Revealed: The wealthiest music directors in America

Revealed: The wealthiest music directors in America


norman lebrecht

June 26, 2015

Drew McManus has come out with his annual lost of US music director earnings, drawn from IRS Form 90s. There is always a delay in the system, so the wages below apply to the 2012/13 season.

Three music directors made more than $2 million. You may well wonder why.

Two maestros took a significant pay cut, reflecting recessionary woes.

After you study the list, do read Drew’s commentary on the lengths some orchestras and agents go to keep maestro pay under wraps.
1 National Symphony: $2,728,671 (41.02 percent increase)

2 Chicago Symphony: $2,504,336 (15.65 percent increase)
riccardo muti solemn
3 San Francisco Symphony: $2,364,775 (16.64 percent increase)
4 New York Philharmonic: $1,717,814 (28 percent increase)

5 Dallas Symphony: $1,505,052 (82.57 percent increase, but previous season compensation was only for partial season)
van zweeden1
6 Los Angeles Philharmonic: $1,447,049 (1.54 percent increase)

7 Saint Louis Symphony: $1,012,158 (5.51 percent increase)

8 Minnesota Orchestra: $944,098 (20.24 percent decrease)

9 Baltimore Symphony: $930,914 (5.45 percent increase)

10 Cleveland Orchestra: $907,829 (23.15 percent decrease)


NB: Boston and Philadelphia were vacant that year



Now read Drew.



  • Gordon says:

    This information comes as quite a surprise to me and thanks to Mr. McManus for collecting it and making it available to us here.

    Where to start? I live just outside of Washington, DC and attend many concerts and opera performances at the Kennedy Center. I am astonished at the fact that the National Symphony Orchestra has allowed itself to be taken for a ride and accepted to pay their current, and I sadly must add, very disappointing and deficient music director, Christoph Eschenbach, $2.728,671 for the few, not even 12 weeks, that he conducts the NSO. This is shameful and an outrage! May I ask on what basis the NSO believed this obscene sum was worthy of a music director who, after only a short tenure, has not seen his contract renewed? Especially when the NSO management should have known the scandalous and failed past of this conductor, having been dismissed from both of his music directorships, in both Paris and in Philadelphia in rapid succession, with knowledge that in Paris Eschenbach’s insatiable greed for earning the most money possible and turning in one lackluster concert after another was one of the main factors in his acrimonious dismissal. The same in Philadelphia. Yet, the NSO engaged this man, with all of this risky and controversial baggage and offers to pay him even more! Those responsible should be forced to resign immediately. This is unconscionable, especially as this all transpired during one often he worst financial downturns in this nation’s history, with many great orchestras, under real great conductors, struggling and even having to close their doors due to a lack of funds. Yet, the NSO sees nothing wrong with paying a third rate conductor, Eschenbach, the highest salary on the planet, with less than mediocre results, proven by Eschenbach’s imminent departure from the NSO, for the same issues as he had in Paris and Philadelphia. It is a scandal!

    In closing, Iwould advise all potential donors to hold back any and all funding for the NSO, until the current management apologizes to the public for their incompetent and wanton use of donors money and assures the community that this sort of thing will never happen again.

  • SergioM says:

    In what world does Eschenbach beat Muti?

  • Andrea Thorpe says:

    The NSO gave Eschenbach a 41% salary increase! Who Is responsible for this travesty? No wonder classical music is headed for the dustbin of history. With decadence and excess like this, it cannot survive for long. The other conductors on the list, while certainly better musicians and more deserving, still are all overpaid. Aren’t the Americans aware of what music directors are paid in Europe, in the UK, for example? Certainly the LSO, the LPO, or even the BBC turn in far better and certainly more exciting performances than the NSO under Eschenbach, yet this bloke is paid nearly 3 million dollars a year and fails at the job. What is going on over there?

    • Roger says:

      What is going on is an extremely corrupt and convoluted system that is not based on quality, but rather on greed and brinksmanship. Eschenbach, at the time he was appointed Music a Director of the NSO, was “damaged goods”, recently dismissed from his previous music directorships in Paris and Philadelphia, under extremely unpleasant circumstances. Still, in typical American fashion, his management was able to sell a dead horse for the price of a stallion and the naive management and board at the NSO bought it. Fortunately, there is always truth and justice in this world, no matter how remote it may seem at times. Once again this awful conductor will not only lose a music directorship along with his exorbitant and obscene pay package from the NSO, but it is safe to say that his extortion racket, and that of his manager, are over for good. Any orchestra who would take this man now, after three failed music directorships and financial extortion, deserves whatever misfortune comes to them.

    • MacroV says:

      I would be very interested to know what music directors are paid in Europe. Not any less, as far as I know. Years ago I heard a major American executive note that getting guest conductors was difficult in part because fees had risen in dollars and Euros in roughly the same percentage, but with the Euro gaining value against the dollar (this was in its early years), the US fees in absolute terms were lower. No idea how that works now.

      I would imagine Sir Simon or Mariss Jansons are earning comparable amounts with their German bands, but would be interested to know if that’s wrong.

      But agreed, just from the standpoint of market demand, Eschenbach on the top of the list is absurd. I think it speaks to Washington still not being that discerning. Hopefully that will change with Deborah Rutter in charge. Maybe she could bring Sir Simon over?

      • Max Grimm says:

        A few salaries of conductors at European institutions are or were:
        – Antonio Pappano £630’000 in London at the ROH
        – Christian Thielemann €800’000 at the Munich Phil and (a rumored) +€1’000’000 with the Staatskapelle in Dresden
        – Riccardo Chailly is paid per concert and used to receive approximately €30’000 with 20-22 concerts in Leipzig (not counting tours), bringing his salary to €600’000 – €660’000
        – Simon Rattle was earning close to €800’000 with the Berlin Phil when he first took up his position there
        – Claudio Abbado used to earn 3’500’000 German Deutsche Mark, between €1.7mio and €1.8mio today.

        • norman lebrecht says:

          Thank you….. Can anyone add more?

          • Formerconductor says:

            Four years ago I was making 1000 USD a week for acting as assistant to a major orchestra in the US with a 15 week commitment, 700 EUR for each of the 9 performances of a Wagner opera I was hired as a cover/assistant (total 25 days of work) in Germany (at one of Germany’s main opera houses), 3500 EUR for a symphonic concert in Spain, 2300 for assisting in an opera in Denmark, 2800 GBP for conducting two season concerts with a mid-level professional orchestra in England, 4100 EUR for acting as a coach/assistant in three operas during a major festival during the summer (c.9 weeks of work)… I was making more giving private conducting/ piano lessons and doing arrangements of symphonic works for smaller ensembles than from actual conducting. After expenses (flights, hotels, scores etc.) and taxes I was making c.13000 EUR.
            I gave up my performing career and got a job teaching in a conservatoire. Now I make 65.000 EUR, teach private lessons and do not have any related expenses. When I read about

            When I read about these salaries I just want to cry…

  • John Borstlap says:

    How much is the USA president paid? And the state governors? And heads of state in Europe? What does Putin pay himself? In fact, these figures are not real, they are symbolical.

  • harold braun says:

    Eschenbach earns more than Muti,MTT,or Alan Gilbert?That´s ridiculous….

  • PDacher says:

    Stunning….Especially #10 in comparison to the rest. I can’t wait for the KenCen to call me up, asking for a donation.

  • william osborne says:

    I count 64 orchestras in the list. By what criteria were they selected? All ICSOM orchestras? 64 orchestras is not very many for a country of 320 million people — especially when some have very small seasons. There are other orchestras, but their seasons and budgets are even smaller.

    • Drew McManus says:

      The reporting threshold is a minimum $2.5mil total expenditure and the orchestra must also be an ICSOM, ROPA, OR IGSOBM ensemble.

      • william osborne says:

        Sixty-four orchestras comes to one orchestra for every 5 million people – and the large majority are part time (less than 52 week seasons.) This is one of the lowest ratios in the developed world.

        It is also important to understand how small a 2.5 million budget is for an orchestra. By comparison, here are the budgets for the top 7 US orchestras:

        1. Los Angeles Philharmonic $97M (2011)
        2. Boston Symphony Orchestra $84M (2013)
        3. Chicago Symphony Orchestra $74M (2014)
        4. San Francisco Symphony $72M (2011)
        5. New York Philharmonic $69M (2012)
        6. Philadelphia Orchestra $46M (2011)
        7. Cleveland Orchestra $42M (2012)

        Why does a very wealthy city like Phoenix, for example, only have a budget of $8.5M (2012)? Or the Chicago Lyric only $8.0M (2003)?

        Drew probably has more recent numbers, but I doubt little has changed, and that the trend might even be slightly downward for smaller orchestras.

        • Drew McManus says:

          To be fair, there are many fine orchestras below the $2.5mil threshold. That limit exists for the reviews because there is a limited number of hours to allocate toward an unfunded research project.

          To that end, you don’t really begin to cross the threshold from professional (paid musicians) to community (unpaid volunteers) symphonic orchestras (80+ musicians on stage) until you get to the $500k total expenditure range (which for the record is not the same as “budget” although it is common for those two terms to be inadvertently used interchangeably).

          BTW, I’m quite certain your figure for Lyric Opera of Chicago is not accurate and it is worth pointing out that my list is for symphonic orchestras only and does not include opera companies.

          But in the end, getting patrons interested in the inner workings and increasing transparency are among the report’s goals. As such, the more discussion the better.

          • william osborne says:

            With a term like “fine” we can include many kinds of orchestras. More concretely, we might try to determine the operating budgets that an orchestra requires to adequately fulfill reasonably defined community functions. For a state like New Mexico, for example, where the NM Phil apparently has a budget of less than $2.5 million for a metro area of almost one million people and a state of 1.8 million, that sum is inadequate regardless of how fine the orchestra might be. The orchestra can’t tour around the state because the musicians have to have day jobs.

            Or we might consider Miami with a metro population of 5.5 million which does not have a professional orchestra at all. (The New World Symphony is a training orchestra for advanced students who hold temporary positions.)

            The number for the orchestra of the Lyric Opera is from 2003. What is their budget for the orchestra these days? I think of our other half-time “major” opera, San Francisco, where the company calculates the season just long enough for the musicians to be able to collect unemployment for the off season. Only in America are unemployment payments are calculated as a system of arts funding.

            I very much agree that discussion and consciousness raising about the status of classical music is important.

          • Drew McManus says:

            The NM Phil is an interesting choice in that they have only recently emerged from a complete shutdown of the previous professional orchestra, the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. Consequently, I’d say their current total expenditure figure is unusually low.

            Having said that, it isn’t uncommon to see reorg type orchestras underperform for a good five seasons or more until most of the hard feeling among local donors that led to the respective shutdown have passed.

            Miami is another unique situation due to the extended Cleveland Orchestra residencies tapping into what would normally be startup funds for a replacement ensemble. As for New World, they are an academic institution, not a professional orchestra.

            I’m not certain what you’re referencing when you talk about the orchestra of the Lyric Opera. The Lyric Opera of Chicago, like most professional opera companies, include a full time orchestra as part of the normal total expenditures and this particular institution is routinely the #2 or #3 highest total expenditure opera company in the US so there’s no way it could be close to $8mil from 2003 (for reference, their 10-11 total expenditures were a hair under $60mil).

            My hunch is you’re either referencing a completely different organization or you have wildly inaccurate information. What exactly is your source? If it isn’t the IRS Form 990

  • EKATERINA says:

    Yes, this is really hard to accept, especially as there is no relation between money earned, results achieved and quality given, nor the respect and esteem that a conductor is held. Eschenbach earning more than Muti is ridiculous. That the Music Director of the great Cleveland Orchestra receives 300% less than Eschenbach at the NSO and the MD in Cleveland, Welser-Most, saw his salary decrease by 23%, while the NSO increases the salary of the very much disliked Eschenbach by 41%, a conductor who they wanted to get rid of and now finally have got out, is bizarre and every person who gave money to the NSO or Kennedy Center endowment should be furious and feel swindled.

  • NYMike says:

    Eschenbach seems to be a great businessman. As a conductor, not so much.

  • Daniel Farber says:

    What do you expect? Eschenbach does his job and earns his money about as well as most congressmen/women and senators. It’s part of the strenuously provincial climate in the D.C. area.

  • WL Weller says:

    Wealth and income are two different things. Income is what you make. Wealth is what you keep.

  • Herasmus Bedragon says:

    Not one of those mentioned is worth their pay!
    Tier 2-3 American orchestras are suckers to pay such high salaries.

  • Juan-Pablo Illanes says:

    If Eschenbach conducts for 12 weeks in Washington for almost 3 million, how many weeks does Muti conducts in Chicago for 2.5? It seems there are more elements to be considered before jumping to conclusions.

  • Petros LInardos says:

    At $788,500, Pittsburgh’s excellent Manfred Honeck seems to be a steal. Is there something we don’t know?

  • Darrin C. Milling says:

    Curiously, one of the orchestras providing a top 10 salary for its music director doesn’t classify among the top ten highest paying orchestras for musicians…. this is an example of disproportionate distribution of available resources and the institution has lost sight of its main asset / objective (the orchestra)….

    …Curiosamente , tem uma orquestra que paga entre os melhores 10 salários para diretor músical mas a mesma não classifique entre os melhores 10 quando for pensar nos salários dos músicos …ou seja, é um exemplo de mal distribuição de recursos e a instituição falta compreender o que é área fim (que deve ser a Orquestra)…

  • Petros LInardos says:

    Question: Eschenbach is music director of both the NSO and the Kennedy Center. Is his $2,728,671 salary for the NSO alone or for both positions?

    • Herbert says:

      It probably includes both positions, but it is meaningless as Eschenbach has contributed absolutely nothing to the artistic direction of the Kennedy Center, something he should have done and which the public and supporters were promised he would do on many occasions. He couldn’t be bothered and has simply used the title as a means to get as much money as possible out of this appointment in Washington to the detriment of our orchestra and the Kennedy Center. In fact, I have been told by a board member that Eschenbach takes the first flight out of Washington as soon as his concert is finished, never ever staying around to get to know the community, their needs and their vision for the Kennedy Center. Fortunately, this charade is soon coming to an end and D.C. will be rid of this man who took so much and gave so little.

      • norman lebrecht says:

        An NSO board member tells us: Not only CE takes the first flight out, but for the last and upcoming two seasons he only conducts the Opening Night and then leaves, without staying to conduct the first two subscription weeks of the season, like EVERY OTHER MD of any American orchestra. Why? Because he has “more important” engagements in Vienna, Milan and elsewhere than being with his own orchestra which pays him this absurd amount of $$. And when the Executive Director of the orchestra negotiated his contract extension back a couple of years ago, she could but did not put her foot down and force him to be in DC for those weeks. The absence of the MD at the beginning of the season, after long vacations, as you can imagine, makes an awfully demoralizing effect on the orchestra…

        • Regine says:

          It is more than obvious that Eschenbach doesn’t give a damn about “his” orchestra, the NSO. They are his cash cow and he has clearly abused and miked them for every last cent without any concern for their artistic well-being or their level of motivation. I heard Eschenbach conduct two times at Carnegie Hall when he was in Philadelphia. Not a very inspiring leader at all and the orchestra sounded and looked like they were bored beyond belief. Fortunately they got rid of him and the Philadelphia Orchestra today sounds, once again, like a great orchestra. It’s amazing what a bad conductor, with a bad character can do to destroy even a very strong and well established ensemble. Let’s just hope that Eschenbach hasn’t completely destroyed and demoralized the NSO and luckily for them he will be out in less than two years time.

          • Max Grimm says:

            On the other hand, Eschenbach has been conducting many a youth orchestra in recent times; an excellent idea I feel. This way, young musicians have the opportunity of receiving a masterclass in fortitude, when faced with a trying conductor…a definite benefit if they decide to go on to become orchestral musicians.

  • Mahlerfan says:

    Are there actually any great conductors around today? Who are our Mahlers and Nikischs?

  • NCBOY says:

    I’m always amazed that these lists never include the elephant in the room–James Levine. I don’t remember what he makes exactly but it is more than $2,000,000 annually. And this for only a handful of performances! Alright, maybe two handfuls.

  • R. Slowan says:

    Several seasons ago, in the midst of the controversies in Philadelphia, I heard Eschenbach conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Bruckner 9th. The performance was quite good. Based on that, I would opine that Eschenbach is inconsistent as a conductor.

    The problem, it seems, with the inflated salaries of Music Directors at major metropolitan orchestras is the dearth of “name” conductors. In the past, a conductor’s career was determined by recordings done; there are far fewer recordings done these days. Thus, a conductor who can a high profile in the public’s awareness can command a bulging purse. What is lost here is the relation between who is well=known and who realizes a score to the best advantage: “fame” vs. “quality”. Eschenbach is a known commodity, albeit a patchy one.

    However, even given those dynamics, $2.7 mil. is appalling. Shame on the NSO management.

    Look at the direction the New York Philharmonic is taking by hiring Jaap van Zweden, a
    conductor with an extensive resumé in Europe, but basically unknown in the United States. Based on a concert conducted by van Zweden last fall, he is an excellent conductor. No fame, but quality.