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La Scena Musicale Online Reviews and News / Critiques et Nouvelles

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Lettre to the Editor

La Nouvele Sinfonie and the CALQ

By Michael Nafi, General Manager of La Nouvele Sinfonie / November 1, 2004

[Version française]

La Scena Musicale publishes Letters to the Editor as an open forum for discussion, but does not endorses the opinions expressed.

In Québec, public funding for the arts is allocated through the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec (CALQ).

A high level of public commitment for the arts is vital in Quebec for three reasons. The first one is obvious: Quebec’s cultural and linguistic singularity within North America. The second is that Quebec’s vibrant and diverse cultural scene is a full-fledged productive economic sector and the best ambassador for the Belle Province both within Canada and abroad. The third and last reason is less known to the general public: while there are a few major corporate and private individual donors in Quebec, the corresponding amounts are not nearly as abundant as in other parts of Canada, which, in turn, pales by comparison with the levels in the US. Therefore, any reduction in public funding for the arts in Quebec, without any prior and gradual preparation for a switchover to more dependence on private funding would be simply suicidal.

For the time being, such danger is definitly not real. The current provincial Government, which was suspected of harbouring a hidden agenda of massive divestment from the arts, actually increased the CALQ’s budget this year.

As a result, the budget allocated to music organisations by the CALQ was increased by 12% for 2004/2005, from $15.5 million (for the spring 2003 competition) to just under $17.5million (for the spring 2004 competition). This increase is even more spectacular when one compares it with last year’s cut by approximately 4%!

Naturally, more money from the Government would be welcome, especially since Quebec does turn out a large number of young talented musicians each year. However, contrary to a well-held belief, the CALQ’s support to music in all its forms, is, for instance, far greater than the equivalent allocations of the French Ministry of Culture, often cited as a worldwide example for its largesse. This year, the French Ministry will allocate a total budget of EUR 39 million (i.e. approximately $ CAN 64 million), excluding all infrastructure grants applied to the renovation or construction of concert halls. The budget is about 3.5 times greater that the CALQ’s, but we must remember that the population ratio between Quebec and France is 1 to 9 and the number of organisations who come knocking on the French Government’s door is far greater (according to the figures supplied by the French Ministry of Culture: 1000 independent arts organisations, 400 festivals, 180 permanent institutions including 12 regional opera companies, 24 permanent orchestras and 13 centres for new music creation).

In spite of the favourable financial environment, La Nouvele Sinfonie’s funding request was turned down for the second consecutive year. This year’s application represented about 0.2% of the entire budget allocated to music organisations of all types. The sudden appearance of this orchestra at the public trough could hardly be described as a major shockwave in the overall system of public funding in Quebec.

In other words, if the system is having a hard time "absorbing" La Nouvele Sinfonie it is not for budgetary reasons. The problem is directly linked to the allocation policies of the CALQ.

It is important to emphasize that the principles for setting up the Conseil des arts et des lettres (CALQ) are rather interesting: the idea was to let the artistic community define its own cultural policies and divide up the funds allocated by the Government among its members. The evaluation of the applications is based on the recommendations of a committee of peers: in other words, in this system artists assess each other and divide up the funds among each other. However, the approach is clearly not without danger. For instance, it is difficult to ignore the natural rivalries between music organisations or even possible errors of judgment of all sorts, which can have an effect on final decisions.

In 2002, a jury of peers, deemed La Nouvele Sinfonie "not bad but rather dull".

This judgment was radically different from the reviews of ALL critics both in Canada and abroad. Why this particular jury issued this damning statement is almost irrelevant. A far more fundamental issue is this: the system does not provide for any recourse in this kind of situation.

The very make-up of the jury raises some serious issues.

In accordance with the CALQ’s statutes, critics are amongst the categories which may not be a part of this jury: in other words, professionals whose job is precisely to assess the quality of artistic organisations in the province are not involved in the evaluation process of the applicants’ artistic quality.

Agents are also prevented by the CALQ’s statutes from sitting on any jury. One wonders why agents should be excluded when general managers are not, since the latter are, in a sense, the exclusive agent of the music organization they run. The last lists of jury members to be made public by the CALQ do show that general managers of orchestras often sit on the CALQ’s jury. In fact, some were called back for two consecutive years. It even happened that while the general manager of an organization funded by the CALQ sat on the jury, the Board’s Chairperson of the same organization was on the CALQ’s board of directors. A fundamental principal of good governance is to have no pre-conceived idea on individuals: they should not be assumed to be either highly dishonest or completely honest. The idea is simply to implement efficient rules to avoid situations of conflict of interest.

This year, the situation was different but no less telling on the inner workings of the CALQ. Contrary to the previous year, another jury gave Nouvele Sinfonie an overall good evaluation for the 2004/2005 season. How the orchestra gained "luster" and miraculously straightened its quality standards after just one additional concert remains a complete mystery!

This time, La Nouvele Sinfonie passed the jury evaluation step but did not make it through the final round of the CALQ’s general board meeting.

La Nouvele Sinfonie did request its evaluation, in writing, as required by the CALQ’s rules. It arrived in the guise of a list of short comments on disconcertingly general criteria, such as: "efforts dedicated to the remuneration of artists, performers and cultural workers". In fact, when the evaluation is overall good, it cannot be used as constructive criticism and help the applicant-organization improve its standards. In a nutshell, it is useless! One wonders why the CALQ guards it so jealously and why it is not automatically sent out with all rejection letters.

The CALQ makes its general assessment not by type of music or by type of organization but by type of grant (production, operating, touring…). In other words, in this system, the CALQ often ends up having to rank a string quartet, with respect to a 40-piece baroque orchestra or a jazz ensemble. How that could be done objectively is another mystery.

Since La Nouvele Sinfonie is a baroque orchestra, one may legitimately wonder if there is more room for one additional baroque ensemble on period instruments in Quebec.

A critic did ask this question while reviewing Nouvele Sinfonie last concert: "Within Montreal’s abundant musical landscape, including a number of ensembles who specialize in the baroque repertoire, one may legitimately wonder if the "scene" needs this kind of orchestra. The answer is imperative and clear, after Saturday’s concert: absolutely. If only because of the orchestra’s size —close to 40 musicians -, La Nouvele Sinfonie imposes a sound which is great to hear, reviving in our ears all the lushness of the period… which is too often featured on smaller size ensembles. We also discover that this repertoire also made use of a broad range of dynamics, which makes this music all the more endearing." (*)

It is also important to note that Nouvele Sinfonie promotes exclusively a repertoire which rarely featured by other baroque ensembles: the French baroque repertoire for full orchestra.

As noted by the Conseil des Arts de Montréal (CAM): "the emergence of La Nouvele Sinfonie in Montreal’s artistic landscape will bring a new vision in the interpretation of baroque and classical music and will introduce music-lovers to unknown works from this great repertoire."

From a purely artistic point of view, there is definitely room for La Nouvele Sinfonie in Quebec’s rich cultural scene.

However, when we take a close look at the allocation policies of the CALQ’s funds to the baroque repertoire, we discover an environment which is not encouraging for an orchestra such as Nouvele Sinfonie.

If one takes into account all the organizations which focus on the baroque repertoire played on period instruments (Arion, Studio de Musique Ancienne, Boréades, Voix Humaines, Ensemble Caprice, Clavecins Concerts, Idées Heureuses and the new Montréal Baroque festival), and include Les Violons du Roy, the baroque repertoire takes up approximately 4.5% of the entire budget allocated to music organizations by the CALQ for the 2004/2005 season.

In fact, in 2004/2005, Les Violons du Roy, which is an orchestra devoted to the baroque repertoire played on modern instruments, takes in 52% of the total grants for the baroque repertoire (the remaining 48 % are split between the 8 "period instrument" organizations mentioned above). Within the baroque repertoire segment, the "modern instruments" share has steadily increased over the last 3 years.

In other words, while the trend in the rest of the world is a move towards the baroque repertoire played on period instruments, the CALQ’s policy favours the development of the baroque repertoire played on modern instruments. What is even more surprising is that Montreal was a pioneering city in the "period instruments" movement in North America. The issue here is not to compare one approach to the other, but to call for a more balanced diversity. One should think that Quebec, of all provinces should be more sensitive to the promotion of cultural diversity. This allocation policy hardly seems to go in this direction.

Within the "period instruments" category, apart from SMAM whose budget was cut by 20% this year, all the others were increased this year. Therefore, it is clear that the CALQ has decided to consolidate the current leaders (Arion 27%, Boréades 22%, Voix Humaines 40%) and welcome only one small chamber ensemble (Caprice: $4000) under its wings. The CALQ’s policy is therefore not favourable to the development of a new large-scale baroque orchestra on period instruments such as Nouvele Sinfonie.

The orchestra seems even more difficult to "swallow" by the CALQ because it has not followed the standard development pattern of its predecessors. No other ensemble has started off in such a large size (imposed by the very nature of the repertoire in which Nouvele Sinfonie specializes). No other ensemble attracted as much attention from the press in its first few years of existence, including from cities and countries where it has never performed. No other ensemble was recorded by Radio-Canada on its very first year and for three years in a row. In other words, from the very beginning, La Nouvele Sinfonie wanted to play ball in the same courtyard as the top guys, and so far it has lost the race for public funding.

By denying La Nouvele Sinfonie any funding at all, the CALQ has dealt it a major blow for two consecutive years. As a result, both years, La Nouvele Sinfonie has had to cut its season short, thereby losing opportunities to attract more private sponsors. The lack of funding at the provincial level also renders the orchestra ineligible for public funding at the federal level. Therefore in addition to budget constraints for the current season, La Nouvele Sinfonie must face the distinct possibility of folding after its first concert of the season.

If the fate of La Nouvele Sinfonie is to disappear, Hervé Niquet, its founding artistic director, will go on with his international career. But, he will be highly disappointed to end a dream he shared with many musicians, many of whom from the younger generation. However, this silent death, should not be a reason to ignore the flaws within the system of public funding for the arts in Quebec, underscored by this project.

(*) François Tousignant, Le Devoir, Septembre 15th 2003

(all quotes originally in French were translated by Michael Nafi)

Octobre 2004 - Michael Nafi.

Michael Nafi

is the volunteer General Manager of Nouvele Sinfonie. This Algerian-born Canadian, has lived in both Toronto and Montreal and currently resides in Paris. He holds a Master’s degree from the Université de Montréal and a PhD in Chemistry from McGill. He concurrently studied music. Acknowledged as a fine connoisseur of the baroque period, he has managed international co-productions and tours in opera and ballet, worked as language coach for both 17 and 18 century opera productions in both Canada and France and lectured on the artistic and scientific developments in 17 century France. Recently, he was creative consultant for a documentary on French baroque opera under Louis XIV which will air on CBC "Opening Night" in December 2004. He is also a consultant for European Groups on issues of corporate governance and currently preparing a Master’s degree in political philosophy (on the sociology of power) at the University of Paris.

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