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No business for old men?

0 Robert Levine

About a week ago, my BBB Charles Noble linked to a post by former Seattle Symphony concertmaster Ilkka Talvi on what’s wrong with our business. According to Talvi, the answer is “quite a bit”:

Shrink the size of an orchestra to about 60, large enough to play the classics we love, and hire extras when needed… it comes to making money, you’d be surprised for how little people are willing to play. ..

Reduce salaries and change the pay scale, similar to what people earn in many other professions. How about a base salary of $30k, plus then a per-service fee?…

No one could imagine a ballet company where most of the dancers are well past their prime or weigh 300 pounds. The company, in order to be competitive, wants to have new young blood continuously. Everyone knows that a dancer’s career is short. Injuries set in and the body at 45 isn’t as flexible as it was at 20. Unions representing ballet dancers can’t promote seniority and prevent new fresh talent from coming in.

The same should be true for orchestras. Just because an up-in-years flautist brags that he has never played as well in his life doesn’t mean much. Maybe he’s truthful and his skills were lousier before. I bet there are hundreds or perhaps thousands of younger ones without a job who can play circles around this old man. An elderly brass player’s lips cannot possibly be in the same shape as someone else’s who just graduated from Curtis or Juilliard. Yes, the experience may be lacking with the youngsters, but as instrumentalists they are far superior and learn fast on the job.

Anyone who knows of Talvi’s backstory might suspect some bitterness could be coming out in what he writes. I suspect that too. Nonetheless, he makes arguments that managements sometimes make, and would make far more often if they thought they could get away with it.

I wrote an article a while back on age and gender discrimination in orchestras. It focused more on gender discrimination, but I wrote some on age discrimination as well:

…unlike in the case of gender, there is some correlation between age and skills. There are many older musicians who continue to play well and to improve as instrumentalists. But no fair-minded observer can deny that there are also some older musicians who don’t improve as they age, and that there are a few whose skills deteriorate significantly. Any discussion of age discrimination in orchestras needs to recognize that it’s much harder to identify truly age-based discrimination than it is gender-based discrimination, which can safely assumed to be invidious by default.

It’s not possible to claim honestly that there’s no age discrimination in orchestras, based precisely on the arguments that Talvi makes. But neither is it possible to say that skills don’t diminish with age.

I had an opportunity to examine this issue first-hand a couple of months ago, when I did the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante with my orchestra, our new Music Director, and our new associate concertmaster, Ilana Setapen, a wonderful young player who’s been tearing up the audition circuit recently. It was the first time I’d done the piece since 1983, for which I blame Pinky Zukerman (although I played it countless times in St. Paul with him playing the solo viola part, and once here in Milwaukee as well.) Obviously any management in their right mind is going to want PZ to play the piece if he’s in the building; fortunately there were many compensations in working for Pinky that more than made up for never getting to do the one work for viola sort-of-solo that’s really worth doing.

So I dug up the tape of that performance from 26 years ago and compared it to the raw recording of the better of the two performances from this time. My memory of the old performance was that it was flawed in many ways, some of which I tried to address this time.

I was surprised to find that I thought I’d played better - at least in some ways - back then. I liked the sound I made more, although obviously the different recording setups might have affected that. My vibrato was a little faster back then. I thought I generally sounded smoother. On the other hand, I liked the musical choices I made this time, and I was definitely doing a better (albeit still not perfect) job of ensemble playing. And overall the pitch might have been a bit better this time as well.

The real difference between the two experiences, though, was that the 1983 performance was far easier to pull off. I sweated blood over this one; hours spent practicing really, really slowly, more rehearsals with the violinist, and far more anxiety. My memories of the 1983 performance were that I polished up the piece a bit, ran it with the violinist a couple of times, and was off to the races. Of course this performance was with a young hot-shot violinist and my new boss, both of which upped the ante. But I can’t help feeling that being young and cocky, and having lots of recent solo and chamber music experience in my pocket, all helped me back then as well.

Having said that, I was pretty happy with the most recent performance. I wish I’d been able to combine the things I liked about the two into one. But life’s not that accommodating.

Do skills inevitably degrade with age? Obviously at some point they do. I sure wouldn’t want to be trying to play Mozart in public in another 26 years But I suspect that what really goes is the ease of producing acceptable playing.

And there are compensations that come with experience. It took a long time, and some specific experiences, for me to learn what I know now (and didn’t know 26 years ago) about ensemble playing and pitch. For Talvi to say of young players that “they learn fast on the job” seriously understates just how much there is to learn about orchestra playing.

The real problem with Talvi’s reasoning, however, is that the artistic success of American orchestras - at least in terms of their ability to play - is intimately connected with the improvement in pay and job security both for musicians. Would those “hundreds or perhaps thousands of younger [musicians] without a job who can play circles around” us old farts still be willing to replace us if they didn’t make a living wage and knew that they, too, would be on the streets when they turned 50?

Arts labor markets are not immune from the laws of economics.


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