Who’s an orchestra for?

March 7, 2009

Labor disputes never bring out the best in employers, and orchestras are no exception. The management of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra is engaging in what looks to me like the illegal practice of regressive bargaining:

The latest issue in the struggle — which led to a strike last Oct. 1 — is the orchestra wants to cut the number of guaranteed gigs. Instead of 75 concerts and rehearsals a year, management wants the ability to offer musicians only 45 performances, or as few as 35 if they gave the musicians six months’ notice. While the pay scale would remain the same, musicians could see their WCO earnings drop by half.

“When they are working for us, they’ll be well-compensated, but there won’t be as many concerts,” [Doug] Gerhart (WCO Executive Director) said. “All prudent groups are (cutting back). We’re not unique. It seems to me that it’s completely fair, reasonable and respectful.”

Bassoonist Todd Jelen, a member of the musicians negotiating committee, said the orchestra is trying to go backwards in their contract proposals. Musicians left the bargaining table last Thursday, Feb. 26, against the request of a federal mediator.

“Our argument is, if the WCO is not in financial jeopardy, they should be able to produce as many concerts as last year,” Jelen said, citing repeated requests to see the orchestra’s financial records. He called the cancellation of the March 27 and 28 concerts retaliation.

I love the “respectful” part. Even more respectful is the lack of any hint that Gerhart’s income from the WCO is going to drop by a penny, much less by the percentage he proposes to slash out of the income of his per-service workers. And yet his workload would diminish significantly by cutting the number of performances, no? So how about making him equally “well-compensated” proportionally to the amount of product he’s supervising?

It reminds me of a famous quote from the old days of 1993-94 in Milwaukee, when our Executive Director at the time told the local paper that cutting the season from 48 to 41 weeks really wasn’t so bad for the musicians: “[the musicians are] not going to be paid less for their work. They’re going to work less.”

Levine’s First Law: All institutions are run for the benefit of those who run them.


Bad news from the Pension Fund

March 6, 2009


Announcement of Benefit Changes Effective May 1, 2009

The unusually deep decline in the financial markets during the past year has had a severe impact on the assets of virtually all institutional investors, including the Fund. Because the Fund’s actuaries have advised that these losses have resulted in a significant deterioration in the Fund’s long-term financial condition, the Trustees have decided that immediate action is necessary. Accordingly, the Trustees have agreed to change the pension benefit multiplier for contributions earned on and after May 1, 2009 to $2.00 for each $100 of contributions for benefits payable at normal retirement age (generally age 65) in the form of a single life annuity.

We are preparing a notice describing the details of this change and its effect on other forms of benefit, which you should receive within the next several weeks. The Trustees recognize that benefit reductions have an adverse impact on participants’ lives, but, after careful consideration and consultation with the Fund’s actuaries, concluded that this action was necessary at this time.

Reality intrudes

February 14, 2009

The entertainment business has traditionally separated itself from real life; the fundamental axiom is, after all, “the show must go on.” So it’s a shock when the show can’t go on. Yesterday provided a sad example.

The Chuck Mangione band was scheduled to play a concert with the Buffalo Philharmonic on Friday night. Thursday night, two members of the band, Coleman Mellett (guitar) and Gerry Niewood (saxophone/flute), were on Continental flight 4307 from Newark, which crashed into a Buffalo suburb with no survivors.

Given how ubiquitous air travel is in our business, it is remarkable that so few musicians have been killed in commercial air accidents. The last I can recall was William Kapell, who was killed in a crash in the hills above Stanford University (near San Francisco) while returning from Australia. A few years before that, the French violinist Ginette Neveu was killed in the crash of an Air France flight in the Azores.

Very sad news.

(update: on a rather macabre note, there is a website about the crash in which Kapell died. The crash site is now contained in an open space preserve and there is still wreckage in the woods.)

Why unions? – Part II

February 1, 2009

It’s surprisingly infrequently that I find myself writing about orchestral matters on my AFM Observer blog – surprising because of the importance of the AFM in the orchestral ecosystem. But one of those infrequent occasions arose yesterday, when I found that material from that blog was used (misused, in my view) to try to sway members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra to vote against unionizing. Rather than repeat what I wrote in response, you can read it here.

Why one should go to every single service

January 28, 2009

…aside from that’s how to get paid, of course.

I missed the rehearsal last Thursday afternoon on account of having to leave town for a day. So of course that was the rehearsal that my colleagues will be talking about for the next decade or so.

On the agenda was the Chopin first concerto with a Canadian pianist by the name of Louis Lortie. The conductor was Vasily Petrenko, our guest for the week. The only thing out of the ordinary was the orchestral accompaniment.

A few years ago we commissioned Paul Chihara to re-arrange the accompaniment for a performance we did with Bill Wolfram. As most orchestra musicians know, Chopin’s version is massively tedious to play (and, to my mind, to listen to as well). He only wrote a handful of works for anything except solo piano, so it’s not surprising that his writing for orchestra is undistinguished. I remember the Chihara version (which changes not a note in the piano part, by the way) as an improvement, at least from the point of view of getting from one end to the other without dying either of boredom or of pain.

Back to Thursday. It was an open rehearsal, with a number of donors invited to attend. As well, Paul Chihara was in the audience, having flown in from LA for the occasion. The rehearsal began with a run-through of the first movement. Then things began to go off the rails with  Lortie standing up and telling the orchestra: “I have an announcement.”

Indeed he did. Reportedly, his announcement (delivered, I’m told, in a very accusatory tone at a group of people whose only sin was to play what was on their stands) was that he, Louis Lortie, had been engaged to perform the Chopin first concerto, that this was not the Chopin first concerto, that we (!?) were free to find another pianist to play what was not the Chopin first concerto, but that, if we (!?) were to do that, of course we (!?) would still have to pay him. He also made it clear that he was not aware in advance that we (!?)  were not going to be doing the Chopin first concerto. Petrenko, rather surprised at this turn of events, suggested the orchestra take a break.

When the orchestra returned, there was a different set of parts on the stand, Chihara had headed back to the airport, and the principal strings had a homework bowing assignment to occupy their previously free evening.

I am told that his assertion that he was unaware that we (!?)  were not doing the Chopin first concerto was not entirely accurate, although it does appear that he was not aware of the existence of the Chihara arrangement until his arrival in Milwaukee.

I can understand why someone might object to an alternate version of the accompaniment of a concerto that he/she was engaged to perform. It shows a certain insensitivity to the suffering of others to insist on the original Chopin parts, but I don’t expect pianists to get that playing a string instrument can hurt.

What I can’t understand is choosing to make a fuss about it in front of the orchestra’s donors, or blaming the whole thing on the orchestra. Did he think that he was on tour with Orpheus? Did he think that the money to pay his fee was coming from the Society for the Preservation of Lousy Original Orchestrations rather than from the people who were out in the hall listening? Did he think that the number of orchestras looking for piano soloists is greater than the number of piano soloists looking for orchestras? Did he think he was living in pianist nirvana?

It sounded very reminiscent of the old joke (slightly re-worked for this occasion): what’s the difference between God and a piano soloist? God doesn’t think he can play the piano.

Your daily factoid

January 21, 2009

We have another guest conductor this week; this one a very young and extremely talented Russian by the name of Vasily Petrenko. It’s actually his second round with us; I believe we were his American debut in the fall of 2006 (the performance we did of the Grieg Peer Gynt became our first download for sale with a conductor other than our music director, and our second binaural recording.)

This time, the big piece was supposed to be the Tchaikowsky Manfred, but apparently management got a little nervous about ticket sales and changed it to Scheherazade. As someone who’s salary comes in part from ticket sales, I’m not going to claim it was a bad call, although it would have been fun to do the Manfred.

But I learned something this morning as a result of the program change. We were working on the second movement and Petrenko was coaching the second trombone on how he wanted the big solo to go, when he stopped and told us why Rimsky-Korsakov wrote all those big soli for 2nd trombone. (This is apparently a legendary, but true, story in the musical community of St. Petersburg, where Petrenko did most of his schooling.)

The 2nd trombone of Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestra in St. Petersburg was a member of the Romanov family, although distant enough to avoid meeting the same unfortunate fate as befell the Tsar and his immediate family. This meant that, whenever the 2nd trombone had a solo, and got a solo bow from the conductor at the end of the piece – the entire audience had to stand up as well.

I guess that beats playing Stars and Stripes at the end of every concert (especially for a Russian orchestra, of course). But I hope it’s not an indication that, at our upcoming audition for assistant principal viola, I’m going to have to do some quick online genealogical research on the finalists. I’ll bet that 1st trombonist spent most of his career in a complete snit.

A humbling profession

January 19, 2009

We just had a week that reminded me every day of just how hard it is to get things right in an orchestra.

It was a slightly schizophrenic program; the first half was a Haydn symphony (No. 73 in D; La Chasse) and two Mozart horn concerti with our principal horn, Bill Barnewitz (who did a wonderful, wonderful job with both, and then unaccountably took the rest of the concert off). The second half was “something completely different,” to quote from the Pythons, and was all Ravel – Ma Mere l’Oye and La Valse. The conductor was a favorite of my orchestra’s from previous appearances, Gilbert Varga.

I remember hearing how hard Haydn quarters were before I joined a quartet and got to experience the phenomenon first-hand. One of our tour pieces, while I was with the Orford Quartet, was the Haydn Rider quartet. It was the only piece we did that needed five minutes of touch-up immediately before we went out to play it – every single time we played it. Otherwise pitch was a mess, as we discovered the first couple times we did it.

Haydn symphonies are like that too, although the problems lie more in ensemble than pitch. It got OK by the end of the week, but the first rehearsal was as big a mess as this orchestra is capable of making. There are lots of really difficult pieces in the repertoire that are oddly forgiving of individual error or sloppiness. While nothing in a Haydn symphony is all that challenging for any individual musician, there is almost no room for individual imperfection if it’s to sound acceptable, much less really good.

I have very mixed feelings about Ravel. There is Ravel I love – Le Tombeau de Couperin in particular. And there is Ravel I really don’t like. Unfortunately, La Valse is at the top of that list. I can’t help feeling that the piece is a far-from-loving view of Germanic culture from someone who not only didn’t quite get it, but really didn’t want to. Of course he had spent several years of his life being shot at by Germans, so a certain lack of sympathy on his part was understandable. But it still seems to me the equivalent of a biography of Metternich written by Jean Marat (minus the time travel, of course.)

What I find completely unforgivable, though, is his hatred for principal violists. There’s not a viola solo in all Ravel (OK, I’ll exclude the quartet) that isn’t a minefield. The one in Ma Mere l’Oye is particularly hazardous. I’ve played it more times than I’ve played just about any other solo in the literature (thanks mostly to kiddie concerts) and it still scares me to death.

This week I went three rounds with it, and was doing fine until the last night, when I nailed the octave unison with the concertmaster, got the solo measure two bars later as well as I’ve ever done it, and, while feeling very proud of myself, had a brain fart on the last measure (another octave unison with the concertmaster). I had just discovered a completely new way to screw up that solo.

The solo in La Valse is just about as detestable. It’s this lovely lyrical line, in octave unison with the solo cello, that starts with a sustained high D and involves several nasty shifts over the course of about three seconds. Ironically, it’s then echoed by the solo violin playing in first position, only having to slide up to a beautiful natural harmonic, leaving the violist with a bad taste in his/her mouth and a sense of innate inferiority.

Some violist must have stomped on his toy soldiers.

Why unions?

January 18, 2009

Obviously members of labor unions have no monopoly on skill or bravery. But it’s worth noting that virtually every person involved in the amazing salvation of 155 people from almost inevitable catastrophe in the Hudson River the other day was a union member.

Maybe there is some real merit to this strange (and increasingly un-American) idea of paying people well, providing them with some job security, and investing in their skills. I’ll bet none of the 150 passengers on that US Air flight will never again think that concessions demanded of pilots and flight attendants by their airlines might be a good idea.

Memento homo, quod cinis es, et in cinerem reverteris

January 5, 2009

One of my year-end tasks recently has been to compile a list for Polyphonic of those in our field who have gone on to that great orchestra in the sky where waltzes are banned, violinists never use too much bow, brass players don’t blast, and the music director doesn’t think it’s all about her.

This year the task seemed a little more melancholy than usual. Of the 45 on the list, four were people I knew and liked and another was someone in our chorus who no doubt I passed many times backstage. About half of the list were people over the age of 65, which seemed like a low proportion, given what I know of mortality tables. But only 5 deaths were of people under the age of 50. Sadly, three of those were suicides and one was a homicide. Three seems like a high figure to me, given the US suicide rate of roughly 1 per every 1,000 population. But it’s likely more a statistical artifact than a trend. Having two homicides amongst the 45 is truly shocking, but given that the US homicide rate is a fraction of the suicide rate, has to be an anomaly.

On the other hand, many on the list had led long and productive lives and had outlived the mortality tables by making it into their 80s and 90s (and, in 2 cases, 100s). And, as a vivid example to me of what a small world this is, there was only one people on the list who I could be sure didn’t know someone I also knew. Two degrees of separation from so many people of different ages and locations is a remarkable testimonial of how intimate our field really is.

Here’s a link to a William Byrd motet on the text of the title, which is better known in its English translation. Likely because of not having written anything for orchestra (as there really weren’t any orchestras in the 16th century) Byrd is outside of many orchestra musicians’ experience, which is unfortunate. For me he’s one of the Top Five. This motet is a good illustration of what makes his music so special.

What not to say when talking to the audience

December 23, 2008

When Greg Sandow singled out not talking to the audience as one reason why “classical music doesn’t connect to our larger culture,” he probably wasn’t thinking of this kind of talk as the solution:

So, on Friday night, I go to Carnegie Hall for a Christmas concert. The King’s Singers are performing with the New York Pops Orchestra; Marilyn Horne is a special guest. This should be an evening away from politics — just a little fodder for my next New Criterion music piece, you know?

Shortly into the concert, the conductor turns to the audience and speaks about “the holidays.” This year, he says, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are overlapping with Christmas. (According to what I can find, Kwanzaa begins on December 26, but never mind.) Then we have New Year’s Day. And “on January 20, there will be a new beginning for our country.” The crowd, of course, erupts into cheers. Then he says, “I see I’m not the only one who’s ready”…

Politics aside, where are manners? Where is consideration for a minority of audience members? Where is a sense of public space, and what is appropriate and not? The guy was uncouth, as much as anything. And the sad thing is: There’s no one to call him on it…

I suppose that conservatives, somewhere, act like that conductor, injecting politics where it doesn’t belong, transgressing against public decorum (and simply displaying bad manners). I have not witnessed it, though.

He’s got a point. But that’s the problem with talking to the audience. Does the audience really want to know what the performer thinks?

When I’m in the audience, I sure don’t. I attended an event at a local nightclub a few months ago, as a favor to a friend. I liked some of the music and didn’t like the rest of it. But I liked none of the talking, and found it lowered my confidence in the performers’ abilities overall.

I think it’s a mistake to think that, because performers are good at communicating when they perform, they also have a gift for communicating when they talk.

But I think the conservative critic underestimates the extent to which liberals are subjected to politics in public performance venues. Kate Smith singing God Bless America started showing up at Milwaukee Brewers games a few years ago, in which seemed to me a clear correlation with the Iraq war. And, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, we showed up at a runout and were ordered to start the concert with the National Anthem. We start every season with the National Anthem, which is a venerable tradition that I have always enjoyed. But being required to play The Star-spangled Banner at the start of a preventive war that many of us opposed was equally “uncouth.”

Maybe we should just focus on the music.