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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

The band won't play on

By Norman Lebrecht / April 28, 2004

There will be no American orchestra at this summer's BBC Proms. Don't stay home and cancel your subscription - there will be much else to engage the ear and stimulate the mind in the world's biggest music festival, including a theme relating to the death and rebirth of English music in 1934, a topic which was uncannily previewed a few weeks back on this space.

The full Proms lineup will be announced tomorrow (Thursday 20 April) and it will be no less intriguing than ever. Just don't go hunting for a transatlantic band because, for the first time in decades, there won't be one.

The reason for this omission is so small-minded that I can barely bring myself to put it on paper. It stems from the mule-headed refusal of musicians in the Cleveland Orchestra to allow their concerts to be relayed on the internet, as well as on Radio 3, without an additional emolument, which the BBC rightly withheld. The whole point of the BBC Proms is live broadcasting of classical concerts to all who wish to avail themselves of its glories, free at the end of a receiver and ridiculously cheap at the point of delivery if you are prepared to queue all afternoon and stand all night.

Open access is what makes the Proms a magnet for the world's great orchestras who, after the formalities of their overlong seasons, feast upon its effervescent atmosphere like nomads at an oasis. The trade-off is that everyone does it on the cheap. Top conductors drop their concert fees from ten grand to three and visiting US orchestras waive their usual luxuries, taking in the Proms as an economy-class stopover on the way to or from more lavishly provisioned European festivals. I have never heard the players grumble. Most are so relieved to get away from the stuffed shirts of Salzburg and Lucerne that they play their pretty pop-socks off in the Royal Albert Hall and count themselves blessed by the experience.

That benediction, though, will not wash in Cleveland. This proud pack of scrapers and puffers has a contract negotiation coming up directly after the tour and they are not going to give one jot or tittle of a concession before sitting down with management and hammering out a deal.

We are not talking here of the poor and downtrodden of the musical earth. The basic wage in the Cleveland Orchestra is $97,090 per annum, twice the going rate for London musicians and for less than half the work. Last year the players got themselves a 4.6 percent pay rise, despite the fact that the organisation is running a $4 million seasonal deficit and has slashed all other costs to the bone. Its recently retired chief executive Tom Morris and the music director Franz Welser-Most both paid back one-tenth of their salaries to ease the crisis. None of this impresses the players. Unless they get a pay rise in August they'll threaten to strike. Unless they get an extra hundred bucks apiece in buff envelopes, there is no way their work is going out on the internet, full stop.

And so a European tour which should have been crowned with Proms ovations for Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony and Shostakovich's austere 15th has been clouded with pettifogging self-interest. Cleveland will visit Wiesbaden and Lucerne, where it will give the world premiere of a new work by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, called Night's Black Bird, which it will repeat at the Edinburgh Festival for the benefit of British audiences. It may be aired on BBC radio but not on the internet, because North American orchestras collectively shun the idea of free webcasting. 'They simply cannot see the bigger picture,' sighed one defeated negotiator.

The blacking of the Proms arises from a herd mentality bred in the 19th century when musicians had to cling together to earn a crust to feed their families and never settled for less than the union rate. Those hard hat rules are choking off their external outlets, one by one. The record industry gave up on US orchestras years ago, unable to work with bands which downed tools at the split second of every mandatory coffee break. Radio stations walked away in the 1990s when the fees became prohibitive and dotcommers never got past the front door.

Audiences, long in slow decline, plummeted after 9/11. Private donations, the lifeblood of an unsubsidised system, dispersed to trendier causes, like Aids research and modern art. The orchestras are sustained by ancestral endowments - Cleveland has $103 million in the vaults - but these funds lost half their value when the stock market crashed. Half a dozen ensembles have gone into bankruptcy over the past year. Every major orchestras is running seven figures into the red with no sight of a tourniquet.

Yet the musicians, like ostriches, confront the world with moon-faced incomprehension. Change a rule? They'd rather break an arm.

I once watched an American orchestra, ahead of a European tour, vote down a proposed broadcast on German radio because it would not have paid the players a full fee, on top of their regular salaries. The union convener was a singularly bolshie double bass player who let his spectacles fall to the floor during the softest moment in a Mahler rehearsal, as a warning to the conductor not to get ideas above his station. A broadcast in Germany could have earned the band a popular following in an important market. Herd instinct ensured that they remained unheard.

'Most American orchestras,' observes one former official, 'are provincial organisations which acquired an international reputation during their recording heyday. The only way they can now sustain it is by touring Europe and going on-line. But the players are too provincial to face the reality.'

The paramount irony is that some of the world's most ruthless and ingenious capitalists sit on the boards of these orchestras, applying formidable brains and a Niagara of goodwill in attempts to rebuild these antedeluvian institutions, only to run into wall of immovable recalcitrance.

The retreat of the American orchestra may well be irreversible. Cleveland's decision to black the Proms cannot be isolated; it has set a precedent for the rest. The next time Nicholas Kenyon, director of the Proms, invites a North American orchestra its musicians will be honour bound to demand the impossible, knowing they would otherwise be deemed class traitors. It may be years before we hear an American sound again at the Proms. That would be a pity. But is not us or the Proms who will be the chief losers.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001