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In the L.A. classical music scene, the music comes first

originally posted by The Los Angeles Times
October 9, 2013

It was said to have been a disastrous seven days for classical music in America. “Hell week” is what Russell Platt called it in the New Yorker last week.

New York City Opera declared bankruptcy and shut down. Minnesota Orchestra’s music director Osmo Vänskä resigned in frustration over a contract dispute that forced management to cancel all of last season and, still unresolved, resulted in the cancellation of a high-profile tour to Carnegie Hall next month. Speaking of Carnegie, the country’s most famous hall canceled its opening night gala last week because of a strike by the stagehands.

Yet the classical music mood in Los Angeles has been downright festive. The Los Angeles Philharmonic just concluded its usual no-drama contract negotiations and celebrated the 10th anniversary of Walt Disney Concert Hall in high style.

At a gala concert, even Hollywood celebrities sat in awesome silence through John Cage’s “4′33″,” taking in the glory of a great and welcoming cultural space. Gustavo Dudamel ended the evening with “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Wish fulfilled.

A week earlier the Los Angeles Master Chorale had celebrated its 50th anniversary with its own glorious gala in Disney. Across the street at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles Opera will become the first opera company to present the original Robert Wilson production of Philip Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach” as part of a regular season.

Six years ago New York City Opera had hoped to have that distinction, and failed.

Does all this mean that L.A. is in some kind of uncanny classical music bubble? Einstein on the beach, indeed. Have we somehow slipped into an alternate universe only Hollywood could conjure up, where surfers and sun worshipers are so dazed by the latest Santa Ana that they now accept Beethoven as one of the Beach Boys?

No, there is no bubble. And, no, classical music is not in crisis.

L.A.’s supposed good luck was to get a new concert hall that became a draw all by itself. Ironically, halls appear, on the surface, to have been behind the bad news last week.

New York City Opera lost its bearings two years ago when it found it could no longer afford to remain in its longtime home at Lincoln Center and became an itinerant company. A major bone of contention for the musicians in Minnesota was that the orchestra’s management raised $47 million to renovate Orchestra Hall while insisting that musicians take significant pay cuts, some by as much as a third. Carnegie’s closure was over stagehands wanting to unionize a new education wing.

But these are not the underlying causes of calamity or accomplishment. The deeper issue is that of vision and commitment.

A scrappy company for all its 70 years, New York City Opera went bust for many financial reasons. But its ultimate failure was that of nerve.

A radical, Gerard Mortier was meant to be the company’s savior when hired in 2007 to run the company after he left Paris Opera in 2009. He had great plans. They included the first revival of “Einstein” since 1992, the commissioning of Philip Glass’ “The Perfect American” and Charles Wuorinen’s “Brokeback Mountain.” Mortier was expected to audaciously take on City Opera’s next door neighbor, the Metropolitan Opera.

But once the recession hit, Mortier’s budget was halved. He resigned in protest and all of his projects were killed. Mortier’s successor, George Steel, attempted to keep a financially crippled company going, but bit by bit the offerings became more slender.

By the time Steel announced late last month that he needed $7 million by Oct. 1 to stay afloat, no one really cared enough about the company once known as the people’s opera and a laboratory for such great singers as Beverly Sills and Plácido Domingo.

What if City Opera had stood behind Mortier, prohibitively expensive as that seemed at the time? Mortier just might, with charisma and grand vision, have raised the millions he needed. The fact is Mortier’s great works came about anyway. We have the “Einstein” revival now thanks to outside producers who stepped in and moved the mountains City Opera couldn’t. Mortier relocated to Madrid’s Teatro Real, where he premiered “The Perfect American” this year and where, despite his having been removed from heading the company, “Brokeback” is slated for January.

People do care about the Minnesota Orchestra. Here again, the recession had hurt the orchestra, and management responded with disastrous cutbacks. Players’ salaries had been rising steeply. Now they needed to fall.

The fundraising for Orchestra Hall’s improvements is a red herring. A better hall has a great potential for generating further support, which is all the more reason City Opera needed to stay in its newly renovated David H. Koch Theater.

All along, however, Minnesota’s mission has come across as confused, and that includes Vänskä’s ultimatum that he would resign if the orchestra wasn’t back in business in time for him to properly rehearse the orchestra for its Carnegie dates and for upcoming recording sessions. But these can be, in tough times, expensive luxuries.

It is hard to see what Vänskä hopes to accomplish by walking away.

The former music director led what was by all accounts a moving series of concerts over the past weekend that the orchestra itself presented. The conductor himself, though, is making no public comments when voices, to say nothing about an orchestra, need to be heard.

Carnegie Hall’s situation was not dire, and the management settled the strike quickly by creating a post for a single union member in a new educational wing. Stagehands, who already rule the Carnegie financial roost (with one salary that tops $400,000 a year, five times what some Minnesota players are being asked to accept), wanted to unionize a new educational wing the hall is building. Carnegie rightfully balked, refusing to rob funds from students. But management settled quickly by cleverly allowing the union to save face by creating a post for a single union member at an apparently reasonable wage.

In all the attention Disney Hall has received for its 10th anniversary, it has been much noted that it was built despite formidable financial obstacles and that the project survived L.A.’s recession in the early ’90s.

But the more important lesson, also much noted, is that faith in the hall didn’t end with its triumphant opening. The L.A. Phil recognized that what goes on inside Disney was just as important as how it looked on the outside.

The orchestra had a deficit and little endowment. But Deborah Borda, the orchestra’s president and chief executive, balanced the budget and raised an endowment by encouraging first music director Esa-Pekka Salonen and then Dudamel to think bigger than they had ever before. The L.A. Phil gave people a reason to come back.

These are not easy times for anyone in the arts. Even as the L.A. Phil rides high, it no longer automatically sells out Disney. Subscriptions, which all American orchestras rely upon, are becoming less popular as the public becomes less inclined to make long-range commitments. Ticket prices ($200 tops at the L.A. Phil, with little below $50) are way too high. Players can no longer assume that they will have the generous salaries and benefits many now enjoy. Overhead, and not just at Carnegie, is a problem.

But the music isn’t. Put music first, and solutions can be found. City Opera didn’t, I believe, have to die. Neither does the Minnesota Orchestra.

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