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Conductors say the darndest things

0 Robert Levine

There’s been a certain amount of piling-on in response to comments that conductor James Gaffigan made on his blog a few weeks ago (h/t to Adaptistration and oboeinsight). After providing us with some details of his recent guest conducting, and news of his new apartment in Lucerne, he proceeds to some rather unfortunate remarks inspired by his having just conducted the Juilliard Orchestra:

The Juilliard Orchestra is no longer an orchestra made up of young talented musicians who all want to become soloists and have no respect for the orchestral canon. These students I worked with last week are all musicians who are sensitive to their colleagues and to the conductor. They move and breathe together; they share a wonderful work ethic and a sense of humor. If this is the future of orchestral music in the States, I am not worried at all.

So, let’s make room for them! I have conducted too many orchestras where individuals can’t play their instruments anymore. I know this is a very controversial statement, but if we want the public to love classical music as much as we do, we have to invigorate the field with these young, talented musicians. (I want to digress and clearly explain that younger does not mean better….) Obviously, there is a bigger picture to this argument and it’s easier said than done. We can’t play God and tell people when to retire, still, I’m hoping that some changes may come to the system in the near future to encourage the timely turnover of orchestral chairs. As much as it’s a touchy subject, these days there are too many talented musicians and too few jobs.

Others have skillfully dissected some of what’s wrong with what Gaffigan wrote, including of course the fact that conductors “tell people when to retire” on a fairly frequent basis. We can certainly all agree, however, that there are “too many talented musicians and too few jobs.”

But that’s been the case for a long time; certainly as long as I’ve been involved in the orchestra business. The difference now is that the number of musicians coming out of schools like Juilliard looking for jobs has increased by perhaps half an order of magnitude over the numbers I had to beat to get the jobs I got. That’s not to say that those musicians who get hired now are better than those getting hired 20 or 30 years ago. I don’t think that’s the case, judging from the auditions I hear. But certainly the number of candidates who play competent auditions has gone up dramatically.

What I find interesting is that those conductors and managers who pine for the ability to hire young musicians, or who think that the increase in the supply justifies a drop in the price orchestras have to pay to employ musicians, never connect the dots. Why is it that the supply of qualified musicians has increased?

No doubt there are multiple reasons; the fact that the supply of orchestral jobs has been effectively frozen for 30 years is an important one. A lot of qualified musicians have gone into post-secondary teaching in part because of that, and have produced a lot of students with similar qualifications in order to earn their paychecks.

But I suspect the most important reason for the increase in the number of people who want to play in orchestras is that, unlike decades ago, playing in an orchestra is now a viable career option and not a lousy job sought only by people who had never, in their whole lives, thought of being anything other than a musician. One can earn a living wage playing in an orchestra now and expect on being able to do it through retirement. Which is a good thing, as the intensity of training required precludes developing any other employable skills for most musicians.

What conductors and managers also forget is that this is why there are lots of orchestras in the US that play at a level that only a handful of orchestras achieved prior to World War II. Increased pay and job security has made playing in orchestras a much better job than it used to be. That some of those who rule our lives are so economically illiterate that they don’t get this is not only maddening but actually quite scary.

The problem with the solutions that the Gaffigans of the world would propose to the problem they’ve discovered - incompetent old farts locking out exciting young talent - is that there’s no cheap answer that doesn’t, in the end, dry up the pool of exciting young talent. Ending tenure and letting conductors fire whoever they place would certainly create lots of job openings. But I suspect that it won’t take too long before the exciting young talent hired to fill those openings figure out that they’re next in line for the plank and agitate for the same job security that they may decry now. And those in the training pipeline will no doubt take notice of the new reality - call it a “McGaffin” - that getting an orchestra job only takes a musicians up to age 45 or so before their hard-won skills and expensive training buy them nothing more than a job at a Burger King.

Are there better answers? Sure. Good early retirement benefits, job sharing, making sure that musicians in orchestras have positive reasons to maintain their skills and want to show up to work, would all help. But those are all expensive. The fact remains that the cheapest way to make sure that playing in an orchestra is attractive enough to keep those auditionees coming in droves is to pay them to work until normal retirement age.

I wonder what Mr. Gaffigan will think about the merits of hiring young conductors when he’s my age? I suspect he won’t be railing at the unfairness of conductors in their 50s and 60s wanting to continue to work.


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