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Samuel Thompson

On Music, Meaning, and Value

April 10, 2009 at 2:48 PM

Hello, all - I'm back. The past few weeks have consisted of much practicing and much WRITING, but not writing of this sort: it's both tax time and grantwriting time, and while I am one of the many that is still working on his 2008 IRS 1040s I did, after a forty-eight hour lockdown (that consisted of slaying some personal dragons as well as many takes of Bach and Ysaye), get a grant application out before the deadline. While I have done this before, I have to say that I now have an even deeper respect for those who work in Development and fundraising for our arts organizations. Thank you all so much for doing what you do!

In a recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Peter Dobrin speaks of the state of America's orchestras and the (if I may) draconian measures being taken to survive the economic downturn. For those who are unaware, many orchestras are cancelling tours, laying off employees in administrative positions, freezing salaries, shortening both summer seasons and the number of concerts to be given during the 2009-2010 season - and many music directors are taking salary cuts. While this has happened before (in an earlier blog I mentioned the cataclysmic period between 2001-2003), this round of "chopping" is sounding greater alarms due to the fact that these measures are being taken by large cultural institutions including the Cleveland Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony, Atlanta Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera.

In his article, Mr. Dobrin does make a very valid point, that being that both business and artistic plans across the nation were based on market speculation - we can all look at the years between 1996-2008 to see some of the amazing growth and expansion that has taken place in the United States. However, with the stock market shrinking, many endowments have lost up to half of their value, which of course creates problems when interest from those endowments is allocated for operations costs.

However, Mr. Dobrin takes a very disturbing turn in his article when he begins to speak of some of the salaries earned by top orchestral executives and the musicians who make up the membership of these orchestras. "Is it really a good thing that Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, made well over $1 million for the year that ended in September 2007? Or that a hornist in the New York Philharmonic made $300,000, an oboe player in the Philadelphia Orchestra $249,000?" he asks.

He then speaks of the fees commanded by international soloists and follows with: "Then there's the regular payroll. When a hundred or more applicants audition for a section violin spot, is it necessary to offer a starting salary of $130,000 for a player just out of school? Would the same audition draw less stellar talent if the job were offering, say, $80,000 the first year on a multiyear schedule to reach $130,000 in some year thereafter?"

My first argument with Mr. Dobrin is that in listing these salaries he is in effect ignoring the reality of most musicians and most orchestral musicians in the United States, as very few orchestras in this country provide those salaries. Secondly, speaking of these salaries does a great disservice to the public's perception of all musicians, particularly those who perform in two or more groups on a freelance basis - which is, I think, the case with the majority of musicians in America's major cities (if not the nation).

Is it not safe to say that the aforementioned "philosophies" are moot, considering what we have seen take place in the "productive" business sector since 2001 (Tyco, WorldCom, Enron, AIG, Merrill-Lynch, Bank of America, Countrywide, et cetera ad nauseum)?

*sigh* *exhale*

I must ask your forgiveness - believe you me, I am WELL aware (painfully aware) of what's happening in this country and how arts organizations and artists are being affected. It's almost frightening. However, if the conversations continue to consist of questioning the cost of what we do, the VALUE of what we produce will continue to be maligned and that could result in great loss - particularly if the world's economic situation takes an even sharper nose dive.
And what IS the value of a symphony orchestra, a soloist, an art museum, a ballet company, a theatre company? How do you measure that?

That value is something that cannot be measured in dollars and cents: it can only be measured by the soul and the senses - and with that, I share with you a clip from the 1939 movie They Shall Have Music, during which an audience (including a young man who would for all purposes be called a "troubled child") listens intently to a performance of Saint-Saens' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso played by Jascha Heifetz:

"It's a MOVIE! They're ACTING!" you may say. Regardless - we as artists and everyone who has attended a concert has had the experience that makes itself visible on the faces of those in that audience - and the value of those transcendent experiences should NEVER be questioned in terms of "pocket change".

More from the road,

Update:   My deepest thanks to Karen Rile for her correction.   The newspaper cited was the Philadelphia Inquirer (as opposed to Enquirer - as in "The National")

From Laurie Niles
Posted on April 10, 2009 at 4:30 PM

Always a joy to hear from you Samuel, and you are raising some very important points.

You are so right, we ought to be respecting our artists and our institutions, finding ways to help them survive other than hacking away at their foundations -- and I don't mean the monetary ones; much of that is lost. But you can't buy a world-class artist, for any amount of money, you can't buy a community, you can't buy an audience, you can't buy a following, you can't buy a curious student or an open heart.

If you send audiences away by cutting concerts; if you send away your musicians by failing to pay them; if you send students away by discontinuing educational programs; if you degrade the work of your administratiors and drive them into another can never buy these things back.

No, you can't just do everything for free. But if we can understand the core things that we aim to keep, this would help us a great deal in deciding where to place priorities.

From Clayton Haslop
Posted on April 10, 2009 at 7:45 PM

Great article, Samuel. Well-written and I couldn't agree more.

Clayton Haslop

From Samuel Thompson
Posted on April 10, 2009 at 8:16 PM

Laurie and Clayton - thank you both.

Laurie - I think that many of these institutions are taking these measures so that they CAN survive both short-and long-term, but you're right.    The more we question the monetary worth as opposed to the deeper value, and the more that we ALLOW the monetary worth to be questioned, the more we'll lose.   Funny, I"m remembering Michael Tilson Thomas say "This business is in crisis, folks, and it's our job to make sure that it lasts"...that was in 1998.


From Royce Faina
Posted on April 10, 2009 at 9:33 PM

It sort of reminds me of an illustration, "Let's stop the rolling ball to get the ball rolling."

Samuel, I almost emailed you since it's been awhile that you've posted.  It's good to hear from you my dear friend! :^)


From Corwin Slack
Posted on April 11, 2009 at 1:40 AM

Of course the solution is always to take down the folks who have made it to the top. No more highly paid oboists (do you suppose there are more than 5 in America who make more than $200k per year? ) Let's cut down every artist and athlete.  No more rich Itzhak Perlman. Hilary Hahn, we think you're overpaid. Just because people go to your concerts who do you think you are?

Maybe the real answer is that some people's good isn't good enough. But in this day of I'm okay and you're okay that couldn't possibly be true. I quit my delusion at 17. Some people never do. The one's who get the closest to the brass ring must have the hardest time swallowing their disappointment when they can't pull it. 


From Samuel Thompson
Posted on April 11, 2009 at 2:23 AM

Corwin - Interesting thoughts there.   Thank you for sharing.


From al ku
Posted on April 11, 2009 at 8:50 AM

"(Tyco, WorldCom, Enron, AIG, Merrill-Lynch, Bank of America, Countrywide, et cetera ad nauseum)?"

well, don't we all wish classical music can enjoy the ride of AIG where the survival of the wall street partly depends on the survival of AIG itself?   further, i don't think the pressure exerted onto classical music has much to do with the list of companies which ran into trouble because of fraud,  or having taken risks properly or improperly.   the problem with classical music is that it in fact has not taken much risks at all to engage!   it is playing tough to get.

the fundamental issue with classical music is that it is failing to connect with the next generation, that it is less competitive since children are being drawn into other genres of music from day one, influenced by family, friends and the society at large.  as much as it is a pity, that is the reality.  as much as heifetz can touch souls of those who bare it,  the majority of kids out there can find inner connection through other channels.   essentially, the market for classical music is changing and the question for classical musicians is that what are you going to do about it...are you staying or going?  if you are staying, are you going to do the same...

every sector is reinventing itself.  how about classical music?

i don't think listing those salaries (by the way, those figures in metro areas are pretty low considering those are at the top of their games, when comparing with other industries)  are necessarily doing a disservice to other musicians.  it is done to illustrate a point, which is,  when you are paid relatively higher than other lower ranked musicians, are you delivering more or more importantly, are you delivering something better?  

we are on the road  for the weekend (for my kids' golf competition) and often a long car ride allow my wife and i to discuss things into exhaustions:)   she lamented yesterday that she is wasting so much time sitting in at those committee meetings where an outside agency is hired recently to discuss "core competency".   does that mean how many sit ups you can do in one minute, i ask?  no, she said.  it is about the advantage your institution holds over your competition.

so i ask,,,what is the core competency of classical music?  no, don't preach me and my kids because i am doing my share and doing ok.  say something that another kid, the other 99% out there will understand and be excited to follow your lead.   do something and perhaps do something differently.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on April 11, 2009 at 11:57 AM

Sam, it's nice to see you blogging again!  I guess I'm not really sure what the point of the article is.  Maybe he's lamenting what he perceives as market excess, maybe he's saying that the market isn't really "free" in the sense that the salaries he quotes aren't commensurate with the value added. So much important work in this country and around the world--not just with music--doesn't correlate with the monetary value it acquires.  Teaching, caretaking for children and the elderly, and homemaking come to mind.

I've often been surprised by the way money is used as the only way to value an experience or a job, and how imperfect that mechanism is.  To me it has always seemed that the real currency is time.  "Time is money," sort of, but it's so much more than that.  If you don't have money, things can get pretty bad, but if you don't have time, you really have nothing.

From Samuel Thompson
Posted on April 11, 2009 at 2:13 PM

WOW - great comments and thoughts here.

I feel that I should clarify:   This question ("Is it not safe to say that the aforementioned "philosophies" are moot, considering what we have seen take place in the "productive" business sector since 2001 (Tyco, WorldCom, Enron, AIG, Merrill-Lynch, Bank of America, Countrywide, et cetera ad nauseum)?") is asked because of the fact that when these discussions about musician salaries take place, there are usually arguments against both the salaries and the "orchestral business model" because the orchestra as an entity does not PRODUCE anything tangible.    If one looks through the history of orchestral contract negotiations - particulary over the last twelve years, and paying particular attention to the contracts that were signed after orchestras went on strike - one will see in articles surrounding those negotiations that the "salary question" can become an incendiary topic.

While I cannot access it, in April 2006 there was a Baltimore Sun article in which the author spoke of the Baltimore Symphony's transition and "financial woes" (to my knowledge the orchestra was not in a contract negotiation period at that time), and had the audacity to callously state that the musician salaries were unnecessary because the musicians do not PRODUCE anything.

So - what does it mean to produce?   

Additionally, in defense of the orchestras:   while the "investing-in-the-endowment-and-skimming-interest-for-operations-costs" (if I may) may sound dubious, there are checks and balances in place to ensure that the orchestras do not bankrupt themselves by emptying their endowments, and all of the growth that we HAVE seen has not been unbridled - like Enron's in the 90s or the wave of new mortgage lenders who were feeding the markt-driven monster called "the mortage-backed security."

Perhaps orchestras do need to make some changes - but it would be incredibly destructive to follow the corporate business models that we've seen in the last twelve years.


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