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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Anne-Sophie Mutter - The fiddler who should be banned

By Norman Lebrecht / October 5, 2005


Only one classical musician has been banned from London in my time. There have been music directors who threatened to leave town forever unless they got a pay rise - a transparent ruse to secure increased orchestral subsidy from the Arts Council- and one celebrated conductor stayed away for years after a well-whispered brush with the constabulary in a popular West End cottage.

But only one artist was ever sent packing. The cause was cash and I regret to report that the soloist in question is up to her old tricks again.

Twelve years ago, four London orchestras set aside their rivalries and agreed to inform Anne-Sophie Mutter, the German violinist, that they were not going to book her again until she dropped her £10,000 fee. Mutter's office replied by fax that this was her standard rate. Not in this town it isn't, said the bands, and for two seasons London got along fine without the sight and sound of the bare-shouldered beauty. There was no dip in audiences and other soloists flourished until, fearing for her sales in the world's fourth largest record market, Mutter cut her London rate by twenty percent and returned to circulation, mostly with the London Symphony Orchestra.

The episode shed little credit on anyone concerned, least of all the orchestras who had acted as a cartel which, if challenged, might have been declared illegal. Still, the point was well made, and it was promptly taken by the rest of the classical roundabout. Stars who were paid fifty grand in greenbacks at Carnegie Hall - Perlman, Kissin, Vengerov - settled for thirty percent of that on the South Bank.

Mutter, meanwhile, developed a perfectly pre-packaged style of performance. What you see on stage, you hear on her DG record, neither more nor less. She scarcely looks at the audience and seldom gives an encore. Few musicians give so little for so much dosh.

Back home, in Germany, she is treated as minor royalty, heir to the all-powerful aura of Herbert von Karajan, who picked her out as a child of 13 and set her on the golden path. 'It was Karajan's wish I played Mozart,' she told Gramophone magazine recently. 'If he'd said jump out of the window, I probably would have done that, too.'

America saw her first in a gravity-defying strapless gown that caused outbreaks of fast breathing in elderly subscribers. After the death of her first husband, a successful corporate lawyer, she married Andre Previn, a conductor whose triumphs are long past. At 42 she makes well over three million dollars a year from sixty performances, which is more than the combined income of players in a symphony orchestra in Britain or Scandinavia.

Ahead of next year's Mozart jamboree - it's the 250th anniversary of his birth - Mutter astutely organised a world tour of the violin concertos and sonatas. The LSO booked her sonata cycle, three nights at £30,000 each - breaking the budget rules, but just about justifiable in terms of a warm longterm relationship and virtual exclusivity.

Then Mutter decided to play the concertos with the London Philharmonic at an earlier brace of concerts, and record them for DG. By the time she reached the Barbican a fortnight ago, whatever musical curiosity London felt about her Mozart had been thoroughly exhausted and only sixty percent of the tickets were sold. The Barbican echoed with empty spaces and the LSO, which paid for the series, was left with a substantial loss. Mutter, I hear on the grapevine, was asked to reduce her invoice and bluntly refused.

True, she was always bound to be a loss leader. The Barbican has two thousand seats. The LSO would have had to charge £15 a ticket to cover the fee, and that's without house rent, promotional costs and her accompanist's tiny wage. Booking Mutter was a charitable farewell gesture by ex-LSO boss Clive Gillinson who will now be working closely with her at Carnegie Hall.

I hope the orchestra put it down to experience and reimpose the old ban on the bumptious fiddler, for anything less will incite rampant inflation in London's musical fee structures.

Why are orchestral managers tempted to overpay the likes of Mutter? Because they think her smidgeon of fame will attract a lashing of celebrity seekers. A sixty percent turnout proves them wrong. The lady has no more pulling power than a one-armed dentist with a manual drill. Concert stardom these days is not what it was in the lifetime of Rubinstein and Horowitz.

Few, outside her own country, would know Anne-Sophie Mutter from a soap bubble. Replacing her with a rising talent would have minimal impact on sales, while booking her actively depresses the careers of sharper, keener, more exciting prospects.

Every time Mutter breaks the bank with an overpolished Mozart, a door is slammed in the face of a host of young contenders - Lisa Batiashvili, Nicola Benedetti, Rachel Podger, Matt Trusler, Daniel Hope, Jack Liebeck, to name a talented half-dozen in Britain alone who bring impetuosity and vigour to an art that is dying of ennui.

If the orchestras won't ban greedy-guts soloists, the funding authorities should step in. Music is paid for in part by the taxpayer, who does not generally approve of subsidising rich foreigners unless they play football, and in part by private and corporate donors whose innocence of musical economics is cruelly abused by avaricious musicians. A principle needs to be re-established. Money that is given to the arts in a spirit of idealism should be put towards creative renewal. Any other purpose is bad for business and death for art.

The time has come to impose a ceiling on concert fees of the kind that prevails in all the leading opera houses. Nobody, not even Pavarotti, got more than $15,000 for appearing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Not enough? said manager Joe Volpe. Go sing in a park.

And while Pavarotti could earn a million any night of the week miming arias to a pre-recorded tape in a supermarket car-lot, if he wanted to retain credibility as an opera singer he accepted the Joe Volpe pay freeze and delivered his high Cs for a reasonable fee. Covent Garden and La Scala pay by much the same rules. It keeps the books clean, and the singers honest.

Concert halls and orchestras need to absorb that lesson, drawing the line at any soloist who seeks to hold them to ransom.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001