Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Live and Let Die

That was the name of Ian Fleming’s book and the resulting 1973 movie, the first to feature Roger Moore as James Bond. Not a huge critical success, it nevertheless became quite popular with audiences. It opened the eyes of many to drug trafficking.  The title song by that name, sung by Paul McCartney and the Wings, was also a big hit, being nominated for an Academy Award.

Today that title could be given to arts organizations. To quote an article on the mess in Detroit: In recent months, DSO music director Leonard Slatkin has openly acknowledged the possible need for a dramatic makeover. The debate has centered on two scenarios: sharply cutting the number of musicians under contract, or retaining the full complement of 85 musicians but reducing the contract to perhaps 35 weeks a year from 52 weeks.

If an organization such as an orchestra reduces its workforce, it becomes a “live and let die” situation. How to decide which employees are to survive and which are to be terminated? Of course this has become a common scenario in the business world from Microsoft to General Motors, but in the arts world such massive reductions will change the nature of the company. A big symphony ensemble would become a classical or even a chamber orchestra.  Whether it is for the better or worse is of course up to interpretation.

My fondest memories, as far as orchestra playing goes, are with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. LACO at that time had its residence at the Ambassador College in Pasadena, which then was run by Herbert Armstrong and his Worldwide Church of God (originally Radio Church of God). The church observed the Sabbath which meant that Saturday night concerts could start only after sundown, a somewhat tricky issue late in the spring with daylight savings time. Also, musicians coming to a rehearsal during Pasadena’s often very hot days were not supposed to wear shorts or expose a bare midriff.

The orchestra itself was going through some major changes. Their previous highly regarded gentleman of a conductor, Sir Neville Mariner, had just left, and a young brass-player-turned-ballet-conductor was named as his successor. During the first year or two under the new directorship there was a mass exodus of the orchestra’s best musicians, but since Los Angeles has an endless pool of excellent musicians working in the studios, finding replacements was not all that difficult. Some were hired based on being attractive to the conductor, but the overall level managed to remain high. The new conductor’s supporters would admit he was still green but that he’d grow. Sometimes the ego does just that but the skill level doesn’t match the growth. At its best, often with a guest on the podium, the orchestra could play splendidly; especially the woodwinds and French horns were better than those of the Philharmonic. Probably the high points of my five years were two tours with Helmuth Rilling and his Gächinger Kantorei, during one of which I served as the group’s concertmaster.

The orchestra was just the the right size to be able to travel and we were on the road constantly. We served communities within 2-3 hour radius from L.A., from Santa Barbara to El Cajon, a suburb of San Diego with an excellent medium-sized hall. We had first rate soloists and most accompaniments benefit from an orchestra of that size. A string virtuoso didn’t have to battle with the orchestra, neither was a pianist forced to break  strings of the Steinway. The diminutive but wonderful Alicia de Larrocha sounded just perfect every time. If the work performed called for additional instruments, finding good extras was no problem. I have always known that people come to concerts to hear their favorite soloist, not to waste their time on some unfamiliar orchestral work which some conductor has an urge to perform and then possibly record. LACO as a group basically went to the people, instead of having the people come to them. Audiences like to attend concerts and other event in their own community and understandably so. In the greater Los Angeles area we performed in numerous colleges and even high schools, and it was in those places I sensed the greatest appreciation.

A few weeks back I was flipping channels and saw an excellent cross-over violinist, 28-year-old David Garrett, perform in a fascinating show in his native Germany, during a fundraiser for the local PBS station. Classically trained by such famous violinists as Ida Händel and Itzakh Perlman, he played his amplified violin extraordinarily well, even when combined with music of “the other side”. It was a show worthy of a pop star, with fancy lighting effects and giant screens that displayed close-ups. The audience went wild and for a good reason. I was wondering what their reaction would have been if the same artist stood in a penguin outfit in front of a typical symphony orchestra, playing the Beethoven concerto, observed from a distance.

We expect everything to be such a show these days. When was the last time a motion picture, which told a simple but powerful story without any special effects, did well at the box office? You might find one in France or another European country, but in our country we are stuck with the familiar Hollywood formula of success: a couple famous movie stars and most importantly, action-packed special effects trying to outdo anything seen on screen before. An orchestra or chamber music concert, not to mention a recital, fares very poorly in this regard. An audience sits far away and sees almost no motion, except a small figure on the podium who looks like he/she is trying to learn to fly and not very successfully. It is just a question of time when someone will install big screens in a concert hall and have cameras zoom in where the action is. That, of course, has already happened in sports arenas. Then the question will be: why not transmit the images directly to a high-definition screen in one’s home and pump up the volume as high as necessary? Parts of  Symphonie fantastique might actually shatter some glass!

I shall visit the topic of Live and Let Die again after the New Year. In the meantime, here’s to your health! Kippis, Skål and L’Chaim!
Roger Moore as James Bond

Friday, December 11, 2009

What Is An Artist Worth These Days?

Apparently, not that much. Every day seems to bring more bad news about financial disasters and resulting cuts. There are also numerous cases we don’t know about or are not supposed to. Perhaps an orchestra is threatening to go on strike as the administration’s demand of a double-digit  percent pay reduction is kept hush-hush by both the musicians and the organization itself. In addition there must be countless smaller arts groups in deep doo-doo, but they are not considered important enough to make the news. Many of these have either been forced to cut their seasons short or have downsized radically. For example, a former symphony orchestra may present fewer concerts and even then in chamber orchestra format, obviously for financial reasons.

This week we learned about an emergency loan of $14 million from local government to the Los Angeles Opera, to keep it afloat. The group had spent an enormous amount of money for next summer’s “Ring” production. As the local paper put it, the opera company had become too big to fail and the bailout in the style of Wall Street was necessary. They must have known for a long time that the funds would quickly dry up, yet went ahead with their grandiose and extremely costly plans. This is not that much different from what happened with certain investment and commercial banks and big corporations, such as AIG. Staging Wagner’s cycle will never bring back the money sunk into the production and, in my humble opinion, such plans are reckless today and should be put on ice until much later. Placido Domingo’s other opera company in our nation’s capital recently announced a smaller season and there was no further mention of their “Ring” which was canceled a year or so ago. Knowing what an economic mess L.A. and California in general are in, there are a lot of very upset people down there who consider financial help of such magnitude, for an elitist cause, a crime.

Leonard Slatkin has postponed his return to the podium in Detroit many times after a heart attack. Reading rather depressing news about the financial situation in that city one understands why he is in no hurry to come back to a situation that could do damage to a healthy person, not to mention one with heart problems. Also, the famed Cleveland Orchestra has its share of troubles. Among other suffering opera companies is Atlanta which has to cut its budget and number of productions for next year.

Although this is not the case universally, most musicians feel some kind of entitlement to their jobs and often insanely large salaries in the top orchestras and refuse to yield as far as their pay, the most expensive part of the budget, is considered. They must see themselves as irreplaceable, although in truth they all could be replaced with fresh talent from the pool of thousands or perhaps tens of thousands. Yes, they are eager to bring up the word experience, but a truly talented young instrumentalist will learn on the job quicker than any of the old-timers is willing to admit. Based on all the auditions I’ve been present in during my long musically active life, I know that in the ranks of orchestra musicians there are a whole lot who got their jobs when interest to play in their ensemble was low, as was the skill level of applicants. Today they would have no chance in finding a comparable job. Unions are, of course, determined to protect their members, just as is the case with teachers nationwide. That is why it would be essential to have a re-evaluation of each individual every so often and throw out the protection in place currently. A miserably bad teacher stays in a city’s system, preventing a young, eager, passionate and talented colleague from helping our youth and schools. Never mind the arts, education is a most important element in a society as it sets up young individuals for life. Add music and arts appreciation to the curriculum and have it taught by capable and inspiring people, and perhaps two decades from now an opera, a concert or a play may still have an audience.

A suggestion for a short-term solution to a fiscal crisis: since musicians of an orchestra insist that they are all equally important, have everybody be compensated with the same amount, even after a necessary cut in base pay, until matters improve radically. This would apply to the music and executive directors as well, and of course to principals and concert-masters and mistresses. That would indicate true solidarity, the backbone of union thinking. On the other hand, since the organization's MD and ED have made fortunes, especially if they have remained in their position for a really long time, they could easily forgo compensation entirely or make large contributions to their employer, just like Baltimore's Marin Alsop just did by giving a $100,000 to the orchestra's educational initiative, OrchKids.

It’ll be curious to witness what 2010 will bring with it. I have a pretty strong sense about it and my intuition is seldom wrong. Sometimes it takes longer for matters to take the direction I foresee, but eventually it seems to happen.

Happy first night of Hanukkah!
illustration by talvi

Monday, December 07, 2009

Non-Profit, Really?

Perhaps it is because of my background but I have always had an issue with the American concept of what constitutes a non-profit organization. This time of the year the phone rings almost non-stop. Most numbers I know by heart (in 95% of the cases the Caller ID says “unknown”) and I don’t pick up. Some call so frequently that they are on an automatically blocked list, not ringing here at all. If I happen to answer, the telemarketer usually identifies the organization he/she is working for and thanks me for past support even though I have never had anything to do with them. Since it is nearing the year’s end, they rush to explain that my contribution will be tax-deductible. I have learned to ask if they are a professional fundraiser and what percentage their cut is, and also how much (or rather, little) of the funds collected actually go to the cause. At this point most of them hang up on me, unless they are proud of their track record, in which case I might be willing to help a humanitarian cause.

The IRS has to give an organization their stamp of approval before it can qualify as a non-profit. However, the tax authorities don’t have the manpower to do any investigating and usually give it their blessing. Occasionally fraudulent organizations surface although they probably represent the tip of an iceberg. Recently in New York a totally corrupt “non-profit” was discovered. It had given absolutely none of its collected donations to help the homeless but instead filled the wallets and bank accounts of the people behind this scheme. Much of the money after 9/11 or Katrina never reached the intended victims but provided a cushy income to the founders of new non-profits that sprouted almost overnight.

Many affluent donors give large sums of money because of the tax benefits it offers them. They may also give a gift in poorly performing stock toward an endowment or overvalued real estate. Many actually end up making money by giving it away. A few years back it was popular for common folks to donate their old motor vehicles, often not even in working condition, and get a tax-deductible receipt for much more than the piece of junk was worth. The tax people were quick to pay attention to this and one no longer sees billboards advertising the previously popular method of lowering an ordinary Joe’s tax burden.

Back home, at least when I was still living there, donations offered no tax benefits and were only given by people for causes they saw important, such as to war veterans that the government had neglected for decades, and often to projects in faraway poor countries such as Namibia. If one were to give a thousand euros, that means donating the earnings of two thousand or more, due to the high taxation. Most of what operates with collected money here is paid for by the local or state government in Europe. Nobody would even think of donating money to a hospital or university, not to mention a museum. In America, Scandinavians have a reputation of being stingy and keeping their purse strings tightly closed. This is a purely cultural thing, a built-in way of reasoning.

I think that the United States should change the present rules and laws, and lower the amount of allowed donations to the same that political candidates can receive. Depending on the type of organization, this amount could be deductible, mainly if it is for humanitarian causes. People will give if they believe in a cause, as was evident in both Mrs. Clinton’s and Mr. Obama’s campaigns for the last election and the primary before that. If mega-donations no longer existed or the donor would be taxed for having given a gift, an ordinary person would be more likely to give his $100, or even $1,000, knowing that this contribution mattered. A rich donor would no longer be able to automatically sit on the board and decide how the organization should be operated. No more parties at the executive’s mansion for the well-to-do. If such parties needed to go on, why not choose people on random or through a lottery system? Someone, who had donated $50 when he/she really couldn’t afford to give more, would be pleased indeed to get such an invitation.

In order to qualify for a nonprofit status, certain guidelines should be met. The word NON-profit means just that. How do you justify that when an orchestra pays its musicians $125k, its executive director $500k and the man (or in rare cases, the woman) waving a stick an amount that would be more likely seen in professional sports than in the arts? I would argue that this business model is very much for-profit, at least very profitable to the people employed. “Non-profit” gives an impression that population at large will somehow benefit. With a food bank, a free medical clinic, a homeless or women’s shelter that clearly is the case, but many would question an opera company, an orchestra or a university which spends millions on its sports program. At least these organizations should offer free tickets or great scholarships for the needy. A major hospital is eager to raise funds but does it ever translate to forgiving people for their medical bills which are going to bankrupt them?

How about counting the average salary of people working in an institution? Make the limit somewhere in the 50k-60k range. As colleges and universities routinely pay little to their faculty, not to mention others such as custodians and librarians, a school president’s multi-million salary is easily absorbed. An orchestra such as the Oregon Symphony would no doubt qualify; however, the Philadelphia Orchestra would not most likely, no matter how much they complain about their financial situation. But if people really care about a cause, they’ll come forward to help. A baseball or football team isn’t asking for handouts to survive. They manage to pay their star players’ insane salaries because the 50,000  fans are willing to show up and buy tickets. Who knows, perhaps knowing that the “new” arts are for the people and by the people, there would be renewed interest in classical music.

The other option is to make an orchestra, an opera company or a ballet a state institution, such as a public university, and have the government decide on salaries and artistic matters. This, in my mind, would be the preferred solution. In the public model I bet all such organizations would be downsized and expected to be on the road constantly, to bring an art experience to people who presently live outside the close radius of the existing barn-like auditoriums. With smaller groups, there would be an almost endless number of performing arts centers in local communities, usually attached to their high schools. Locals are known to have greater pride and much more interest in their own events than in something happening in a distant big city.

The above is meant to be more food for thought, in creating a sustainable model for the arts. Just be careful and chew it well, so you don’t choke.