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Sat October 5, 2013

It's Been A Really Bad Week For Classical Music

Originally published on Sat October 5, 2013 6:36 pm

The world of classical music has had a very turbulent week. Carnegie Hall's labor dispute with its stagehands led to the cancellation of its opening-night gala. The Minnesota Orchestra, already one year into a labor dispute of its own, just lost its music director and the leader of its Composer Institute. And the New York City Opera, after a last-minute fundraising effort fell short, filed for bankruptcy.

To help sort through the wreckage, NPR Music classical producer Tom Huizenga joined All Things Considered host Arun Rath to discuss what went wrong for these ensembles and venues, and why their problems represent a larger and more troubling trend. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

If you're just joining us, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

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RATH: Yeah, those are storm clouds. It has been a turbulent week in the world of classical music.

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RATH: Carnegie Hall's labor dispute with it stagehands led to the cancellation of its opening night gala. The Minnesota Orchestra, already one year into its own labor dispute, just lost their music director and the leader of its composer institute.

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RATH: And the New York City Opera filed for bankruptcy.

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RATH: Here to help sort through the wreckage is NPR Music classical producer Tom Huizenga. Tom, yikes.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Yeah. Yikes. I mean, I feel like it's a week when the classical music world tried to one-up Congress and the government shutdown.

RATH: It's awful, and it's ugly. Let's start with Minnesota. We were listening there to - that was Beethoven's 6th Symphony, "The Pastoral," with Osmo Vanska, their conductor, and now, he's gone.

HUIZENGA: Really, it's a pity, because Vanska has already polished this orchestra into one of the world's finest. And, you know, the problem is that the two sides - the management and the musicians - have rarely met in person over this yearlong lockout basically over wages. You know, they pulled in former Senate majority leader George Mitchell in July to mediate. That didn't work. I mean, he had better luck brokering peace in Northern Ireland. So, Vanska, this highly revered music director and conductor, threatened to resign months side if the two sides couldn't settle. The deadline came and went. And this past Tuesday, after 10 years with the orchestra, he resigns.

I don't know if you read. There's a very interesting article in the Telegraph this past week, the London paper, from Ivan Hewitt, a classical music critic. He was extremely blunt, saying that U.S. orchestra musicians are grossly overpaid and greedy. I mean, he cited the Minnesota Orchestra average wage of about $108,000, and then noting that the British Halle Orchestra - a fairly comparable group - was advertising recently for string players at about 30,000 pounds, which is just under $50,000.

RATH: So when it comes to money, though, even $100,000 in the Minnesota Orchestra, they apparently make less than stagehands in Carnegie Hall, who I learned this week make close to half a million dollars. And they kept Carnegie Hall from opening.

HUIZENGA: These are the stagehands of Local One. And then Carnegie Hall suddenly just tried to stand up to this very powerful union, and as a result, the stagehands called a strike, and reportedly the first in the hall's history, which dates back to 1891 when none other than Tchaikovsky was there on hand to conduct the official opening concert. But Friday afternoon, Carnegie released a statement saying that they've come to an agreement and all the concerts - the rest of the concerts on the schedule are proceeding as planned.

RATH: Also in New York - and I got to say this one really bums me out - is the New York City Opera - New York's not hurting for great opera with the Metropolitan, but the New York City Opera would put on sort of unusual stuff and do a great job. And now it looks like they're gone.

HUIZENGA: They folded and filed for bankruptcy this week. A real shame because, like you said, they took chances. They nurtured the work of American composers, like Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah," an opera that some say is the greatest American opera ever written. But, honestly, Arun, it's been a long downhill slide for the New York City Opera, and here we are. The curtain has come down for the last time.

RATH: So, Tom, are you - with - after this miserable week, are you worried about the future of classical performance in the country?

HUIZENGA: The equation is this: you got rising costs plus declining revenues. That equals a big fat problem. And this is evident to almost every symphony around the country. The thing is with orchestras is that you can't belt tighten when it comes to playing a Mahler symphony. You absolutely need 105 players. You can't do it with 75 or 50. And I think management is responsible for maintaining the budget. It's like a garden. They need to tend it, not let it get out of control. And clearly, it got way out of control in Minnesota and with the New York City Opera.

RATH: That's NPR Music classical music producer Tom Huizenga. Tom, thank you.

HUIZENGA: Great to be here, Arun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.