‘There’s nothing as greedy and needy as a professional musician’

‘There’s nothing as greedy and needy as a professional musician’


norman lebrecht

October 04, 2013

This is the editorial line from Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist, James Lileks. Here’s more:


I’ve been to a few orchestra concerts, and as far as I can tell there’s nothing to this conducting racket. You show up, raise your arms to start and then you play Air Orchestra for half an hour. You point at the brass when they’re supposed to come in, like that’s a big surprise to them. Thanks for the heads-up, chief. Only been practicing this one for six weeks.

You make these little shh-shh gestures when the oboe’s too loud, never thinking we might want to hear more oboe. You act like you’re in charge, but you don’t even have any paper in front of you. Then you turn around at the end and bow like you’re personally responsible.

It’s like a guy who stands in front of a newspaper box muttering for an hour, then expects us to think he wrote every work in the latest edition. C’mon.

Why, you wonder, does anyone publish such piffle? Is it mean to amuse? If so, it fails. Provoke? Sigh, sigh, sigh for Minnesota.

The column would hardly be worth drawing to your attention were it not for striking similarities with a Daily Telegraph headline earlier this week:

US orchestras are greedy and overpaid

making you think there is something in the zeitgeist. The Telegraph article, by the way, drew a series of bizarre and misplaced comparisons – apples compared with eggcups. We live in interesting times.


  • I wonder how many of the people who will, rightfully, be screaming in outrage over this will be the same people who’ve said much the same things in the various posts on the Carnegie Hall labor action.

  • Christian Atanasiu says:

    Hi Norman,

    Though I certainly dislike the Telegraph article, I think this writer was (rather poorly) satirizing it. His further comparisons to basketball and “defensive orchestral playing” really suggest that this is a joke, though it wasn’t all that clear at the start, and, unfortunately, one would almost expect that sort of article to be taken seriously. I’ve posted the rest of the content below, which makes it a bit clearer.

    Also, just to clarify, I’m firmly on the musicians side. I was one of the striking German musicians on Monday morning (at the Tonhalle in Dusseldorf, with the Dusseldorfer Symphoniker).


    Christian Atanasiu

    Text below :

    This strike, it’s just ridiculous. I’m sure there are reasons, but you know it comes down to the long green. I’ve said it before: There’s nothing as greedy and needy as a professional musician. They all go into the business for the usual reason: fame, money, groupies, hotel parties where the TV sets go out the window into the pool and the manager has to pay off the guy at the front desk.

    It’s a pretty good racket: We all see a nice car cruise past and think, “Man, I wish I could get me some of that sweet tuba cash.” You buy a Powerball ticket and think, “This works out right, I could live large like a bassoonist.”

    But it doesn’t work out for everyone. Sorry. That’s life.

    Now, if there were some skill involved, that would be different. If a musician had to jump off the stage, run up the aisle trying to get past ushers who were blocking you, then turn around at just the right moment and catch a contrabassoon the conductor threw while some guys from the visiting orchestra were trying to knock him down — heck yeah, we’d be impressed.

    (By the way, Cleveland’s looking good this year; the cellos have prevented opposing conductors from completing almost half of their movements, although the conductor drew the defense offsides with a long count that consisted entirely of “Bolero.”)

    Anyway, as far as I can tell, musicians were all born with “talent” and learned to read those squiggly things on paper, and they get the idea this ought to provide a living.

    Such presumptions! But I think we can find a solution.

    Electronic pulltabs.

    I know, I know: Won’t this cut into the money the Vikings hope to raise? That’s true. But revenue for 2014 is expected to exceed 2013, which brought in $20.13 (minus $20.12 for operational costs).

    Next year, pulltabs are expected to generate $695 million, based on projections from the American Pulltab Promotional Council, and even after expenses and the Vikings’ share, there should be at least $40,000 left over.

    That’s more than enough to buy some CDs of some stuff that’s already been played a million times. Use the CDs for half your concerts; budget’s already cut in half.

    Next, you count up all the people in the orchestra and you winnow out the deadwood. Start with your violins. Seriously, there’s actually a group called second violins? Unnecessary duplication.

    Same for the violas; if they wanted to be taken seriously, they’d be violins.

    Whoever bangs on the timpani can hock those whack-sticks and use his fists. Likewise, cymbals: two of them? Can’t see why one wouldn’t do.

    As for a conductor, there are probably plenty of people who could wave their arms and get everyone excited. If you’re going to have a cheerleader, why not get someone from the Vikings squad?

    Beethoven would be a lot more fun to watch with pompoms, and she’d face the audience, too.

    Conductors just turn their back on us, like they’re too good or something.

    Hey, you know what would be funny? If someone put a “KICK ME” sign on the conductor’s back just before he went out there. That’d be hilarious.

    Of course, it’d be a joke. No one would kick a famous conductor.

    Other than the time we just did, I mean.

  • Tom Moore says:

    i think this is actually intended to be ironic.

  • Michael says:

    The Star-Tribune piece is clearly a joke, but I shudder to think how many won’t get it. Then again, they’re probably not reading editorials about the orchestra anyway. Now, the Telegraph piece….

  • Sam says:

    Lileks is a humor columnist, and an established fan of the orchestra. Everyone in Minnesota will get it.

  • Terry says:

    Yup, satire, but nevertheless — not very good timing on Lileks’ part.

    Meanwhile, demand for tickets to the Added Concert this weekend (2PM Saturday) has crashed the system at the University of Minnesota ticket office, hopefully only temporarily.

  • Nardo says:

    Delicious irony. How can anyone miss it?

  • Oded Zehavi says:

    Tell my this is not t a joke by a third-rate ex- contributor to a day-tv show….

  • Tom Foley says:

    It’s a joke. Close to the scene here in Minneapolis, we recognize Lileks as a satirist. He’s on our side.

  • Mikhail Hallak says:

    What I find amusing is that when I click on the link you posted Norman, this bloke’s article (I will refrain from calling him name but should add that he has got a very “punchable face”) has online adds littered all over it: one for free dental implants, one for michelin tires, one for gluten free bread and another free dental implant….that’s all I will remember about that article: How the free dental will help me eat my gluten free bread while I am driving with my Michelin tires on…

  • Dennis says:

    Wow. Read the entire thing Lebrecht. You took a couple paragraphs out of context and attempted to give them a meaning clearly the opposite of what was intended. If one reads the entire article, it’s clear that the paragraphs you highlighted were not a straight-forward representation of the author’s views, but rather were meant as a satire on the philistines who do actually think that way. The whole piece is clearly written satirically.

  • Paul says:

    Lighten up, Francis.

    Not only have you mischaracterized the article you’ve linked but you’ve selectively edited it in order to make the worst possible impression of it to your readers. Nice job! It’s like Fox News started editing your blog.

    I know you’re serious, serious, serious about 100% of the time, Norman, but come the hell on. A sense of humor is something that could benefit a lot of people right now, and this “THAT’S NOT FUNNY, STOP LAUGHING” attitude actually does make things worse.

    Satire is important in difficult circumstances to educate and entertain and possibly embarrass the people in its sights (hint: in this article, it’s not the musicians). Humor, gallows or otherwise) goes a long way toward raising morale in difficult or impossible situations.

    But, I suppose, since we’re in the classical music world, we mustn’t allow ourselves to become undignified, right?

    Slipped Disc loses credibility when it publishes this kind of trash.

    • CS says:

      Couldn’t agree more with Paul!

      The only reason I check Slipped Disc regularly is to see the latest news on the classical music world, and since there’s no other website that I know of that covers this kind of news, I’m kind of stuck with Mr. Lebrecht…

      I’ll keep on coming, but I wish I’d see more fact-based journalism and less of Mr. Lebrecht’s adventurous but half-baked interpretations of things.

      • “I wish I’d see more fact-based journalism”

        Slipped Disc is not a newspaper, and its purpose is to present opinion, not straight reporting.

        I enjoy Mr. LeBrecht’s opinions, all the more so when they disagree with mine.

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          “I enjoy Mr. LeBrecht’s opinions, all the more so when they disagree with mine.

          You seem to think that Norman’s last name is French, but in fact, it’s German. It’s not “Le-brecht” but “Leb-recht”.

          It means “someone who lives right” in the sense of “someone who is a good example, someone who is to be admired”. It’s actually of Austrian origin which maybe explains why Norman is so particularly attached to that country!

          • Nein. Wir sind ursprunglich aus Mainz. Und mutterseits aus Frankreich.

          • Und Mainz erklärt die literarische Verbindung.

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            You probably mean mutterseits (on the mother’s side) – mütterlich means that you are very motherly. Although that could certainly be the case! 🙂

            It seems that the name is first attested in Austria in the middle ages though. Which of course doesn’t necessarily mean that that is where it was first used as a family name, or that that is where your own family acquired it. The history of personal and place names can be extremely complex. But really interesting, too. Well, at least I think that, I know it bores a lot of people to tears…

      • MWnyc says:

        @CS – No other website that covers this kind of news?

        CS, do you never have a look at the main page of ArtsJournal, the website that hosts Slipped Disc?

        Look way up at the top of the page and click on the ArtsJournal logo.

        Six days a week we post links to news and opinion pieces about all the arts. If you don’t want to wade through the stories about visual art, dance, etc., then you can just click on “music” from the horizontal “by topic” menu running across the top of the ArtsJournal homepage below the logo.

        Fellow Slipped Disc readers, you do all have ArtsJournal.com bookmarked, don’t you? And you can sign up for our free daily email newsletter, too! (Look just below the Video of the Day.)


        • CS says:

          Thanks, I actually didn’t know about ArtsJournal! I’m outta here! No hard feelings, Mr. Lebrecht, long live your blog!

          Just kidding… don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate Slipped Disc. I appreciate it so much that I have very high expectations from it.

      • sdReader says:

        … so you want “Mr. Lebrecht” to report on 10 news stories a day, edit himself, approve 100s of comments, charge zip-a-rooney AND provide fully-baked interpretations?

    • meerkat says:

      I agree, and I’m infamous in these parts for not siding with the musicians. Mr. Lebrecht’s humorlessness in the musicians’ defense is not helping their cause.

  • Hasbeen says:

    Riccardo Muti has a much funnier parody of conducting talent on youtube.

  • David Boxwell says:

    I know Lileks; he’s “channeling” local philistiism for a larf, but the satire is borne of palpable disgust with the collapse of the orchestra’s relationship with management.

  • James Brinton says:

    I would call it very clumsy satire at that.

  • James Brinton says:

    Satire is a knife that turns in the hand very easily. It has to be written intelligently and subtly; if not it can support the very contentions it would argue against. In this case, the author is simply not a good enough writer to handle satire properly.

    I suspect he’s shot himself, and his subject, in the foot.

  • Nils says:

    And he’s also making references to another Midwesterner, Peter Schickele, of PDQ Bach fame, and his “New Horizons in Music Appreciation”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0vHpeUO5mw

  • Tom Foley says:

    Many here in Minnesota are giving Lileks credit for being the first local mainstream journalist to treat the Minnnesota Orchestral Board with the burning and derisive satire they deserve.

    There’s a Charlie Chaplin song, “Smile When Your Heart is Breaking.” That’s what’s going on here. Lileks is causing us to smile just a bit.

  • MpR says:

    Lileks’ article was awesome! Although, I am taking the cheerleader idea very, very seriously.

  • Tom Foley says:

    And besides that, Lileks writes for the same daily newspaper, the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, whose owners and publishers sit on the board of the Minnesota Orchestral Association, and whose editorial policy went right down the path of destroying our orchestra.

    At least give Lileks credit for having some guts. Now if we could get Garrison Keillor on board, too.

    Norman, you respond to Russell above with “Dead or pan, Russell, it don’t read too well in a lockout-backing newspaper.” That may be more true in England–where the nature of the publication itself seems to provide a good deal of the context–than it is here in heartland USA.

  • Lawrence says:

    Yes, Mr Lileks’s editorial is definitely an exercise in “reduction ad absurdum” humor parodying some of the anti-orchestra rhetoric that’s been flying around, including some from BOOH (Back Office Orchestra Hall). And actually, I haven’t found the Star Tribune’s coverage of the lockout overly biased against the musicians.

  • jared says:

    As someone from Minnesota, I know this writer, and this is satirical. I don’t get his humor either, btw.

  • This strikes me as Minnesotan satire, and very good it is, too. It’s clear that Lileks is pro-orchestra and his intervention is likely to do more good than any anally-retentive corner-defending.

  • Bill says:

    Anyone who doubts the intentions of Lileks should watch the video he made with Manny Laureano, long-time principal trumpet of the Minnesota Orchestra:


  • Sasha says:

    Lileks is a well-known humorist and satirist. Google “The Gallery Of Regrettable Food”. Possibly the funniest book I have ever read in my life.

  • MacroV says:

    Definitely satire. Guess American and Britain really are divided by a common language.

  • Josh says:

    This column went around the musicians’ Facebook…and nobody missed the joke. The piece is hilarious, and anyone who doubts the writer’s intentions didn’t read until the very end.

    “Where can I get me some of that sweet tuba cash?” Come on.

    Let’s reserve our indignation for trash like the Daily Telegraph article and not be prejudiced against an entire newspaper that it blinds us to what people are actually saying.

  • Elizabeth Balay says:

    You should see Lilek’s video interview with principal trumpet Mann Laureano – it’s available from the Star Tribune’a online portal. He establishes his bona fides decisively.

  • Francesca says:

    Welcome to the world of MEAN and NASTY. These comments come from people who have not the talent to do what they criticize. They think orchestra musiciaf are overpaid? Lets look at profesional sports! They are the world’s most overpaid individuals whether they hit or kick the ball or not!

    This is cultural backlash. Sadly, our country is awash in. …..and it is spreading across the pond and elsewhere.

    • MWnyc says:

      @Francesca, many of us American classical music fans, especially when we’re frustrated, make that comparison with professional sports or with the sums paid to movie stars.

      But it’s a problematic comparison, one that won’t help us win over others, and one that can hinder us from useful thinking about classical music and the wider public.

      Unlike symphony orchestras, movie studios and sports teams do not ask for charitable donations from the general public. (Sports teams just go to politicians and beg for or extort taxpayers’ money instead, which is another issue altogether.)

      And, while there are occasional studies that show that total aggregate attendance at arts events is comparable to aggregate attendance at sports events, FAR more people follow sports on television and read about it in newspapers and magazines.

      When a television broadcast of the New York Philharmonic or the Metropolitan Opera on Live from Lincoln Center can pull in as much advertising revenue as a Sunday afternoon baseball or Monday night football game – or when Osmo and the MinnOrch can pull in as many TV viewers as the Minnesota Twins or Vikings – we won’t even need to have this discussion.

      We’ll be arguing about whether there should be advertising breaks between symphony movements instead.

      • Nardo says:

        Sports teams do not ask for charitable contributions? I guess you haven’t read the article in the last edition of The Atlantic. Read it and weep. These are the real leeches when it comes to public funds.

        • MWnyc says:

          I wrote, in the sentence directly after the one you’re complaining about,

          “(Sports teams just go to politicians and beg for or extort taxpayers’ money instead, which is another issue altogether.)”

        • Nardo says:

          Oops – sorry I missed that.

    • Anon says:

      Francesca – musicians do get paid as much as “overpaid” sports stars. it’s just those are pop musicians, not classical players. Classical players would, if you want to pursue your analogy, be better compared to sportsmen/women of a more obscure, less well-known sport than to the big hitters of popular sport types. I suspect if you compare “sport” with “music” you will find similar pay results. The performers or athletes the public actually want to see en masse are very well rewarded, it’s as simple as that.

      • Anon says:

        and ditto, MNyc, movie stars. Big Hollywood blockbuster stars are well-paid, those who pursue a more intellectual art-house film career are less so – much like classical musicians.

        • MWnyc says:

          Exactly so. And that’s why I was observing that this –

          “They think orchestra musiciaf are overpaid? Lets look at profesional sports! They are the world’s most overpaid individuals whether they hit or kick the ball or not!” (In arguments like this, movie stars are cited almost as often as pro athletes.)

          – is a problematic comparison.

  • Hasbeen says:

    The funny Muti is on youtube, El Arte de la Direction Musical