German media boss tells 160 conductors: I’m not listening to you

German media boss tells 160 conductors: I’m not listening to you


norman lebrecht

November 18, 2013

SWR chief Peter Boudgoust has responded to an open letter by 160 maestros calling for a halt to his plan to merge two orchestras. I’m not changing anything, says Boudgoust. You can wave your arms as much as you like, but I’m standing firm. His response is remarkable for its failure to address any of the issues raised by the conductors in their letter. Read it in German here and in our translation by Simon Morgan below:


Dear Sir/Madam,

it is understandable that you raise your voices against the merger of two orchestras. Because you’re right: from 2016, Germany will have one orchestra less. There’s no way of sugar-coating it and I won’t even try. But as much as I’d like it to be, it is not the duty as Intendant for South German Radio to maintain the numbers of the German orchestral landscape.

Licence-fee payers in Baden-Württemberg and the Rhineland-Palatinate expect their broadcaster and its chief to use their licence fees to finance good programming, for reliable news broadcasting, for investigative journalism in both TV and radio, for up-to-date and informative background information on its online pages, for moving and touching TV films and exciting series, for gripping documentaries and  for informative and topical cultural reporting. It is this which the legislative requires of us when it states in the SWR broadcasting and media law that a broadaster’s range of offerings must serve to inform, eductate, advise and entertain. In particular, it must make a contribution to culture. There’s no talk anywhere of a broadcaster having to keep and maintain orchestras.

Nevertheless, this is something that SWR does, in contrast to other public broadcasters, a fact which no-one takes them to task over. And the SWR does so willingly and with complete conviction: it maintains and keeps two symphony orchestras in Baden-Württemberg, a vocal ensemble, a Big Band and an experimental studio. It is also contributes to a symphony orchestra in the Rhineland-Palatinate and the Saarland. Without the SWR, there would be no Donaueschinger Musiktage, no  Schwetzinger Festspiele, and no RheinVokal Music Festival.

For me, too, the decision to merge the two orchestras was not an easy one.

But it is imperative. As Intendant, I can’t ignore the prevailing financial conditions if the entire fabric of what we offer is not to disintegrate completely. Against this background, we’ve been implementing cost-cutting and restructuring measures for the past four years at the SWR. Nearly all divisions face 25-percent cuts. That is the only way we can continue to offer programming for all licence-fee payers, both young and old. Only then can we be in a position to afford and produce award-winning programmes. Only if everyone within the SWR contributes and participates in the restructuring process can we extend accessibility and equip our regional studios with a multi-media presence, not least so that they can continue to report about cultural events in future.

Culture will continue to play a major role in our programming, maybe even a bigger one than before. As part of the proposed realignment of SWR television, we’re planning to relaunch our cultural magazine and cultural topics will be even more important in our extended news programmes. This means that we’re placing culture in the focus of our programming and want to reach even more people than before.

This holistic approach means, however, that the orchestras and ensembles must participate and be involved in the restructuring process. That is the driving factor behind the process of evolution that has been intensively debated within the SWR and its decision-making bodies. In the end, it was this that led to the broadcasting council’s decision to merge the two orchestras.

It was not a decision that was taken lightly. But even after a year, I am convinced that it was the right decision, however painful it might be. Shutting our eyes to the economic realities would effectively have meant having less and less money each year for two orchestras, for good musicians, high-calibre conductors and sufficient rehearsal time. In the end, we would have had to accept the slow death of two orchestras.

Yes, we would then still have the two SWR orchestras in 2016. And instead of your open letter, you would have written to me, applauding me for being a staunch campaigner against the overall decline of culture. But I doubt whether the audiences would have continued to applaud these two orchestras as they slowly bled to death. Yes, we will have one orchestra less in Germany in 2016. But with the new SWR-Symphony Orchestra we will at least have one more orchestra whose future is secured.


Respectfully yours


  • David H. says:

    “There’s no talk anywhere of a broadcaster having to keep and maintain orchestras.”

    Nam qui facit, quod non sapit, diffinitur bestia.

    Against ignorance and cultural barbarism there is no real remedy other than removing such people from their influential positions.

    “Licence-fee payers in Baden-Württemberg and the Rhineland-Palatinate expect their broadcaster and its chief to use their licence fees to finance good programming, for reliable news broadcasting, for investigative journalism in both TV and radio, for up-to-date and informative background information on its online pages, for moving and touching TV films and exciting series, for gripping documentaries and for informative and topical cultural reporting.”

    Now it is a paradox that speaks for itself how he does not mention the biggest cash drain of our times. So called “sports”, modern “bread and circuses”, on which his house spends a multitude of the cultural budget.

    I would see no pubic obligation in giving a single cent for “exciting series” or “sports” broadcasting. That should be taken care of by the private market.

    Quality independent journalism and high culture are the only fields that deserve and need public subsidies.

  • Mark Stratford says:

    His depressing wiki details :

    show him to be a lawyer and finance director.

    We should not have too high expectatitions of a little man like this:

  • Nigel Curtis says:

    What would be British equivalent of this be:

    merging BBC SO with the RPO, perhaps ?

    • hautbois says:

      If the SWR paid its musicians a similar salary to the London based orchestras, with similar working conditions, they could probably open start a third orchestra.

  • seyah10B says:

    That wouldn’t be the equivalent. The RPO is not a BBC orchestra. Merging the BBSO with the BBC Philharmonic perhaps ..

  • Remember the 156 to 4 m/f ratio for the signatories of the letter? In negotiations to form a coalition, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the Social Democrats (SPD) agreed on Monday to introduce legislation requiring German companies to allot 30 percent of their non-executive board seats to women from 2016. Companies that fail to reach the target will be required to leave the seats vacant. Women currently hold 12%.

    The EU has been pushing a similar law, but it has so far been blocked by Germany and other countries. Norway, which is not an EU member, imposed a 40 percent quota in 2003, a target reached in 2009. Norwegian companies can be liquidated if they fail to reach the target.

    Germany’s 133 full time orchestras and 83 full time opera houses are all owned and operated by state and municipal governments. I’m not sure I believe in quotas, but I wonder if the day will come when the male dominated areas of classical music will be put on notice. As the letter from Boudgoust implies, the voices of the 160 Maestros don’t scare him much for the basic reason that they have pushed themselves into a rarefied, out-dated corner of the cultural world fewer and fewer people find meaningful or relevant. 156 to 4 is ridiculous. No wonder orchestras are having trouble. And they deserve it.

    It is interesting how the strong conservative tilt in the USA over the last three decades has largely stalled the women’s movement, while the Europeans continue to move forward and are slowly superseding the USA in this area.

    • Musiker says:

      SWR Radio Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden and Freiburg has 99 positions, 4 of which are currently unfilled. Of the remainder, 35 are held by women. M/F ratio is therefore 36.8%.

      RSO Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra has 101 positions, of which 3 are currently unfilled. Of the remainder, 38 are held by women. M/F ratio is therefore 38.8%.

      • 156 to 4 is the ratio for conductors. Shall we just overlook that? Conducting positions are more analogous to the Board seats for which German law will mandate 30% for women. So no free pass yet.

        • Musiker says:

          With the exception of Cambreling and Gielen, the conductors who signed their names to the list were merely guest conductors who have no say in the make-up of the said orchestras, so they are not analogous to board seats.

          If you’re going to make that analogy, then you must look at their orchestras where the 160 are chief conductors and calculate the M/F ratios of those orchestras.

          And just because the petitioners are overwhelmingly male, then that doesn’t make the case — of saving the orchestras — a bad one per se.

          I would therefore take issue with your statement that the orchestras “deserve” the current troubles they’re facing.

          It’s an issue that is infinitely more complex than that. Not everything can reduced to the simplistic formula of sexual inequality.

          • Conductors, guests or not, are leadership positions where women are underrepresented just like on company boards. The poor ratio exemplifies perfectly the anachronistic patriarchy of orchestral culture and why orchestras are increasingly marginalized. Rationalizations, especially those as convoluted as yours, are a big part of the problem because people in denial can’t solve problems. Forgive me if I don’t debate this further since it is usually pointless with a person in such obvious denial.

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            “It’s an issue that is infinitely more complex than that. Not everything can reduced to the simplistic formula of sexual inequality.”

            I think in William’s world, it can. And if the numbers don’t show what he wants them to show, he just jumps to a different set of statistics.

            Remember only recently William told us the SWR orchestra was exemplary because they hired a female Japanese principal trombonist, and now he tells us they “deserve” to be in trouble because the conductors who speak out for them are mostly dudes.

          • Musiker says:

            Whoa. I’m “in denial”??? About what, exactly?

            I’ve never suggested that the issue of sexual inequality doesn’t exist.

            II merely said that it’s not the ONLY issue involved here..

            Seems to me you’re not interested in a meaningful discussion anyhow.

            Otherwise you wouldn’t resort to insults and name-calling at the earliest opportunity.

          • David H. says:

            The denial is with the person, who systematically fails to realize the difference between correlation and causation.

          • Mostly dudes, i.e. 156 to 4 in in a letter crying for justice…. These people are clueless which is one of the main problems orchestras face.

          • squirrel says:

            Mr Osborne, your points are valid, but so is the point the gentleman made about guest conductors not being in a position equivalent to a board chairman or an administrator. When you overstate YOUR case, you weaken YOUR argument.

          • Musiker says:

            The trouble with a white middle-class male such as William Osborne is that he thinks that the fight for racial and sexual equality started with him and that he is the only person in the world qualified to think about these issues and talk about them and that he has a monopoly on the term feminist.

            With the arrogance of a colonialist white male, he automatically assumes that his interlocutors are similarly white and male.

            But if they happen not to be — and are perhaps even women and non-whites who face and fight racial and sexual inequality on a daily basis — and dare to question or challenge his assumptions, then they must of course be, in his view, “in denial”.

      • We might also compare the stats for first chair players in these orchestras. What are the numbers?

        • Anon says:

          Why, though? The gender ratios in those orchestras are hardly a reason for the orchestra to exist or not to exist. Those reasons are rather broader. If an orchestra is terrible, plays no good music, and has no audience, it shouldn’t be kept funded merely because it has a better m/f ratio than other orchestras. And vice versa. Gender is irrelevant in this thread.

          • Issues of social justice, such as the equal treatment of women, are relevant to what the public funds.

          • David H. says:

            maybe they are, but you consistently fail to show, that women are treated not equal, particularly in these orchestras. Why do you have to derail this thread with your irrelevant mantra?

          • Anon says:

            Possibly they are relevant to public funds, William, but not to “does money go to music” or not, or “does money need to support this orchestra”.

            Gender issues may be relevant after it is decided that a certain funding should be available for a certain activity (eg an orchestra) then you can start bringing social engineering in if you feel the need. But it is irrelevant to the wider and fundamental issue of whether funding should be here for music, or this orchestra cut or merged.

    • Martin says:

      Don’t tell us the ratio, tell us some female conductors a broad number of newspaper readers would be familiar with. Then tell us male names. I bet you’d come to a similar ratio.

  • Kostis Protopapas says:

    Although I am in the minority here, I cannot resist offering this perspective:

    First I will admit that I am not familiar with the particular situation at SWR, who Mr. Boudgoust is, or what that organization’s history and financial realities are. However, if one manages to see past his admittedly condescending and inappropriate tone, I believe that his points are well argued. In fact, if the financial realities in German arts organizations are anything like of those in the US, I can certainly imagine that such an unpopular decision may in some cases be what is needed to ensure the future of an organization, and therefore the best decision from a long-term cultural perspective.

    • David H. says:

      I can assure you, that his decision is is not a good decision, but maybe a populistic decision. He will appropriate lot’s of money for purposes that hardly deserve public subsidies like the high arts deserve them. Boudgoust is an accountant, not a well educated cultured manager.

  • stella says:

    I am sorry to interrupt your very interesting conversation, but what does the situation of these 2 orchestras have to do with gender statistics???

  • squirrel says:

    I am delighted with the comedic situation of a hundred and sixty conductors rushing to join a cause, many of whom just want to see their names on a list that includes people like Harnoncourt and Gielen.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      Thanks for explaining that! Silly me, I actually thought those conductors were primarily interested in helping this orchestra survive because they think it is a really good orchestra!

      But now that you said that, I realize this is just a good opportunity for a bunch of totally obscure conductors to get their names in the papers alongside Harnoncourt and Gielen, totally unknowns like, to pick out just a few random names among the many

      Serge Baudo, Herbert Blomstedt, Pierre Boulez, Sylvain Cambreling, Myung-Whun Chung, Thomas Dausgaard, Dennis Russell Davies, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Christoph von Dohnányi, Charles Dutoit, Sian Edwards, Peter Eötvös, Ádám Fischer, Thierry Fischer, Heinz Holliger, Eliahu Inbal, Neeme Järvi, Marek Janowski, Ton Koopman, Yoel Levi, Susanna Mälkki, Ingo Metzmacher, Kent Nagano, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Arnold Östman, Krzysztof Penderecki, Christoph Poppen, Helmuth Rilling, Donald Runnicles, Peter Ruzicka, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Heinrich Schiff, Michael Schønwandt, Leif Segerstam, José Serebrier, Stanisław Skrowaczewski, Yoav Talmi, Michael Tilson Thomas, Edo de Waart, Lothar Zagrosek, Hans Zender, David Zinman

  • The gender issue is just one of a wide range of serious problems orchestras face. As we see in this discussion, these problems are often met with convoluted rationalizations and denial. Unable to change, orchestras have become largely irrelevant and the public is voting with its feet.

    The irony is that all of those Donaueschingen style composers who wrote that other letter with the 140 to 8 m/f ratio are probably the last people we should turn to to reinvent the orchestra. They are just as locked into patriarchal, doctrinaire and anachronistic concepts as the orchestras themselves. So now it has come to change or die.

    The problem is, updating an orchestra makes about as much sense as turning a mule into a Model T. It’s time to start with something entirely new that suits the new era in which we live. So how’s Germany, with its massive governmental structures invested in 133 orchestras and 83 opera houses, going to change?

    • David H. says:

      Orchestras have not become irrelevant. Not in Germany. Maybe in your home state Arizona.

      In Germany more people than ever go to classical concerts these days. Please turn around 180 degrees and face reality.

      “It’s time to start with something entirely new”

      How about you?

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        David H. says:

        November 18, 2013 at 10:06 pm

        “Orchestras have not become irrelevant. Not in Germany. Maybe in your home state Arizona.

        In Germany more people than ever go to classical concerts these days. Please turn around 180 degrees and face reality.

        “It’s time to start with something entirely new”

        How about you?”

        Well, David, that is exactly what William means by “something new”. He means himself. In case you didn’t know, he also composes a little on the side and he seems to be pretty bitter that he hasn’t had the success as a composer he feels he deserves. At one point in a discussion here he told us that his brave activism had “cost him his career as composer” in Germany. If you know that, I think it puts some of the things he said in this discussion and in previous ones in context.

        • Musiker says:

          Thanks for the tip. Just sampled some of his music on his website.

          Give me good old “partriarchic, doctrinaire and anachronistic” composers such as Olga Neuwirth and Rebecca Saunders, any day.

          If orchestras only played “new and contemporary” music such as William Osborne’s, then they would have been closed up and disbanded decades ago. And no-one would shed any tears or protest or sign petitions.

      • Musiker says:

        What about the women who signed up to both petitions, eg. Sian Edwards, Susanna Mälkki, Olga Neuwirth and Rebecca Saunders. are they locked into the patriarchy too?

        Are they simply “in denial”?

        Luckily for them, they have William Osborne who can come along and tell them what feminism and gender in classical music is all about.

    • John Winder says:

      Mr. Osborne, it seems that you are interested in social concepts much more than music of any quality. Gender equality will happen in time. Women are pursuing careers as conductors more than they did in previous generations, and the numbers of new players being hired has reached that goal in many places for the players.

  • stella says:

    Reinvent an orchestra? I think many of them are already in the process of meeting the demand/tastes of the public. They outreach, open up, evolve. But the thing is, an orchestra is just what it is. It is there to serve the music/composer and the public. Let the public speak,. The truth lies in the public and in their taste and will. Or should we reinvent Brahms, Mozart and Wagner too??

  • Anonymous says:

    Interesting that on the conductors list, Jonathan Nott’s name is missing. He conducted the orchestra earlier this year. Curious, he was the only guest-conductor who also did not express his opinion (hopefully disapproval!) about the merger either publicly or in rehearsal. It’ll be interesting who ends up as the first main conductor of the new merged orchestra in 2016!

    It’s comical how gender became an issue in this thread. If I were to play the role of “angry-male-I want-equality”, I’d get upset that the majority of new members in recent years have been female. Oh, but wait, the majority of applicants have been female, too. And if you decide to go into a few “Musikhochschulen”, guess what gender is in the majority? For conductors though, it’s the reverse, there are in fact fewer female conductors, professional and studying. It was disappointing that Simone Young cancelled, I believe!, last season. In recent years, Maalki has conducted us a few times. The first time she came, she was a hit. The second time, the orchestra was disappointed. So, I do not believe, especially in the case of the SWRSO, there is any gender-descrimination going on. The pool is smaller than good male conductors. Female conductors are gaining momentum, which is neither bad or good. Just like with race, I think in 2013 we can put the gender-card away.

  • Musiker says:

    Anyway, now that the Gender-Issue Hijacker seems to have gotten some of the pent-up frustration out of his system (at least for now) at being born male and white, perhaps the rest of us can return to topic.

    Here’s a rave review of the SWR SO’s recent concert in Hamburg.

    Contemporary music and orchestras becoming increasingly irrelevant?

    Don’t think so, buddy.

    • Martin says:

      Thanks for this link.

      I quote: “Denn das SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg (SO), das den Abend gestaltete, ist nicht nur das weltweit kompetenteste Groß-Ensemble für Werke, bei denen das Notenpapier gewissermaßen noch warm vom Drucker der Komponisten auf die Pulte der Musiker gelangt.”

      Which in English would say the orchestra is the most compotent one for new music on this planet? Is there any truth in this? I can’t recall having heared them play, but am wondering, if the copetent readers here agree with the journalist.

      • Musiker says:

        He actually writes that it’s the most competent symphony orchestra-size ensemble for contemporary music.

        There are, of course, specialist ensembles such as London Sinfonietta, Ensemble Modern, Ensemble Intercontemporain and Klangforum Wien which are all superb. But they are smaller.

        But how do you judge and compare musicians of that quality.

        Certainly, the SWR SO is regarded as among the best by the composers and conductors –both men and women — who work with them.

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          Yes, it’s an excellent orchestra, and not just in “strictly contemporary” repertoire!

          I highly recommend their set of Mahler symphonies with Gielen – or any of the individual releases, most of which have very interesting non-Mahler couplings which are not included in the complete symphonies box. I think they are among the musically most interesting Mahler interpretations I have heard. For Gielen, the Mahler symphonies aren’t primarily orchestral blockbusters but journeys through complex musical soundscapes. But they don’t lack drama and excitement either.

          Really outstanding, too, is their recording of Ravel’s complete “Daphnis et Chloé”, actually part of a whole series of recordings of music written for the Ballets Russes which also includes a very good Le Sacre du Printemps and Pétrouchka with the previous principal conductor Sylvain Cambreling. Also with the latter, a very good version of Messiaen’s “Éclairs sur l’au-delà…” which is a rather contemporary work, of course. And – some very interesting Bruckner recordings which emphasize clarity and detail over false solemnity.

          Finally, a real “secret tip” – the complete Schubert symphonies with Hans Zender. Who is not a very well known conductor internationally, and even in Germany, he is usually seen as a “specialist” for contemporary music. I have to admit that I was a little surprised myself how warmly lyrical but also, where appropriate, robust and edgy these performances are. Based on Zender’s reputation, I had expected something more “analytical”, more “modernist”. But I found out those were just my preconceptions. These are among the best readings of the Schubert symphonies I know. A real treat.

        • Martin says:

          Thanks for the correction, I meant to write “large one”.

          It would be a shame to lose such an orchestra. To save this orchestra, one needs to find over € 5 million a year. As this is the sum the SWR plans to save by merging the orchestras.

  • In the 2011/2012 season German orchestras had 4,290,886 “visitors” which would be about 5% of the German population. Since most attendees buy subscriptions and attend multiple concerts during a season, we could reasonably estimate that about 2 million people attended concerts. That would represent about 2.5% of the German population. For the attendance stats see:

    There are probably stats around that show a higher percentage of attendance, but reliable numbers would not be so much higher. These low percentages explain why SWR chief Peter Boudgoust can easily dismiss the two letters from 308 distinguished musicians – of which ironically only 12 are women.

    These percentages would be even lower if state and municipal governments didn’t provide about 60% of the cost of the tickets orchestras sell. For the stats see:

    The low ratios for attendance also explain why German governments have been able to eliminate 19% of planned orchestra positions in the last 20 years. For the stats see:

    Many of these positions were eliminated due to redundancies created by the communist government in East German, and they have tapered off over the last ten years. But it is still notable that one in every five positions in orchestras was eliminated and the orchestral world was not able to mount an effective opposition.

    Baden Württemberg, where the SWR Orchestra is based, also planned to eliminate two state music conservatories. There was such massive public and political resistance that the plans have been effectively cancelled. It is notable that the SWRO has not found similarly effective support – another reason Boudgoust can dismiss the two letters.

    There are many problems orchestras face because they have become too anachronistic to fit the Zeitgeist of our time. Thy are too authoritarian, too hierarchical, too patriarchal, too deeply imbued by 19th century cultural nationalism, and too expensive. They have not added a signicant body to their standard repertoire in 80 years. They consume massive resources that take away from intelligent forms of musical expression more closely related to contemporary culture. Most of the attempts to update orchestral culture are relatively superficial and do represent significant change. I discuss these problems in much more detail in this article published by theM.I.T. Press:

    And in German here:

    As we see here, these observations meet with deep resentments in the music world, especially in Germany and Austria which are deeply invested in orchestral culture, but very few argue for orchestras with reasoned arguments backed with documented facts. This is another problem orchestras face.

    Orchestras should be maintained as legacy institutions because the literature and performance practices of the symphony orchestra are one of the greatest achievements of the human mind. On the other hand, forms of music-making always die with time. From this perspective, the demise of orchestras, albeit brutal, represents cultural and even social progress – as the combined 296 to 12 m/f ratio for the two letters ironically shows.

    All this said, the danger is very real that orchestras will die and not be replaced by anything very intelligent. (The responses here will almost certainly continue to be ad hominine and lacking in substance. Forgive me if I ignore them.)

    • A sentence in my 7th paragraph above should read: Most of the attempts to update orchestral culture are relatively superficial and do not represent significant change.

    • By coincidence, Alex Ross in the New Yorker addresses some of the topics I mention above. He notes that the larger culture seems no longer interested in supporting orchestras and opera houses and then writes at length about a recital of contemporary music given by Hilary Hahn in a small New York venue. Ross comments how the recital seemed more attuned to the ethos of our time, “The perpetual crisis of big-league classical music seemed far distant; it felt as though we were ready to begin again, in the present tense.”


    • Martin says:

      I really can’t see any connection in your claim, that the lack of females on stage mean that fewer people attend concerts.

      I see lots of women in the attendance and not many are interested at all in the gender of the performers. To most of those who are regularly attending classical music events, the music is important, to others the star is important, but you can see in other fields of entertainment, that the gender of the performer is less important that the performer’s “star quality”.

      Attending an event, where one one is expected to sit silent and do nothing but listening for an hour or two is not very appealing to many people who spend money on nights out. Especially young people find is uncool to sit still for long, not talk, not dance, not take pics, not clap, not not not not…. too many nots are not appealing.

      Not only Hahn performs in small venues, even in cities like Zurich they have started to bring classical music into night clubs.

      You can come to whatever conclusion you want to come to, but your persitent claims that women are under-represented and therefore this is a root cause for the failure to attract larger audiences is simply not true.

      The gender of the performer matters when one attends events like Chippendales, but it doesn’t even seem to matter for pop music performances which come very close to Chippendales shows. So for sure, in events where many in the audience can’t even see the full orchestra, the gender of the poeple on stage really is close to irrelevant for most.