US union leader lays into British critic’s ‘drivel’

US union leader lays into British critic’s ‘drivel’


norman lebrecht

October 10, 2013

A bizarre and wildly misinformed article by the Telegraph critic Ivan Hewitt has topped the Google search for ‘orchestra’ for the past week. No need to read the article, the headline says it all: ‘US orchestras are greedy and overpaid’.

It was only a matter of time before a response came from Bruce Ridge, Chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (by ‘international, we think they mean Canada). (Update: we are advised that ICSOM is not a union but a lobby organisation).

Ridge rightly castigates Hewitt for misinformation – linking Los Angeles Philharmonic wages, for instance, to a ‘mounting deficit’. Actually, the LAPO is in surplus. Ridge has further swipes at NPR’s coverage of the Minnesota disaster among other deficiencies, before ruining his own case by proclaiming The Failure of Arts Journalism at a Time of Cultural Need.

Get real, Bruce. The failure lies on both sides of the Minnesota dispute to reach agreement, in an American system that is innately confrontational and is long overdue for reform if music and orchestras are to survive far into the present century.

You’ve read it here before. Start listening, Bruce, then let’s talk.




  • I think Mr. Ridge makes some good points. Arts Journalism has been under assault, just as orchestras have, and this has inevitably affected what the field has been able to accomplish. Due to the business models that support arts journalism, systemic critiques of the economic structures that support the arts are too often limited. We thus see very few articles that examine the weaknesses of America’s unique and isolated system of funding the arts by the wealthy.

    Can anyone point to an article in a major or even minor paper that addresses the fact that America only has 3 cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year? Even in the context of the NYCO’s collapse this salient fact has not been mentioned.

    On another ArtsJournal blog by David Stearns who is a music writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, I mentioned that Philadelphia has the 10th largest metro GDP in the world, but only ranks 175th for opera performances per year. Instead of really examining this problem, he rationalized the situation and said that the Philadelphia Opera is only “the tip of the ice berg” concerning opera in the city. He mentioned student productions at Curtis and Temple as alternatives, which seemed to leave the impression that a small number of student productions could substitute for the work of a house with professional singers and productions standards, and a full year season. He mentioned that Philly has produced many excellent singers, but makes no mention that most American opera singers have to go to Europe to sustain their careers.

    Even Mr. Ridge obfuscates the issues by providing numbers with no contextual reference. He mentions that US arts funding is at an all time high of $14.4 billion dollars, but does not mention that this number contains funding for zoos, parks, swimming pools, etc. And he does not mention that per capita arts funding in the US is one of the lowest in the developed world. And we can rest assured that ICSOM will have little to say about the Cleveland Orchestra pushing the Florida Philharmonic aside in Miami and functioning essentially as a scab orchestra.

    I hope arts journalists and arts leaders like Mr. Ridge aren’t so smug as to think they are above meaningful and constructive criticisms. We artists are often assessed by music journalists and arts leaders. Surely this can sometimes be a two way street.

    • MWnyc says:

      William, you left out Stearns’s major point about professional opera in Philadelphia: it’s 90 miles from New York. When a big part of the operagoing audience in a city can get to the Met in less than two hours, there won’t be as much demand for a San Francisco- or Chicago-sized opera company.

      Add to that the fact that, for just about the entire 20th century, most of the prime performance dates at the city’s opera house (the Academy of Music) were taken by the Philadelphia Orchestra.

      The Opera Company of Philadelphia (now Opera Philadelphia) had plans to expand its season at the Academy once the Kimmel Center opened as the Orchestra’s new home. Unfortunately, that was in December 2001, and the post-9/11 recession meant that the money to fund that expansion dried up.

      • Sounds like more rationalizations to me. The Ruhrgebiet in Germany has 11 full time, year-round opera houses within a 37 mile radius. There is no replacing the effect of a *local* opera house on the quality of life and self-image of a city.

        We should also note that operas often run late into the evening. Who wants to drive back to Philly after a long night at the opera. Or perhaps people can afford a $400 NYC hotel room in addition to the average $150 ticket at the Met.

        And this is to say nothing of the fact that the Met only has a 7 month season while its European counterparts even in cities with only a 120,000 people like Innsbruck or Pforzheim run all year. I guess the people in Philly won’t miss that 4 month gap in the season since they don’t even have an opera company of their own.

        Anyway, I’m not too surprised that money dried up after 9/11. With such a fragile funding system, the arts in America are certainly ripe targets for religious nut jobs of all sorts

        • MWnyc says:

          About the travel issue – some of you folks may know about how the Metropolitan Opera is notorious for audience members beginning the rush for the exits the minute the curtain comes down? A lot of those people have trips of more than an hour to get home, and they may have to make a train or bus departure time instead of just getting the car.

          But on a Friday or Saturday night, let alone a Saturday matinee, the trip back to Philadelphia (or the Hamptons or the Hudson Valley, which are routine) isn’t necessarily so onerous, especially if you can let the train conductor or BoltBus driver pay attention to the driving.

          (Fridays and Saturdays, incidentally, are just the prime opera-going nights that, until 2002, Opera Company of Philadelphia couldn’t have because the landlord – the Philadelphia Orchestra – wanted to use the stage itself.)

          • A two hour commute to the opera each way counting the local transportation as well — and assuming one avoids rush hour. And lets just hope Amtrack has trains running to Philly so late. Not such a great way to interest people in opera. Your logic reminds me of the situation in Miami. It has a metro population of 5.5 million but doesn’t have a professional symphony orchestra. Apparently regular guest concerts by Cleveland suffice. The Chicago Symphony should cash in on regular guest concerts in Minneapolis, even if the union won’t let them play in the regular hall. Some church will do.

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            I think the reason Miami doesn’t have its own full time symphony orchestra is…ummm…because it’s *Miami*.

            My impression is that the Cleveland Orchestra only plays four programs (eight concerts) there every year.

            So the CSO could not play in Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis? Not regularly, or not ever? Does the union allow no guest orchestras there at all?

          • MWnyc says:

            Under normal circumstances I expect the Minnesota Orchestra local of the musicians’ union doesn’t object to a touring orchestra playing there when they are not.

            During a lockout, obviously the musicians’ union would object. But no unionized orchestra (and probably no professional orchestra at all) in North America would play there while the Minnesota Orchestra musicians are locked out.

          • For the shady dealings that led to the demise of the Florida Philharmonic and its replacement by “Cleveland Orchestra Miami,” see:


            The series of guest residencies is ironically called Cleveland Orchestra Miami. Its 2012-13 performances, expand its seventh season to four concert weekends in November, January, February, and March. Each season, The Cleveland Orchestra Miami, as it website says, “serves more than 20,000 adults and young people in the Miami-Dade community through a variety of concerts and community engagement activities.”

            All activities that would, of course, be better served by a local orchestra with a full season in Miami. And of course, that self-evident fact will be obtusely denied.

            Support for Cleveland Orchestra Miami is provided by the Founding Donors of the Musical Arts Association of Miami, Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs and the Cultural Affairs Council, and the Miami-Dade County Mayor and Board of County Commissioners. The 2012-13 Miami season sponsors are the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; Funding Arts Network; Dunspaugh-Dalton Foundation, Inc.; Peacock Foundation, Inc.; Northern Trust; Feldman Gale; and United Automobile Insurance Company.

            All money that should have gone to a local orchestra, and more specifically, the now defunct Florida Philharmonic.

            Or are we to believe Americans, as suggested above, and especially those in Miami, are too uncultivated to support a local orchestra with a respectable season?

            For more on the controversy surrounding the “Cleveland Orchestra Miami” scab work, see:


    • MWnyc says:

      Osborne: “[Stearns] mentioned that Philly has produced many excellent singers, but makes no mention that most American opera singers have to go to Europe to sustain their careers.”

      He was responding to your comment, William, and you and he and I and probably everyone reading the comments is already aware of that, so I imagine he thought it didn’t bear mentioning then.

      Osborne: “I mentioned that Philadelphia has the 10th largest metro GDP in the world, but only ranks 175th for opera performances per year. Instead of really examining this problem, [Stearns] rationalized the situation …”

      You know, when I go down there, I just don’t see crowds of angry citizens marching up Broad Street demanding that City Hall fund more opera.

      (I did see the Philly Naked Bike Ride once – it was going down Market Street just as I got off the Megabus – but even those folks neglected to bring along their “We want more Wagner!” signs or sing “Va, pensiero” as they rode past Independence Hall.)

      I think Stearns might have been explaining some of the reasons most Philadelphians don’t see their #175 ranking as the problem you do.

      Osborne: “Can anyone point to an article in a major or even minor paper that addresses the fact that America only has 3 cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year?”

      No – because the vast majority of those papers’ readers simply do not care about that particular statistic, so there’s no point in belaboring it.

      The United States is not Germany, William. (As you well know, since you left the former to live in the latter 30 years ago.) When American opera companies are faced with more audience demand for their performances than they can meet, then that statistic will be worth chewing over in the newspaper. And American opera companies will probably start increasing performances to meet demand, and America’s opera rankings will rise accordingly.

      • Most Americans do not know that most US opera singers have to sustain the careers in Europe. Journalists need to report and analyze that, not just assume everyone knows it.

        How smug of you as a journalist to say people aren’t interested in reports in opera when it is your very job as an arts journalist to inspire that interest.

        I’ve seen 60,000 people in Central Park for the free performances the Met gave there — until they were cut to save funds. 20,000 show up in a base ball field where the San Francisco Opera does its yearly video/picnic broadcast. All the same, it’s often exactly arts journalists like you that tell us there’s no interest. Mr. Ridge has a point when he tells us there’s a problem with American arts journalism.

        • MWnyc says:

          I didn’t say that they’re not interested in reading about opera.

          I said they’re not interested in the America-has-three-cities-in-the-top-100-for-opera-performances statistic with which you seem to be so obsessed lately.

      • It is true that most Americans aren’t interested in reading about opera in the paper, but most regular readers of the classical music parts of papers are. And I’m sure they be interested in hearing that America only has three cities in the top hundred for opera performances per year. And I’m sure they like to read in depth analysis of why that problem exists.

      • It is interesting to consider the arts funding issues in Philadelphia in the context of the conditions in the city as a whole. A Mayor’s report into 2001 found that Philadelphia had 14,000 abandoned buildings in a dangerous state of collapse, 31,000 trash-strewn vacant lots, 60,000 abandoned autos, and had lost 75,000 citizens in recent years. And yet the Main Line suburbs contain one of the largest concentrations of wealthy on the planet. (Regions such as the south Bronx, Watts, East St. Louis and Detroit, just to name a few, show that Philadelphia is hardly an exception.)

        The populations living in our dehumanizing ghettos are measured in the tens of millions. It seems very likely that the problems with arts funding in America are closely related to the same social forces that have caused the country to neglect its urban environments. And of course, we know what would happen if a mainstream arts journalist tried to address dichotomies such as these on any sort of regular basis even though these problems require in-depth analysis and discussion.

        • Greg Hlatky says:

          Every vacant lot, every abandoned building, every dilapidated building should have a sign on it: Brought to you by 60 years of single-party government. Until all 14,000 abandoned buildings, all 31,000 trash-strewn vacant lots and all 60,000 abandoned autos are taken care of, the city of Philadelphia has no business at all funding an opera company with even one thin dime.

          • MWnyc says:

            Well, 60 years of single-party government – and 80 to 100 years or more of the highly prosperous people whose resources and political power could prevent that kind of decay (and prevent single-party government) leaving the city for its suburbs.

            The abandonment of the city of Philadelphia by the people who get wealthy in the economy the city anchors goes back a long way.

            Seven or eight years ago I was driving with my mother in the city, and we went down what is now Antiques Row – Pine Street from about 12th Street down to 8th. It’s a lovely street now, handsome old buildings with small antique shops on the ground floor interspersed with old town homes, and the street gets even prettier (and more expensive) as you go below 8th Street toward the Delaware River.

            My mother could not get over the change. When she was a girl and young lady, not only was that area seedy and dangerous enough that her father forbade her to go anywhere near it, he was scared to go there himself. And he was a tough oil engineer from Port Arthur, Texas who supervised (and had the respect of) a bunch of roughnecks running one of the refineries in Marcus Hook. This was in the 1940s, and Pine Street was not a newly blighted area.

            I was astonished that this handsome old street had ever been really seedy, let alone violent. In the colonial city where I grew up (Charleston), the local gentry never abandoned the historic city center**, and it had never occurred to me that they’d have done so in Philadelphia that long before the era of “white flight”. (Mom reminded me that the Main Line that Katharine Hepburn inhabited in The Philadelphia Story was not a nouveau riche area.)

            As I said, the prosperous of Philadelphia had been abandoning the city to decay for a long time. That’s finally been starting to change over the past decade or so.

            ** Of course, it isn’t just because of the narcissistic local fascination with the city’s history and good looks that the grandees of Charleston didn’t abandon the old city for the suburbs, or tear down the old buildings in the name of progress. They didn’t have the money to do it, thanks to the Late Unpleasantness of the 1860s that they so enthusiastically started.

          • Or maybe it will never get rid of them until it has enough communal pride and enough respect for its citizens to better fund the arts.

        • MWnyc says:

          What would happen if an American arts journalist tried to address these issues as you’ve framed them?

          The reaction would be something along the lines of, “Philadelphia had 14,000 abandoned buildings in a dangerous state of collapse, 31,000 trash-strewn vacant lots, 60,000 abandoned autos, and had lost 75,000 citizens [leading up to 2001] — and you want to yammer about spending tax money on opera?”

          • Yes, it’s all about communal pride. When Philly has the pride to properly fund the arts, it will also have the pride to take care of its urban environment. Too bad an arts journalist doesn’t understand these correlations. The idea that a city with the 10th largest metro GDP in the world should have an opera house and a decent season is just “yammering.” Welcome to American arts journalism.

          • sprohn says:

            And, of course, an “arts journalist” worth her salt would have an appropriate response to that argument. Beats me what that would be, but someone covering the “fine arts” would, I think, be expected to have a proper retort.

    • Greg Hlatky says:

      Any time the city of Philadelphia wants to subsidize a full-time opera company it’s free to do so without reference to any other city. Here’s the website for the city council ( Start writing.

  • Jeff says:

    “We thus see very few articles that examine the weaknesses of America’s unique and isolated system of funding the arts by the wealthy.”

    Blah Blah Blah, the US should let the government fund the arts community entirely… because the US government certainly won’t abuse that for its own political ends in the slightest.

    Seriously? You want a government that can’t agree on anything (like… paying its employees) to provide the money for our arts? So… the next time government shutdown looms, do you want all of our orchestras’ to be on the chopping block (it’s amazing that NPR has survived with any of its funding intact — then again, I remember hearing that a pretty big chunk of its budget comes from private donations). Or, with the recent spat in the IRS, do you really want some presidentially appointed “arts czar” to cut your favourite orchestra’s funding because they played something that “wasn’t actually artistic” — or threatens to reallocate funding to groups that pander to his specific tastes?

    We don’t have the orchestral history and tradition that Europe does; and we do not have the same style of government that Europe does… European solutions are only viable for Europe.

    • MWnyc says:

      The chunk of NPR’s budget that comes from donations is 99%. Only about 1% comes from the government.

      NPR itself would almost certainly be fine if it lost its government funding. The big problem would be for local NPR affiliate radio stations – especially the ones outside big cities and certain university towns – if they lost federal and/or state funding. If those stations closed, their listeners – who are usually quite good about turning up to vote – would be pretty angry. So there’s less danger of that than one might think.

    • By the same rationale the government should not fund state universities. And of course, in our wing nut political atmosphere, the universities are also under attack for harboring liberal thought, as is PBS and NPR.

      • I should add that in Europe there is no arts Czar — a propaganda term wing nuts favor. In reality, state and municipal governments provide on average about 90% of the funding in most European countries. The system is highly decentralized. One of the problems with our paltry NEA is that it gives the impression public arts funding is centralized when effective systems are actually are locally oriented.

        • Greg Hlatky says:

          No doubt (I say this without a trace of irony) such publically-funded institutions in Germany are well-run and free of political interference. However I have a depthless cynicism about public officials in places like Chicago and Philadelphia, where the words “city councilman” and “indicted” are never far apart.

          “Did you ever see the flies stay away from the churn at churning time?” asks Jack Burden in “All the King’s Men.” What would happen once the pols get their trotters in the slop trough and they figure out how to monetize the fine arts?

          – The new Executive Director will be someone’s cousin, who “got sent.” When asked by reporters who the composer of Beethoven’s 9th was, he replies, “Hey, give a guy some time to learn his job!”

          – The company awarded the janitorial contract turns out to be a front for someone named Vinnie or Paulie.

          – After one year, the head of the ticket department buys himself a vacation house in Florida.

          – The seats in the hall are torn out and replaced by those $7.50 plastic chairs because “they’re easier to maintain.”

          – The stage manager retires at 52 “on disability” to pick up his $327,653-a-year pension.

          – The deficit is reduced from $10 million down to $300 million.

          – It will be “suggested” that musicians contribute to some new charity no one has ever heard of or knows what they do.

          – When picking up at Will Call, you have to take a number and wait in a dingy, crowded room. And wait. And wait.

          – Instead of murals there are graffiti in the foyer.

          – Grand opera? Grand jury!

          • As Jimmy Carter noted in a recent speech, the United States no longer has a functional democracy. It is quite true that our government needs fundamental reform before just about any program could be properly administered. There are about 30 European countries that effectively administer comprehensive public funding programs. I hope that the USA will eventually be able to do this as well.

    • Janey says:

      @Jeff – Thank you. It is so intensely tiring to read that same attacks on American classical music over and over and over. Americans are so often accused of trying to force others to copy what we do. Please, might we start examining US classical music structures based on the system here, not in some other country with an entirely different history, culture and government? We aren’t going to turn into Germany, and I, like most Americans, don’t want to be largely dependent on government funding of the arts anyway. Indeed, some level of additional funding would send a signal and be far better. It’s not going to happen.

      As Mr. Stearns noted, what is happening is more and more smaller, leaner companies of all sorts are being formed outside the traditional model. Old-school critics perhaps look down on these, but they are grassroots organizations that often fill their seats and with younger audiences. This is a large part of the US classical system. The UNITED STATES system. If one would rather discuss the German system, fine. There are many places to do so. Why the need to do so constantly here in relation to the US?

      • Actually, there are about 30 countries with comprehensive public funding systems for the arts. Germany is only one. In fact, there are several countries that provide even more support for the arts such as Norway, Finland, and Holland. With the collapse of the NYCO, the bankruptcy of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the apparent demise of the MSO, the shutdown of countless regional orchestras, and the paucity of opera houses in the USA, it is worthwhile to examine effective models of arts funding in other countries.

        I’m all for smaller forms of music theater and have devoted the last 30 years of my life to creating it. For information about my theories of chamber music theater and a video demonstrate them see:

        It should be noted that the countries that spend the most on big opera, also spend the most supporting smaller forms of music theater. The USA barely supports either as the NYCO collapse illustrates.

  • timothy Judd says:

    Bruce Ridge is on target with his response. Additionally, the Minnesota situation can seen as a symptom of something larger: the out of control and increasing wealth disparity that continues to destroy the American middle class. The wealth of the country is being “harvested” by global interests which have no allegiance to any government. When wealthy corporate leaders stop caring about their communities it is suddenly easy to destroy a community treasure like the Minnesota Orchestra. Make no mistake, this isn’t an situation where the money isn’t there. US Bank Corp CEO Richard Davis, who happens to head the Minnesota Orchestra Board took home $18.8 million, several million dollars more than the average wage and benefit costs of the entire Minnesota Orchestra.

  • Jonathan says:

    “The failure lies on both sides of the Minnesota dispute to reach agreement…”??? Really??? The management LOCKS OUT the musicians after giving them a “Management’s way or the highway” ultimatum, wants ALL financial restructuring to be exclusively on the backs of the musicians, gives themselves the finest of financial packages, spends millions on needless “renovations” of Orchestra Hall which has now been silent for more than a year, drives the beloved Music Director to tender his resignation … and you still have the gall to blame the musicians for this??? What alternate universe do you live in?

    • MWnyc says:

      Love your work, Kevin! I really, really hope you and the Aradia Ensemble will record some more Bach cantatas! Or perhaps the Christmas Oratorio?

      • Kevin Mallon says:

        Hello MWnyc- thank you very much– we are recording volume 2 of Purcell complete Theatre Music (2 of 10CDs) and volume 4 of Vivaldi Sacred music (4 of 10) and then Beck symphonies opus 2 all with Naxos this year. Happy for the Naxos support. Would love to do more Cantatas or even the Christmas Oratorio, but they are not on the cards for a while.

  • Sarah says:

    The one where he wants to be on the good side of all parties concerned. It’s impossible.

  • Sarah says:

    BTW it’s the corporate media which is getting it all wrong with their over-simplistic, false-equivalency stuff. I count NPR (and MPR) among them, as they are basically corporate-controlled (or 1% controlled).

  • “The failure lies on both sides of the Minnesota dispute to reach agreement…”

    Wait, what?! The musicians of the MN orchestra are not to blame for anything! It’s all the management’s fault, those who sit on their throne as they punch old ladies and eat puppies for breakfast. Everyone knows the musicians are the chosen ones; the heaven-sent angels who are the only ones capable of creating the sounds we long to hear. They grace the planet with ‘world-class’ sound, and every hall they play in smells like fresh-baked cookies when they leave. You should be ashamed of yourself for even thinking such nonsense.


    Sorry, the sarcasm button on my keyboard was stuck.

  • ed says:

    Kudos for your article, Mr. Mallon.

  • ira says:

    as far as the cleveland orchestra pushing the florida symphony aside, the florida symphony was already dead or dying [sad to say largely because of the musicians’ intransigeance] when the cleveland connection was proposed. and michael tilson-thomas’ new world symphony still enjoys enormous success in miami coexisting with the cleveland.

    • lwriter says:

      While the musicians of the Florida Philharmonic made some unfair and outrageous demands, the way things went down involved a deliberate plan to close down the orchestra. The Cleveland Orchestra’s biggest and most influential patron became chairmen of the FPO board. He went through a two year elaborate charade about saving the orchestra when, in fact, his real intention was to start a residency for the Cleveland Orchestra at the then new downtown Arsht Center, closing down the Florida Phil. The whole thing was conspirational. I am glad to have a world class orchestra do a four week residency in South Florida but that can not take the place of a first rate, full time resident ensemble. The New World Symphony is an orchestral academy, highly innovative, has a terrific new hall but it falls into a different category with totally different goals and mission.

      • MWnyc says:

        @lwriter, I had read a number of suggestions that the Florida Phil board chair deliberately let the orchestra collapse. (And I remember that the Phil’s last-gasp push for donations was embarrassingly poorly executed.) Did any actual evidence that the Board chair intended to kill the Florida Phil ever come to light?

  • The Detroit figure is particularly encouraging.

  • Una says:

    If the wealthy can pay for the arts, let them do so. I know it does stiffle the repertoire a bit as they have to pander to the sponsors, but let the State or American Government pay for all those in their country that don’t have first line medical care!

    • The US is the only developed country without national health insurance, and the only developed country without comprehensive public funding systems for the arts. Conservatives have now shut down the government to stop our first effort at a national health insurance program. It is exactly the same mentality that prevents us from publically funding the arts. By international standards, these attitudes in the US are extremist.

      • Andrew Balio says:

        Sorry, but public money is the most unstable and politicized. The large institutions are way better off building their endowments and the smaller ones are better off fundraising. It’s the American way, one that has proven reliable as Americans are the most philanthropic in the world. I would hate for the kind of mediocrity we see in US academia creep in to our orchestras.

  • Alvarus says:

    That EVERYTHING is local cannot be repeated too often.

  • Michael Schaffer says:

    “…the managerial imposed lockout that has silenced an orchestra once called “the best in the world.””


    “The relationship between Vanska and these musicians had begun to reach the status of legend.”