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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Bucks Stop Here
The Biggest Need Not Be the Best

by Norman Lebrecht / July 5, 2000

THE international concert circuit revolves around the assumption that there are three crack orchestras in Europe - in Berlin, Vienna and Amsterdam - and five in America, where the mighty handful are commonly known as the Big Five.

The assumption is not founded on current form or conductor. In Europe, the pecking order was established long ago by the record industry which, dying, is now sowing confusion. In America, money speaks. The Big Five were supposedly the richest outfits, namely: Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Philadelphia.

Others may play with greater refinement and individuality but no one outbids the Big Five. The New York Philharmonic last month snared Pittsburgh's principal flautist with a package that will make Robert Langevin the top-paid tootler on earth. The same orchestra is on the point of signing Riccardo Muti as music director for a record emolument expected to be in the region of $2 million. That's where the playing starts in a Big Five band.

Their pre-eminence has prevailed unchanged and unchecked for half a century, protecting them, like permanent members of the UN Security Council, from upstart nations and economic downturns. It is about time someone demolished their myth.

A useful sledgehammer has come my way in the form of a document, marked "confidential", which conducts an internal audit of America's symphonic industry. It reveals that in 1998-99 there were 23 orchestras with budgets over $10 million. Top of the pile were Boston and Chicago, spending $57 million and $53 million each. Next came Los Angeles and San Francisco with $40 million budgets. New York was fifth, at $39.95 million. Judged by bucks spent, these would rate as the current Big Five.

Philadelphia ($34m) and Cleveland ($28.8m), dislodged from the top flight, come sixth and seventh - followed by Pittsburgh ($28.3m), Cincinnati ($27m) and Minnesota ($26m). These 10 form the major league.

However, what they spend is only a small part of what they own. Every US orchestra has a charitable endowment, built up over decades. Old-money Boston leads the field with $202 million in its vaults. New York comes next with $185 million, followed by Chicago ($151m), San Francisco ($147m), Cleveland ($140.5m), Minnesota ($138m) and Pittsburgh, whose $121 million came primarily in 57 varieties from the locally patriotic Heinz family. Philadelphia and Los Angeles are relative paupers at $77.9 million and $50.1 million, but such is the scale of their endowments that any of the US top 10 can afford to drop a couple of million and not feel the loss.

It seems almost incomprehensible to Europeans that, with so much money to burn, American orchestras take so few artistic risks. Their repertory has virtually atrophied and their objectives have hardly changed in four generations. The only positive indicator is that, amid declining attendances, US orchestras are spending 22 per cent of their outlay on education.

Where that leaves the rest of the world is on the breadline. The London Symphony Orchestra, spending less than £9 million, would just about scrape into the 20th spot in the US league, between the obscure ensembles of Oregon and New Jersey. The Berlin Philharmonic could expect to rank around 15th; the Vienna Philharmonic, with its limited concert series, comes nowhere. Yet few players in these orchestras would exchange their budget-conscious lives for the tedium of a Big Five contract. All of which shows the futility of grading orchestras like football clubs, and of confusing the biggest with the best.

Boston, which tops both spending and endowment charts, is going through a rough patch, shunned by some eminent artists and searching vainly for a credible successor to Seiji Ozawa. Currently favourite is Christoph Eschenbach, 60, who scarcely promises regeneration. Cleveland, on the other hand, no longer a Big-Fiver in rich-list terms, has picked Franz Welser-Möst, 40, to succeed Christoph von Dohnanyi, and is playing like a French XI in extra time. A sharp-eared colleague in the unsparing acoustic of Cologne found Cleveland last month superior to Berlin, Vienna, New York and the Concertgebouw.

What counts in an orchestra is its sound and spirit, not its Dow Jones portfolio. Munich has been pouring extra millions into its orchestras without denting Berlin's supremacy. The LSO, Britain's best-endowed orchestra, is often outplayed by the Philharmonia.

Money cannot buy artistic excellence. The Big Five, as a musical indicator, amounts to a big lie. Let's hear no more of it.


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




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999