music in our country.

While it is true that the two major centers of conductor "education" (the Aspen Festival in Colorado and the Boston Symphony's Tanglewood Festival) should be churning out first rate candidates for these kinds of positions.  Yet we are being surpassed by the Finns, particularly the "school" of Jorge Panula, who headed up the program at the Sibelius Academy from 1973-1993.  Those who have followed him are former students who have continued to adopt Panula's highly successful program from its original "man without a method" approach to a new generation of professionals.  The increasing number of internationally-known conductors passing through Helsinki is almost staggering.

The Dudamel phenomenon
And yet, an apprentice conducting program has recently developed in the United States, through the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Dudamel Fellowship Program, offering "a unique opportunity for promising young conductors from around the world to develop their craft and enrich their musical experience through personal mentorship and participation in the LA Phil's orchestral, education and community programs."  The four conductors selected for the 2011-12 season hail from Venezuela, Romania, Northern Ireland, and (surprise!) Helsinki.  In fact, in the three years of the program's existence, it has been over-represented with Venezuelans, all while including only one American-born conductor (Joshua Weilerstein in 2010-2011).

It seems as though the time is ripe for an American resurgence in classical music.  Just as we should no longer be apologetic for our music (when compared to the great German tradition--that sets me up for a post on orchestral repertoire) we must be willing to accept that a distinctly American voice can effective speak our musical language and lead our nation's orchestras.  It's not xenophobia or ethnocentrism; it's how we view ourselves in the grand scheme of modern art music.  Who will be our next Bernstein, assuming he or she is really out there.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Another season concludes


Originally posted on the Tri-State Wind Symphony blog, Monday, July 25, 2011
 
Herein marks my last blog post for the 2011 summer season of concerts by the Tri State Wind Symphony.  This marks our seventeenth year of music making at Eagle Point Park and other venues throughout the region and the state, including:


  • A large number of performances at the Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Gardens (including our very first concert in 1995!)
  • Two performances at the Bill Bowe Bandshell, home of the Bettendorf Park Board Band.
  • A performance in Riverside Park, Cascade.
  • A concert, along with members of the Timber City Band of Maquoketa at the tenth annual Iowa Municipal Band Festival in Boone (it seems about time for a return engagement!)
It is amazing that the ensemble has managed to achieve our current number of players as well as the consistently high quality of the group, remembering that:
  • At our first rehearsal on May 11, 1995, we had 15 players present, nine of whom were clarinetists (thank you Micki Marolf!)
  • We have no auditions.  Membership is open to any and all who feel that they can keep up with the rigors of the repertoire and the rehearsal schedule (as well as my often bad jokes).
  • Our first season included only three concerts, partly because of a rain-out.
  • A near-crisis situation in Winter 2008, when we found ourselves without a rehearsal space, percussion equipment, and much of a library from which to select music.  It is through the dedication of our Board of Directors that we now have access to Westminster Presbyterian Church for rehearsals, equipment loans from the University of Dubuque (although much of our percussion battery is now owned by the group) and the gracious access to the music libraries of both Hempstead, Senior, Bellevue and Wahlert High Schools, the Maquoketa Community Schools and the now-infamous "Kahn Vault."  Who have I forgotten?  Oh yes!  Our good friends (at least mine) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Clarke University.
Of course, there are many others to thank for helping make our summer a success (and I will undoubtedly forget someone!)  Special kudos go out to Shopko as a season sponsor, American Trust and Savings Bank, for again sponsoring our "Star Spangled Spectacular," Mediacom, for sponsoring our Fanfare competition, and the many organizations and individuals who give of their time, effort and dollars and cents to let us pull this thing off year after year.

Our final concert of the season has always been based on the players' favorites of the summer and this year's concert promises nothing less.  The program will include:

Two works by award-winning composer John Williams, his Olympic Fanfare and Theme, penned for the games of the 23rd Summer Olympiad, held in Los Angeles and a medley of two themes from the original Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Lest we forget, 2011 marks the 30th anniversary of the premiere of the initial (and I submit the best) film in the Indiana Jones trilogy.  James Southall writes that this is "one of the few film scores which has genuinely entered into pop culture."  It is unfortunate that the medley which includes both the Raider's March and Marion's Theme does not include more of Mr. Williams's stunning score.

We will also reprise Robert Jager's highly inventive Third Suite.  Readers (and listeners?) may recall the March that doesn't feel like a march (due to its time signatures, often in either 7/4 or 5/4), the waltz for a limping dancer (in a kind of 5/4 itself) and the frolicking concluding rondo.  That this work remains as fresh sounding nearly 50 years after its 1965 premiere is a tribute to the composer's skill and finesse with the forces of the contemporary wind band.

A summer concert probably wouldn't seem right without a march by John Philip Sousa and we will not let our audience down.  Although we have concluded nearly every favorite's concert with the strains of The Stars and Stripes Forever, this year the band elected to play The Invincible Eagle instead.  One of my personal favorites, this march was written in commemoration of the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo.  Sousa had originally intended to give the march the moniker The Spirit of Niagara, but, feeling that it was one of his finest compositions, settled on the title we know today, truly expressing his feelings for his beloved country.

We will offer music that is both sublime--Percy Grainger's lovely Irish Tune and Alfred Reed's stunning Rushmore--and oft-times frightening:  Selections from Phantom of the Opera.  Buffalo Dances, an amazing work by Robert W. Smith will conclude the concert--sort of (but you'll just have to wait and see, or hear...)

I have to admit that the players staged a kind of bloodless coup on their conductor this summer and mounted up enough support to present Leroy Anderson's delightful novelty, The Waltzing Cat.  This we will present, with a nod and a wink to our late, great friend, August Knoll, who could never help but giggle whenever I put that piece in the folders (I can still hear him today.)  It was Augie who quite emphatically informed both Jay Kahn and I that Eagle Point Park is not arguably the most beautiful concert site in Iowa but that it is (with definitely no ifs, ands or buts!)

We hope that all of our friends and supporters are able to join us in concluding another successful summer concert season.  Remember:

WHO?  The Tri State Wind Symphony, of course!
WHAT?  Season Finale Concert
WHEN?  Thursday, July 28, 7:30 p.m.
WHERE?  Eagle Point Park Bandshell (or Westminster Presbyterian Church in case of rain)
WHY?  Because we like you!

Hoping to see you there.

Brian Hughes, Founder/Conductor
Tri State Wind Symphony

P.S.  Oh yes, and mark your calendars for 2012!  Our first concert of season eighteen will be MAY 31!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Are we scaring them away?

Among the ensembles that I lead is the Tri-State Wind Symphony, a community ensemble rather unique in its makeup.  We have no auditions or age requirements.  We have never begged anyone to come play nor have we turned anyone away, in spite of their abilities (or the lack thereof).

I always tell the story of Emily (her real name) who came to us lugging a tenor saxophone after just one year of playing in elementary band.  When she saw the music she immediately looked like a deer in the headlights; never had she seen so many black dots on a page.  And key signatures?  You've got to be kidding; everything is in C-major!  After her first rehearsal, I figured, "We'll never see her again."  BUT, she kept coming back and has played with us ever since, even though her summer return is always a little later than most because of her studies as a music major at DePaul University in Chicago.  Shortly after the beginning of her studies I received the kindest message of thanks for all that I had done to help her get where she was; in many ways I may have learned as much as she did.

She's one of our many success stories.  I can no longer count the number of young people who have cut their teeth in wind band through participation in our summer program.  Some are studying at prestigious institutions, others at state schools such as the University of Northern Iowa or Iowa State.  I'm proud of them and their efforts and only hope that they're not being prepared for a world in which their skills and passions are either deemed unnecessary or unworthy.

Then there's John:  possibly equal in talent to Emily.  He decided to study music (I won't say where) and lasted not even a year in the program.  Is it because of his ability?  Certainly not.  Intelligence?  That's not the case either.  Then why is John no longer studying music (even though he continues pursuing his passion with us during the summer months)?  The answer, unfortunately, is simple; he was not prepared for his applied teacher's expectation that he was to live and breathe nothing but music, practicing at least four to five hours per day.

That's really not much different than the way we approach practicing with beginning musicians:  give them a book, then a lesson, then tell them to go home and practice 20 minutes per day.  I've always wondered why we neglect to tell them how to practice.  My own 11-year-old hardly touches her trumpet because everyone else in band is still struggling to read music (she's had a couple of years of piano lessons) so she really doesn't have to.  Fortunately, there are enough of her friends still playing that she enjoys the social aspect of the whole experience.  I have to wonder how much things will change as she changes schools in the fall (from parochial to public).

It's interesting that this should come up as I had recently encountered this blog post which talked about that very topic.  The long and short of it leans upon some of the "experts" in the field about exactly how one should practice.
  • Nathan Milstein's teacher, Leopold Auer, told him, "If you practice with your fingers, no amount is enough.  If you practice with your head, two hours is plenty."
  • Heifetz:  Excessive practice is "just as bad as practicing too little."
  • Donald Wallerstein (one of the author's teachers) suggests establishing a 24-hour period every week where one is not allowed to pick up an instrument.
Most practice and I would infer by relationship, most rehearsal, is mindless.  We practice (rehearse) until something goes wrong and then we go back and "fix" it, often simply through repetition.  Dr. Kageyama tells us that it is a waste of time, makes you less confident, and is tedious and boring.  Frankly, I'm surprised that we're able to keep our brightest and best musicians involved in our programs at all.  During "marching band season," we play the same 7-8 minutes of music with accompanying drill from band camp in July through sometime in mid-October.  Then we have about 7-8 weeks (35-40 rehearsals) to whip up the three tunes for the "Christmas" concert (I know that "holiday" is P.C., but everyone still thinks of it as a Christmas concert).  Of course, possibly one rehearsal/week is spent in pep band just throwing charts together, etc., etc., etc.

And it's always the same--year in and year out.  I know of a band program that "starts" over 300 musicians every year and ends up graduating about 40, nearly a 90% attrition rate.  While, to their credit, some of the students who have stuck it out possess high levels of intrinsic motivation there is also a good number who are there for the fun of it or the yearly band trip.  One has to wonder how many of the "brightest and best" we have scared away, and exactly why...

There is much more in Dr. Kageyama's article about the hows of practicing wherein, if one is practicing deliberately, it might only be possible to practice an hour per day because of the intense effort being put into it.  More than two hours definitely surpasses the point of diminishing returns and it's time to watch a movie, have a beer or study the voice leading in a French sixth chord....

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Open letter: pictures and more

As I was unable to attach graphic images to my recent post directed at officials at the CEI, I thought it necessary to display some appropriate photos as well as add a few thoughts about the situation at the New York City Opera.

First, in Detroit:

Max M. Fisher Music Center, Detroit's $60M boondoggle



Now to Philadelphia:
Former home--the Academy of Music

Moved to:

Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center

(Interestingly enough, a check of the Philadelphia Orchestra's events on the Kimmel Center website indicate that "there are no events scheduled at this time.")

Now on to New York:

David H. Koch (Formerly NY State) Theater, Lincoln Center


NYCO's new home:









That's right.  It's a big empty.  The New York City Opera no longer has a permanent venue, rather, it has chosen to present its offerings at various locations around the city.  To me, this spells certain disaster for patrons of the NYCO will now have to search to find out where the company is playing any given week (if at all) and whether or not it is at all convenient to get there by car or public transportation.

Such is the sorry fate of this once great and truly "American" opera company, founded during the tenure of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who dubbed it "the people's opera."  Since its establishment in 1943, the NYCO's aim was to make opera more accessible to the general public (who might not own the necessary fur stoles to gain admission to the Met), provide for more innovative repertory and to offer opportunities for American singers and composers. 

It was the NYCO that originally featured:
  • Todd Duncan, the first African-American to appear with a major opera company:  Tonio in Pagliacci (1945).
  • Sherrill Milnes
  • Placido Domingo
  • Jose Carreras
  • Renee Fleming
  • Samuel Ramey
  • Beverly Sills, who--following her retirement from singing in 1979--assumed the role of General Director.  Inheriting a three-million dollar deficit, she demonstrated that her gifts were not only limited to the stage.  During her nine year tenure, the company's budget rose from $9 million to $26 million (!) all with a budget surplus of three million dollars.
A leader in presentation of new opera, the NYCO offered the world premiere of Copland's The Tender Land and the first professional production of Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, as well as American premieres of works by Ginastera, Poulenc, and many others.

Since the departure of general director Paul Kellogg in 2007, all has not gone as planned for the NYCO.  Its courtship of renowned artistic director Gerard Mortier ended before its consummation in 2008, leaving the company in an artistic and managerial vacuum.  At the urgings of the company, the NY State Theater (now the David H. Koch Theater) at Lincoln Center underwent a major renovations in hopes of improving its acoustical deficiencies. The 2008-09 season was a financial disaster, as the company presented primarily concert versions of operas in a variety of venues; the result was an $11 million deficit.  And now, less that two years after undergoing a major overhaul, the Koch Theater will be without an opera company. 

The fault of the musicians?  Beverly Sills left a budget surplus as did Paul Kellogg.  Any blame for the company's current financial woes must end at the feet of the company's Board of Director's as well as subsequent Director George Steele who most recently ran a $5 million deficit on a budget of only $22 million. 

Oh yeah and one more thing.  What does the NYCO pay in rent to the David H. Koch Theater?  Nothing.  Case closed.

An open letter to the CEI

 Exactly who is to blame?
     An attack on orchestral musicians...

In yesterday's post, I commented with extreme prejudice on an op-ed piece appearing in the New York Daily News which called musicians' unions to task for creating a hostile environment that has caused financial woes in some of our vaunted cultural organizations, including the New York City Opera, Detroit Symphony, and the Philadelphia Orchestra.  Below is an email that I sent to both F. Vincent Vernuccio and Adam Michel, both affiliated with the ultra-conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, calling them to task for both their shoddy reporting and the obvious political agenda put forward.

Dear Mr. Vernuccio:

I read with more than a bit of disdain your recent NY Daily News Op-Ed "Labor Unions Stop the Music," in which you and your colleague, Mr. Michel place the blame for the financial plight of some of our leading cultural institutions firmly on the shoulders on the musicians.  As a conductor (for over 30 years) as well as an educator, I feel compelled to take you and Mr. Michel to task for failure to tell the whole story of the fiscal woes of the Detroit Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

As more than a casual observer--I grew up in Michigan and first heard the Philadelphia band in a performance there in 1976--I have been following both of these unfortunate situations with keen interest.  Both have been venerable musical institutions:  all in the music community aware of the history of the "Philadelphia Sound" and the Detroit Symphony was once called the "Greatest French orchestra in the world," when it was led by the likes of Paul Paray.  Unfortunately, both institutions have fallen on hard economic times, but the blame most certainly is the result of mismanagement, not restrictive union contracts, as your article insinuates.

Detroit's problems began with the orchestra's decision to return to its original home at Orchestra Hall, which--in itself was a wise move out of the acoustical and architectural horror known as Ford Auditorium.  But the troubles began when management decided to expand the original Woodward Avenue facility into what is now known as the Max M. Fisher Music Center, dubbed "The Max."  The capital campaign to raise funds for the new facility was highly successful, raising some $60 million.  But instead of acting fiscally responsible and paying its bills, orchestra management decided to place the funds in an endowment fund, in hopes of generating even greater funds for its operating budget on top of its construction debt load.  The rest is history:  the public did not respond to the marketing ploy of "Make Music at the Max," ticket sales for the new facility actually
decreased (something unheard of nearly everywhere a new facility has been built) and the local economic crisis eventually took its own toll.  Faced with a $3 million drain on its budget simply to pay its debt load the orchestra management tapped into precious endowment funds with great alacrity, eventually leading to a near financial collapse of the entire organization.

In negotiations with the musicians union, which had previous given in to salary adjustments and wage freezes, the orchestra management approached the players with a new agreement which would decrease the base musicians' salaries by 27%.  In what I see as an extreme example of good faith, the players' association responded with a counter offer of a 24% reduction.  To that proposal, orchestra management countered with a 33% counter proposal of its own!  Seeing that the management, which had led the orchestra into a deep financial abyss, had no intent of reasonable negotiations, the players had no choice but to strike.  The six month work stoppage has led to acrimony on all sides, with conductor Leonard Slatkin basically refusing to comment one way or the other; statements from management have maligned the players themselves; and, of late, increasing numbers of long-standing members--including the orchestra's concertmaster--have jumped the ship in droves.  The DSO is a shadow of its former self and it is going to take visionary leadership on all sides to return it to musical respectability.

The situation in Philadelphia remains another matter of management's irresponsibility.  In 2009, the orchestra's expenses exceeded revenues by some $10 million and, at the same time, endowment principal decreased to the tune of $50 million.  Much of this drain has been attributed to the orchestra's own move from the Academy of Music (which it owns) to the new Verizon Hall (which it does not).  Lackluster choices in music directorship have stripped the orchestra of its unique sound and audiences, in a region that includes arguably the nation's finest orchestra--the New York Philharmonic--as well as an up and coming New Jersey Philharmonic, are taking their musical dollars elsewhere, if at all.  Still, the "bankrupt" Philadelphia Orchestra maintains over $120 million in assets, something which will probably not sit particularly well with bankruptcy court.  It is sad to note that probably the only "winner" in this affair will be the bankruptcy attorneys, now billing the orchestra at $750/hour. 


Your choice to tell half-truths--at best--and neglect the entire story reeks of spurious journalism and suggests a political agenda that has no concern for the organizations or the art forms mentioned.  Rather, like many, you have chosen to blame the unions for all of our woes.  As a teacher, I would have called you and Mr. Michel to task for your refusal to present all sides of the story of these organizations' financial worries, rather than stating that "hostile" musicians could possibly be at all interested in "stopping the music."

Sincerely yours,


Brian Hughes
Conductor, Teacher, Author
www.brianlhughes.com


I sincerely doubt that I will receive a reply, but if one should arrive, I'll be sure to post it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Musicians are smarter than most....

I want to shoot the guy who wrote the caption...
....and this should come as a surprise.  Check out the latest from the Huffington Post, discussing an April 2011 article in Neuropsychology:  The Relation Between Instrumental Music Activity and Cognitive Aging, Brenda Hanna-Pladdy and Alicia MacKay, University of Kansas Medical Center.  In conclusion, the study states:

Engaging in musical activity for most of one’s lifetime significantly helps remember names, and enhances nonverbal memory, the ability to work based on what one sees, and mental agility during old age. The habit of physical exercise, in addition to musical involvement, further adds to mental lucidity in old age. Starting musical training early and continuing it for several years have a favorable effect on metal abilities during old age. Musical training also seems to enhance verbal prowess and the general IQ of a person, although it is possible that people with higher IQ tend to pursue music more seriously. It is advisable to think about our lifestyles and change them accordingly to have a better chance at a healthy, clear-headed old age.

Of course I have to note that the study focused on instrumental music.  Sorry, throats.  A similar study might just prove what the rest of us real musicians already know.

Blaming the worker bees for management's woes?

This appalling piece appeared in today's New York Daily News.  The authors, who outright blame orchestra musicians for the current woes of their respective organizations are both affiliated with the "Competitive Enterprise Institute," a "a non-profit, non-partisan research and advocacy institute dedicated to the principles of free enterprise and limited government."  It is important to note that the CEI is an organization that denies a link between greenhouse gases and climate change, while offering opposition to U.S. fuel efficiency standards and serving as a booster to the drug industry.  See more information about the the CEI here.  Some of the major contributors to this organization include the infamous Koch brothers, the Amoco Foundation (would that be BP?) Pfizer, Inc., and the Philip Morris Companies.

Revenue for CEI in the fiscal year 2008-09 totaled a modest $4.6 million.  It's President, Fred L. Smith, earned $214,000 that year.  Interestingly enough, the organization hasn't deemed my state of Iowa significant enough to file a form 990 in.  For that I suppose I should be thankful.  One simply has to understand the source of such audacious statements about musicians' (and other) unions before accepting them as true.

I wrote a comment to the Daily News article, in which I stated:

The authors need to either do their homework or provide complete details regarding the mismanagement of some of our nation's cultural treasures. The problems in Detroit are a direct result of management's inability to pay off the debt of the major addition to Orchestra Hall, funds which the orchestra raised in their entirety but instead chose to submit to the endowment fund for investment. When the current economic crisis struck, the investments disappeared, forcing the management to work to balance the orchestra's budget on the backs of the players. In contract negotiations, it is obvious that the two sides were close to an agreement on salary cuts (management 27%, union counter offer 24%) when management's counter-counter was 33%! As for the Philadelphia Orchestra (understanding that I am not an accountant), an examination of their financial records (as appearing on their IRS 990 form from 2009) indicates that the orchestra spent approximately $10 million more than it took in.

Furthermore, a reading of the Philadelphia financials shows that the organization lost $50 million of its $170 million endowment in fiscal 2009.  Still, this "bankrupt" orchestra maintains assets (restricted or otherwise) in excess of $120 million.  Somebody is going to have a heyday with all of that money and you can bet it's not the unions or their pension funds.  No, sadly to say, it will be the $750/hour bankruptcy attorneys.

In short, placing the blame for the financial woes of cultural institutions such as City Opera, the Detroit Symphony, and the Philadelphia Orchestra is akin to blaming the hard-working folks "on the line" for the huge bailout given to General Motors.  And still, the executives are rolling in the dough.


 

Words that ring true even in Dubuque

Yesterday I visited Greg Sandow's blog, on the Arts Journal site and noted a very interesting topic that he has been visiting for a few days:  that of a general dissatisfaction on the part of orchestra musicians.  He states that, while musicians have an enormous amount of internal motivation toward their work, "orchestral musicians have a dual view of their work. They could say, with total honesty, that they focus intensely on the quality of their work. And then they can turn around, and talk (as I've heard them do) with almost cynical black humor -- or outright cynicism -- about how not quite great things are for them."

Why are things not that great for them?  Some of these answers can be found in Donald Peck's new book, The Right Place at The Right Time, his memoir of over 40 years as principal flutist with the Chicago Symphony.  Another even more succinct description is offered in a "powerful paper" written by Milwaukee Symphony principal violist Robert Levine and his father, Seymour, a research professor (Emeritus, Stanford University) in the aspects of biological and psychological stress.  The Levine's pretty much lay the blame for this "dual view" directly on the current orchestral structure and the myth of the omnipotent maestro.  But the Levine's state the situation much better than I and I must quote their study at length:

Questions from musicians to conductors must be respectfully phrased and, ideally, prefaced with the honorific "Maestro." (This title may be dropped if the conductor is sufficiently young or doesn't speak with an accent.) Such questions must not explicitly challenge the conductor's interpretation of the music or conducting and rehearsal technique in any way.

This arrangement makes matters awkward for the orchestral musician who desires to improve the quality of the orchestral product. The musician must not challenge the conductor's tempi or interpretation; he or she cannot even suggest that there might be a pitch or ensemble problem, much less how the conductor might fix it. Questions are therefore limited to issues of whether the parts agree with the score or how the conductor would like a certain passage bowed. Even the latter has risks, however, as it implies that the conductor didn't see how it was bowed the first time; certainly no self-respecting omniscient being could have missed something as elementary as whether a passage started up-bow or down-bow.

In fact, the myth makes virtually all communication from musician to conductor impossible. (In one major American orchestra, musicians are discouraged from addressing the music director until he addresses them first. Matters are arranged so that the music director never encounters musicians except on the podium or in private meetings which he calls.) This is not to say such communications don't happen, of course, but the farther they venture from simple inquiry, the more uncomfortable they are likely to make orchestra members and the more angry the conductor. Challenging the conductor's omniscience is, quite literally, taboo.

Musicians in a professional orchestra of any significance know quite a bit about music and about what they're doing. So do many conductors, of course; but generally, individual conductors do not know more than the orchestra in front of them knows collectively. In fact, about certain issues, such as the mechanics of string playing, conductors usually know quite a bit less. Most orchestra musicians would agree that many conductors deal ineptly with technical issues such as pitch and ensemble, and that many conductors do not even recognize such problems when they occur, much less address them. Most orchestra musicians, after all, have extensive chamber music experience, in which pitch and ensemble are prominent on the work agenda.
This is actually the fundamental structure of the orchestral workplace. During rehearsals or concerts, musicians experience a total lack of control over their environment. They do not control when the music starts, when the music ends, or how the music goes. They don't even have the authority to leave the stage to attend to personal needs. They are, in essence, rats in a maze, at the whim of the god with the baton.

Much of what is inexplicable to observers of professional orchestras can be explained by stress caused by chronic lack of control and musicians' attempts to deal with it. Musicians' first line of defense is the classic tactic of avoidance. It is no accident that every professional orchestra of any consequence is unionized and that the resulting collective bargaining agreements under which orchestras labor spell out in
exquisite detail the limits of a conductor's authority over the musicians. Such agreements attempt to limit the amount of time musicians are exposed to a situation over which they have no control, as well as expressions of musicians' need to control at least something about the workplace.

There is another, more subtle effect of this chronic lack of control on orchestra musicians: infantilization. Forced to play the roles of children, musicians can behave childishly. Musicians who, when not at work, are perfectly responsible adults, can regress to the level of five-year olds at work, especially when the conductor is even less like the mythic omniscient father figure than is the norm for conductors. Moreover, these musicians tend to view their world, much as a child might, as a mysterious and threatening place. The paranoia that some orchestra musicians exhibit towards managers and conductors, and even towards those of their colleagues who serve on workplace committees, is a consequence of this world view. Yet the subjects of this generalized paranoia are not some anonymous "they" off at corporate headquarters; they are people who, on a daily basis, stand in front of these musicians, answer their questions, and find the money to pay them.
 
I cannot help but wonder how many musicians in our own communities feel that they have been treated in this manner.  In my own rehearsals, if something goes seriously awry, I immediately ponder whether or not I effectively communicated (silently, with baton or gesture) to the ensemble.  If it is an issue that I have addressed repeatedly I have to stop the rehearsal and reiterate the information.  Sometimes (as I did in a rehearsal session last evening), I will ask the ensemble to "go back to letter "X" for me," because I need to reinforce something that I had just accomplished with the group or possibly communicate better to the group.  I did discover last evening that what I felt was a major phrasing concern was corrected much better through my own gesture rather than speaking about it and then just plainly beating time.

I suppose this study raises some of the reasons that--to this day--I attempt to continue my musical education in some way or another.  It is the reason that I "learned" the cello at the age of 40-something:  I needed to be able to "tune into" (pardon the pun) the idiosyncrasies of a string instrument.  This study--brief as it was--made me a better conductor and a much better communicator on and off the podium (and yes, I almost always now bow all of my parts, even to the point of "correcting" some that one of my previous teachers had completed).

In a large metropolitan area, it remains somewhat understandable why musicians of the highest caliber continue to tolerate such working conditions:  David Kim, concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, earned more than $400,000 in 2009, the most recent year for which public financial records are available.  Lest we scorn such a high salary, remember than Mr. Kim was there week-in and week-out leading his outstanding section, while principal conductor Charles Duthoit made a cool $1.1 million and change as a very part-time guest (at best).  An orchestral position in a major orchestra can establish a reasonable high quality of life (Mr. Kim's salary figure is quite high compared to the "norm"), but it is difficult that a back section player in the East Podunk Metropolitan Philharmonic plays for the money that might barely pay for strings, rosin, and an after-concert beer or two.

So why do the Podunk players continue to put up with such working conditions?  Simple.  They have a strong desire to play--a very high level of internal motivation--and the EP Metro Phil is the only game in town.

"Art is basically made by dissatisfied people who are willing to find some means to relieve the dissatisfaction. "  John Chamberlain