Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: There Is an All-Consuming Passion in the Hearts of the Big Stars of the Classical Music World

By Kuerti, Anton | Queen's Quarterly, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: There Is an All-Consuming Passion in the Hearts of the Big Stars of the Classical Music World


Kuerti, Anton, Queen's Quarterly


ANTON KUERTI, considered by many to be Canada's leading pianist, has made numerous recordings; he also writes occasional articles on music.

IS the death of the classical music business imminent? A new book by Norman Lebrecht, When the Music Stops, has already promulgated music's epitaph in lurid detail. Subtitled Managers, Maestros and the Corporate Murder of Classical Music [sic], it chronicles the boundless greed, the outrageous conflicts of interest, the flagrant misuse of public funds, and the arrogant disdain for the art itself displayed by the shady moguls who control most of the world's music enterprises.

Would that it were only the agents and multinational corporate monopolies who were at fault; the artists have at least an equal share in the mayhem that is endangering the survival of symphony orchestras and opera houses throughout the world, and has already made the recital as rare as the trumpeter swan, fluttering on mainly at universities and festivals.

A mixture of shame and pride envelops the question of artists' fees. While pride demands that a superstar never undersell his or her rivals, shame dictates that the fees never be revealed. Otherwise, how could Itzhak Perlman -- who usually plays for about $50,000 US, but reportedly has demanded as much as $100,000 for a single performance -- face his fellow artists in the orchestra, knowing that they do not earn nearly that much in a whole year? How could James Levine pocket $500,000 for conducting one of the Three Tenors' charades, knowing that this could pay for an entire new opera production? Or how could Jose Carreras demand $300,000 US (he only asked $200,000 to perform in Canada) for an appearance in Brazil -- a country that desperately needs foreign exchange to combat malnutrition and disease -- and not wilt with shame when exposed to the poverty and abject need of so many Latin Americans?

The boundless greed of the superstars is bankrupting the whole industry; they are soiling their own nests. Unfortunately, bad as the situation is, Lebrecht manages to overstate it when he writes that "In 1991, orchestras in America spent close to $700 million, of which just over half ($356 million) went on guest soloists and guest conductors. Music directors cost an extra $40 million." That statistic, it turns out, is not just incredible; it is false. The $356 million in fact does include music directors, orchestra musicians, and all other artistic personnel costs, according to the American Symphony Orchestra League, Lebrecht's source. The other 50 per cent of orchestra expenditures went mainly for production (16 per cent), marketing and development (13 per cent), and administration (11 per cent). This sounds quite reasonable, but it is distorted by the fact that many small and medium-size orchestras are run by a staff of just three or four dedicated individuals working for minimal salaries; often they also play in the orchestra. The staff of some large orchestras exceeds the number of musicians, and their salaries are often two or three times as high as those of the average orchestral player.

It is too bad Lebrecht succumbed to slipshod research on this matter, for the main thrust of the book is right on the mark, and it needed to be written, for just as surely as the search for profits is sabotaging and destroying our planet's environment, it is also contaminating and jeopardizing the music world. Lebrecht quotes a slew of other figures, however, which cannot be far from the truth. He lists 21 performers who, according to his estimates, earned over $1,000,000 US each in the 1995/96 season, topped by Luciano Pavarotti who banked $16 to $18 million, through Lorin Maazel who cashed in $2.7 million from Bavarian Radio alone (almost twice the paltry $1.4 Kurt Masur reaped from the New York Philharmonic), and Anne-Sophie Mutter, who commands $65,000 a concert in Germany, to Esa-Pekka Salonen, whom the Los Angeles Philharmonic pays a mere $700,000. …

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