Wednesday, January 25, 2017
Who pays the piper?
That tweet from Richard Bratby was in response to Overgrown Path posts which gave a platform to pleas by conductor Warren Cohen and baritone Stéphane Degout's for more adventurous concert programming. Now Richard is a good 'virtual' friend and I have great respect for his experience in concert management and for his journalistic prowess. But I do believe that two assumptions in that tweet need amicably challenging, because they reflect entrenched attitudes in the classical music establishment.
The first assumption is that musicians performing at a concert carry no financial responsibility. Many musicians are booked on a per concert basis. As a result their financial responsibility is considerable, because if their performance is not a success they may not be booked again. Moreover a poor performance is likely to have negative financial repercussions for the management that booked them. In fact the financial responsibilities of musicians are increasing: in response to Warren Cohen's criticism of unadventurous programmes violinist Johannes Pramsholer declared on Facebook "SO TRUE also in the Baroque world! A fight that I'm fighting every day and the main reason I decided to set up my own record label". Now I do not need to tell readers that setting up your own record company carries an awful lot of financial responsibility; especially when, as is the case with Johannes' Audax Records, the repertoire includes music by Johann Friedrich Meister and Antonio Maria Montanari.
The second assumption in Richard's tweet which needs challenging is that 'the management' - concert planners, administrators and promoters - pays the musicians. Although the management may sign the cheque, they are not actually paying the musicians. Money to pay the musicians typically comes from three sources: the audience via box office receipts, grants from the public sector, and fundraising from the private sector. The management's difficult task is to balance revenue from the box office and other sources against the cost of mounting the concert in the form of musician's fees, venue hire, promotional costs etc.
A vital part of this balancing process is the decision on what repertoire to programme; because this impacts on both the costs of the musicians and the revenue from ticket sales. Decisions on repertoire are taken by concert management using two main inputs. One is historic data, primarily information on ticket sales generated when a work was programmed in the past. But accelerating changes in lifestyles and tastes are making forecasts based on historic data increasingly unreliable; as the shock election of Donald Trump and the surprise result of the UK EU Referendum illustrate. The other input in concert planning is intuitive judgement, such as backing a hunch on a little-known work. But with objective forecasting becoming less reliable, intuitive decision making on repertoire is veering increasingly towards the conservative in order to reduce the unknowns in the cost/ revenue equation. Which leads, as Warren Cohen explains, to concerts featuring only names the public will know.
As Richard Bratby has previously pointed out there are examples of adventurous programming; such as Gustavo Dudamel's upcoming Barbican Europen premiere of Ted Hearne's 'Place' with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But Warren Cohen and Stéphane Degout are of the opinion that the pendulum has swung too far towards what Richard describes as 'caution', and - very importantly - that this swing is not an accurate reflection of an audience's receptivity. In Stéphane Degout's view, and this is an authoritative view that needs sharing, "The tastes of audiences are often misjudged". So sorry to be boring; but I will continue to provide a platform for deserving and dissenting voices in the hope that we may get, for example, one less Beethoven concerto and one more Bax symphony.
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