April 10, 2009

Back from the Abyss, and Back to the Meaning

Hello, all - I'm back. The past few weeks have consisted of much practicing and much WRITING, but not writing of this sort: it's both tax time and grantwriting time, and while I am one of the many that is still working on his 2008 IRS 1040s I did, after a forty-eight hour lockdown (that consisted of slaying some personal dragons as well as many takes of Bach and Ysaye), get a grant application out before the deadline. While I have done this before, I have to say that I now have an even deeper respect for those who work in Development and fundraising for our arts organizations. Thank you all so much for doing what you do!

In a recent article in the Philadelphia Enquirer, Peter Dobrin speaks of the state of America's orchestras and the (if I may) draconian measures being taken to survive the economic downturn. For those who are unaware, many orchestras are cancelling tours, laying off employees in administrative positions, freezing salaries, shortening both summer seasons and the number of concerts to be given during the 2009-2010 season - and many music directors are taking salary cuts. While this has happened before (in an earlier blog I mentioned the cataclysmic period between 2001-2003), this round of "chopping" is sounding greater alarms due to the fact that these measures are being taken by large cultural institutions including the Cleveland Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony, Atlanta Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera.

In his article, Mr. Dobrin does make a very valid point, that being that both business and artistic plans across the nation were based on market speculation - we can all look at the years between 1996-2008 to see some of the amazing growth and expansion that has taken place in the United States. However, with the stock market shrinking, many endowments have lost up to half of their value, which of course creates problems when interest from those endowments is allocated for operations costs.

However, Mr. Dobrin takes a very disturbing turn in his article when he begins to speak of some of the salaries earned by top orchestral executives and the musicians who make up the membership of these orchestras. "Is it really a good thing that Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, made well over $1 million for the year that ended in September 2007? Or that a hornist in the New York Philharmonic made $300,000, an oboe player in the Philadelphia Orchestra $249,000?" he asks.

He then speaks of the fees commanded by international soloists and follows with: "Then there's the regular payroll. When a hundred or more applicants audition for a section violin spot, is it necessary to offer a starting salary of $130,000 for a player just out of school? Would the same audition draw less stellar talent if the job were offering, say, $80,000 the first year on a multiyear schedule to reach $130,000 in some year thereafter?"

My first argument with Mr. Dobrin is that in listing these salaries he is in effect ignoring the reality of most musicians and most orchestral musicians in the United States, as very few orchestras in this country provide those salaries. Secondly, speaking of these salaries does a great disservice to the public's perception of all musicians, particularly those who perform in two or more groups - which is, I think, the case with the majority of classical musicians in the United States.

There have, for years, been many who have predicted "the death of America's orchestras", and it always seems that in tremulous economic times - the tremors ranging from a contract negotiation to the seismic shocks being experienced today - that the question of orchestral musicians' salaries is raised alongside the dubious statement that while orchestras and arts institutions should be "run like businesses" they cannot be because they do not "produce anything".

Is it not safe to say that the aforementioned "philosophies" are moot, considering what we have seen take place in the "productive" business sector since 2001 (Tyco, WorldCom, Enron, AIG, Merrill-Lynch, Bank of America, Countrywide, et cetera ad nauseum)?

*sigh* *exhale*

I must ask your forgiveness - believe you me, I am WELL aware (painfully aware) of what's happening in this country and how arts organizations and artists are being affected. It's almost frightening. However, if the conversations continue to consist of questioning the cost of what we do, the VALUE of what we produce will continue to be maligned and that could result in great loss - particularly if the world's economic situation take an even sharper nose dive.
And what IS the value of a symphony orchestra, a soloist, an art museum, a ballet company, a theatre company? How do you measure that?

That value is something that cannot be measured in dollars and cents: it can only be measured by the soul and the senses - and with that, I share with you a clip from the 1939 movie They Shall Have Music, during which an audience (including a young man who would for all purposes be called a "troubled child") listens intently to a performance of Saint-Saens' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso played by Jascha Heifetz.

"It's a MOVIE! They're ACTING!" you may say. Regardless - we as artists and everyone who has attended a concert has had the experience that makes itself visible on the faces of those in that audience - and the value of those transcendent experiences should NEVER be questioned in terms of "pocket change".

More from the road,

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