Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Orchestral Politics

Politics is the one topic almost forbidden on this blog: it's not so much that I don't think it is important; it is more that I see political considerations as being a corrupting influence in the study and appreciation of music over the last few decades. Perhaps the most striking symptom of this is musicologist Susan McClary's characterization of Beethoven's recapitulation in the first movement of the Ninth Symphony in this way:
The point of recapitulation in the first movement of the Ninth is one of the most horrifying moments in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.
I talked about that in this post. But even if you don't like politics, politics might like you and it certainly seems to have made an impact on the lives of orchestral musicians in the Minnesota Orchestra. Here is a very illuminating article on the subject which explains a few things that were previously a mystery such as how an orchestra could remain locked-out for ten months?

Obviously what is needed is a third-party arbitrator to bring both parties to the table. As the article explains,
it likely will take the intervention of a third party. The real problem ... is that there is no third party willing to wade in and lean on the Minnesota Orchestra board to abandon an approach which has not worked and shows no signs of ever working.
And why is that? I would guess it’s because the Minnesota Orchestra board chair and the head of the board’s negotiating committee – in other words, the two people most in charge of calling the shots – run, or help run, the two biggest banks in town, Wells Fargo and US Bank (to be more precise, the board chair is “Executive Vice President and Director of Government and Community Relations” for Wells Fargo and the negotiating committee chair (and immediate past chair of the MO board) is Chairman, President and CEO of US Bancorp.) US Bank is the fifth largest US bank, while Wells Fargo is the fourth largest, or largest, depending on which measure of size is used. People this powerful in banks this large would be major players in world financial capitals, much less the 15th-largest metropolitan area in the US.
There are not many people who could actually make a difference to a bad orchestra negotiation who are willing to tangle with that kind of firepower. Normally, one would expect the mayor, or the state’s governor, or perhaps the state’s US senators, to get involved in a negotiation that’s garnering so much negative national publicity. But politicians need donations, and most certainly don‘t need the fourth or fifth largest bank in the country opposed to them. Other board members are not going to be willing to go up against heavy hitters like that either – not if they might ever need a working relationship with one of those banks in the future. So who’s left who can lean on board leadership to change course?
The sad truth is that musicians are usually at the beck and call of powerful players in society, whether bank executives in Minnesota or the City Fathers in 18th century Leipzig who were J. S. Bach's employers. Rarely there is the case of a musician like Beethoven who managed to win the support of a group of wealthy nobles who arranged a stipend for him. The force of Beethoven's personality and the power of his music won him the admiration of upper-class music lovers and therefore a certain amount of freedom from the usual constraints.

The world of popular music is different from that of classical music in that it is almost exclusively commercial success that allows for freedom and independence. But this freedom is likely an illusion because in reality, the demands of the commercial musical market are very severe. In most cases you simply must be generating the required formulas or you won't sell many records.

Apart from extreme cases like that of the Minnesota Orchestra, most musicians live with a blend of freedom and constraint. Usually if you have some talent you can make some kind of modest living in music and that is what most musicians do: make a very modest living. One has a tendency to be suspicious of musicians that are very successful and make a lot of money, but that is mere prejudice. There are fabulously wealthy musicians who seem unaffected by it and continue to produce lovely music for their fans. The example of Paul McCartney comes to mind as this article about his recent concert in Ottawa reveals.

Paul McCartney just turned 71 years old and it doesn't seem to be slowing him down much. At the end of the day, he has lived through all the politics and social upheaval of the last half-century and what is left is the music. That is rather heartening!

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