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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Good Managers are Hard to Find

by Norman Lebrecht / May 10, 2000

THE Royal Philharmonic Orchestra has lost its manager. What, again? I hear you cry. There is a well-established pattern in the life of London orchestras, and this one in particular, that when they return from an arduous tour to find the diary half-empty and a record company (BMG) gone cold, the players call an emergency meeting and the board, in a panic, offers up the manager as a human sacrifice.

John Manger had done sterling work in the five years since Paul Findlay was ousted. He gave up a career at Oxford University Press and set out to procure the RPO's survival with a paltry public grant of £300,000 and in a shrinking commercial market. That the orchestra did not go bust is greatly to his credit.

He recently renewed Daniele Gatti's contract as music director and was well on the way to receiving stabilisation funds from the Arts Council. A faint light glimmered at the tunnel end.

But musicians are not trained to look beyond the end of their instruments and an hour of mob rage was enough to seal Manger's fate. Checking in on his return from Australia, where he had just got married, Manger was summoned to meet Andrew Sippings, the chairman, who handed him an envelope, announcing his departure. He has since been officially "on leave" while terms are finalised.

What some musicians never seem to learn is the value of continuity. The two most successful British bands, the LSO and Philharmonia, have not changed managers in a decade. No one imagines Clive Gillinson and David Whelton to be infallible, but their players have overlooked occasional setbacks and are reaping the rewards of fidelity. A good manager has never been harder to find.

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra parted company with Antony Lewis-Crosby last month, apparently under pressure from the Arts Council (which always denies meddling in such matters). No likely successor springs to mind. Who, with the correct number of marbles above the nose-bridge, would want to run an orchestra that is millions in debt and lacking local purpose?

The dilemma is not confined to ailing organisations. The Berlin Philharmonic will soon find itself managerless, Elmar Weingarten having failed to reconcile the conflicting demands of musicians, conductors, public and politicians. His was an impossible task, as Claudio Abbado acknowledged the other day when he accused the city senate of expecting his musicians to perform wonders on the same subsistence grant as a radio orchestra.

Some hyperbole, perhaps, since DM24 million (£7.8m) is four times the subsidy of the richest British orchestra; but Berlin is no longer the dream ticket for a team player and there are 18 empty seats around the band. Sir Simon Rattle will need a manager who can raise cash, restore confidence and run a tight ship. No such paragon has yet appeared in the whole of Germany.

The New York Philharmonic, with almost $200 million in its endowment and a board with bottomless pockets, has been searching for a new executive director since Deborah Borda quit in January to run the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the new Disney Hall on a 50 per cent increase in salary.

Headhunters sounded out Cleveland's Tom Morris and the LSO's Gillinson, neither of whom was tempted. An offer has lately been made to Zarin Mehta, brother of Zubin, the former music director.

Zarin Mehta runs the Ravinia Festival in Illinois, where the Chicago Symphony Orchestra spends its summers; in the 1980s he put Montreal on the orchestral map. He is described by a Montreal associate as a man of "great human qualities and intellectual curiosity, a good fundraiser and excellent tennis player". Just what New York needs, you would think.

Mehta, however, is 61 years old, and while he may smash like an Agassi and serve a good balance sheet, he cannot catch the rhythm of the generation that the Philharmonic urgently needs to attract. No one questions his energy and ability, but the image - which counts more in Manhattan - counteracts the orchestra's aims.

Nor is Mehta in a hurry to sign. The two sides have been talking for a month and the contract details are no secret; four hundred grand is the going rate. But the orchestra is waiting, still waiting, to hear whether Riccardo Muti wants to be its music director, and the new manager will want clear lines of authority drawn up in the marbled forecourt.

Curious as it may seem, New York can more easily afford to lose its next conductor than its director-designate, such is the paucity of available executive talent. Where the RPO and Liverpool think they will find a better manager than the ones they have shed is a matter of wishful conjecture.




Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999