Do conductors make too much?

To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it all depends on the meaning of the word “too” is.

The author of an article in the San Francisco Weekly (hat tip: Drew McManus) thinks he’s got a good definition: “too much” is what the San Francisco Symphony is paying music director Michael Tilson Thomas:

These are trying economic times — unless you’re Michael Tilson Thomas, the baton-waving tycoon at the head of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. He is one of a troika of symphony honchos who, when you include money allocated to agents and personal projects and a personal loan, drain $2.6 million from what is, in essence, a charity partly supported by taxpayers.

San Francisco fine arts nonprofits such as the symphony have consistently failed in their mission of instructing residents in what they should accept as great culture. … They’ve turned our local culture palaces into sites for air-kiss orgies among the superrich.

…According to the most recently available information, during the 2005-2006 budget year the S.F. Symphony paid $1.6 million to MTT Inc., the corporate entity set up by Joshua Robinson, Tilson Thomas’ longtime companion. The symphony paid Columbia Artists, which represents Tilson Thomas, another $538,000, and $601,000 to a Mill Valley videomaker who produced a series of “created by Michael Tilson Thomas” PBS television shows starring — who else? — Michael Tilson Thomas. …

He’s worth it, you might say, because he’s San Francisco’s cultural treasure. Okay. But he’s the cultural treasure of Miami, too, where he spends three months a year as artistic director of the New World Symphony, which, according to its most recent IRS filings, paid $575,000 to Columbia Artists under the budget heading of “music director.”

That is admittedly a lot of money. $1.6 million is an order of magnitude more than the base pay (even including benefits) of a section musician in the SFS. And, of course, the section musician works 40+ weeks, whereas MTT conducts fewer than half that number.

But is it too much? The quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers makes over $7 million per season. The San Francisco Giants have seven players who make more than MTT, the lowest-paid of whom makes $2.5 million per season. I’d be shocked if there weren’t a least a few lawyers and doctors practicing in San Francisco who made salaries in the 7-figure range.

What about the argument that MTT is “draining” money from “what is, in essence, a charity partly supported by taxpayers”? Well, so are the Giants and the 49ers “partly supported by taxpayers.” The governmental sector of the American economy is big enough that virtually any economic activity is “partly supported by taxpayers” these days.

But is MTT really worth that kind of money? Good music directors are very hard to replace, and MTT has been a good music director in many ways (notwithstanding the recent YouTube nonsense). It is a core weakness of the orchestra industry world-wide that there are lots of good orchestra musicians and very few good conductors. Adam Smith’s invisible hand thus writes lots of trailing zeros on their paychecks.

There are many reasons for this paucity of conductors. I don’t think one of them is that conducting is uniquely difficult. But it is true that it’s a lot harder to learn how to conduct than how to play an instrument. It’s a lot harder (not to mention more expensive) to find an orchestra to practice on than to traipse on down to the local music store and rent an instrument.

And our industry is very poor at identifying conducting talent early. I suspect that if every professional orchestra in America devoted 10-20 services per season simply to finding conducting talent – including from within its own ranks – we’d have a lot more good conductors.

In my first season with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, we did an educational service at some college in the back of beyond (it might have been South Dakota State University in Brookings) that consisted in simply letting a few of the local music students conduct the orchestra. One of the candidates was an overweight young man who looked like he was just off a nearby farm and was dressed in what looked like his high school prom tux. This was clearly a big deal for him, but it sure didn’t look very promising to us. He proceeded to conduct a rather amazing performing of two movements from the Tchaikowsky Serenade for strings.

I often wonder what happened to that young man. I’m pretty sure that he wasn’t talent-scouted by major league orchestras, though. Their (and our) loss.

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