Yuri Temirkanov: I support Baltimore musicians

Message from the BSO’s former music director:

I have heard of your recent challenges and am following from afar your firm resistance to board and management efforts to reduce the artistic quality of the Orchestra by reducing the number of weeks of full-time employment. I want to ensure you of my support for you and all that you are working to achieve to preserve and perpetuate the high artistic standards of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. 

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    • Or rather, someone with a well-paid full-time position outside the US. It really wouldn’t matter to him if no US orchestra wants to hire him.

    • Exactly.

      At this point the BSO musicians have exhausted all the possibilities of “decades-long patron/donors” and former music directors who can speak up or write in to express their anger or protest against “management.” Either it’s in their comfort zone to keep doing this, or it’s not possible to find a new attendee who is excited about having discovered the BSO and willing to say so out loud. Or maybe the musicians and their official supporter groups don’t perceive why it would be constructive to have such a concert-goer write in and even emphasize that they’re not a donor beyond their ticket purchases, and why that would matter more than statements from past conductors from around the cusp of a previous century.

      There’s a very good, quite objective piece today in the New York Times about the whole situation. Significantly, it’s not by a critic, but rather a classical music and dance reporter with a past background in general urban news and politics. The story mentions the loss of old-line sources of philanthropic funds, such as sizable locally owned banks, and the general change in philanthropic priorities in Baltimore. Then it at least hints at a problem I’ve mentioned before: the probable lack of interest or even familiarity with the BSO among new holders of wealth in the Washington area, to which the BSO expanded in 2005 with weekly performances at the Music Center at Strathmore. You can check the piece by Michael Cooper and decide whether I’m making too much of the brief references to “new wealth” juxtaposed with the lack of the donor base they expected from the D.C. area. But it is unmistakable to me that whatever size audience they do attract to Strathmore does not include enough demographic reference points for the kind of new entrepreneurial success you do see around Washington and the Beltway.

      Nothing I say here is to deny that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is a very fine institution – in fact, during Eschenbach’s tenure before Noseda at the National Symphony Orchestra, many of us thought the BSO was trending in a better artistic and performance direction than the NSO – and that it has many distinct achievements over the past few decades. Nor does this deny that there’s been a strange timeline to the way the orchestra leadership communicated its exact financial standing to both the Maryland state legislature and the public. But people need to get real about the fundamentals of the situation, which have been known since at least the autumn of 2018, and the ways in which advocacy can help or hurt in contemporary society. Hopefully this advances the discussion.

  • It would be helpful if Zinman and Temirkanov could explain for the politicians how in practical terms a 40-week contract, versus a 52-week, lowers standards.

  • Out of curiosity, how did it become a truism that if you reduce the length of the season the artistic quality goes down? Wouldn’t giving more time between concerts drive the quality up with more time to practice?

    • If the musicians were satisfied with their reduced pay and had lots of free time and didn’t look for replacement full-time positions and didn’t have to scramble for freelance gigs and extra teaching possibilities to replace their lost income, sure, maybe they’d practice more, even though they are already top-level professionals with disciplined practice routines. Or do you mean wouldn’t they have more time to rehearse? No, if they’re not being paid, they won’t rehearse.

    • You don’t get more time between concerts, you just get a forced unpaid vacation of 12 weeks during the summer. You don’t have the music for the upcoming concerts to practice, and maybe you have to spend all your time during that forced vacation (unpaid, remember) doing some other job not involving playing your instrument to keep the lights on.

  • Temirkanov has nothing to lose. He isn’t some conductor looking to get gigs so it isn’t the same for every conductor. He doesn’t need a spine to say what he said. AND, BTW, what is he actually doing besides just making a little statement? Is he sending money, going out on the picket line, publicly lobbying against the board?

    Also, I get tired of every orchestra that artistic quality will be reduced. There are hundreds of talented musicians who would kill for those reduced positions and while some will lack the experience in a larger orchestra, I don’t think musicians who have been playing in regional orchestras who have conservatory credentials are hardly lesser players and there are plenty of them who would take the reduced positions and fill them easily.

    The reality is that 1) there is a tremendous supply and little demand for musicians in large orchestras and 2) non-profit coffers have not kept up with growing budgets in our present economy due to reduced giving, reduced ticket sales, and reduced demand for a symphonic product.

    I DO think musicians are worth more than they are paid generally speaking considering the education and equipment costs, but unfortunately any product that does not have a high demand will suffer financially. Worth is determined mostly by demand for the product and all the education in the world will not make a difference if there is small demand for the product.

    • All of your points are right on, Greg T. I also would like to know exactly how many folks in Baltimore speaking out for the Symphony actually subscribe and/or donate? Based on my experiences working with orchestras around the country, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it was a very small percentage.

    • Hi Greg,
      Reluctantly, I must agree with you. It is an unfortunate state of affairs.
      But it is unavoidable, no? Times change, cultures change, economies change – whole civilizations change.
      I live my life and I observe all this upheaval, and I am amazed.
      But I am not surprised.

      • Yes, it IS unfortunate. For all the contributions great art make to mankind, it is still held in low regard by the masses. $500K contracts for unknown second string bench riders in pro sports and not a single orchestral musician at that level. Yes, it IS supply and demand but how poor would the world be if there were no great artists creating great art for the cultural enrichment that has led to the great world we live in today?

        • In general you are right, but to be fair there are a few orchestral musicians who are indeed at that same level now, though that does not make the whole situation any less unbalanced and unfortunate.

    • Whether you are tired or not, reduced pay WILL reduce artistic quality. See the comment by Mick the Knife above here: it is absolutely correct.

  • Talk is cheap. Show me the money! Maybe send them $85 million – that’s how much Cincinnati got from a single rich patron that allowed them to carry on.

  • Gosh, I’m confused. Is Yuri Temirkanov a Putin apologist or a Putin henchman? Whose swimming mate is he? Has he ever been seen having a beer with Denis Matsuev? Does Norman approve of him? Is he Jewish? I know he’s a good conductor, but is he politically sound? Can I still buy his records? What does Khatia Buniatishvili think of him? Sorry, but this is what being a follower of Slipped Disc does to me.

    • Norman’s delete button must have been malfunctioning. Either that or he accidentally hit “enter” upon reading your comment.

      • Actually, SD loves the tit-for-tat back and forth — the more the merrier. It’s great for eyeballs and advertising dollars.

    • Maybe you should stop being “a follower” and try becoming an intelligent reader who is able to separate factual information from personal opinions.

  • Yes, but…. I”ve noticed for years that most American symphony orchestras do not really have enough work for a full 52-week contract, even the Big Five/Six/Ten/Whatever seem to struggle to scrape up enough work to keep players busy – hence, the ridiculously long vacation allotments. The BSO has been getting 9 weeks – NINE weeks! These days, most American workers with full-time jobs are lucky to get two.

    Now, I understand: talent…great artists….many years of study….top of their fields….good instruments expensive…classical music the cultural canary in the coal mine…no world-class city without world-class arts institutions – all the usual. Check. I get it.

    BUT if there just are not enough fannies in the seats AND charitable donors willing to cover the shortfall between ticket sales and what the whole enterprise actually costs to run….. How can American orchestra keep paying higher and higher salaries??

    Back to 52 vs 40 week employment. If the orchestra just doesn’t have enough audience/donors to cover year-round operation, what exactly do the players expect management to do? And frankly, I’ve never understood musicians’ obsessive demand for the 52-week contract. Have you ever heard of a symphony musician who did not also teach, give private lessons, perform in chamber groups or even other orchestras on their off nights? Got it – players in small, regional ensembles have to to make ends meet. But so do, for example, Chicago Symphony musicians who could, if anybody could, coast on their CSO salary and not do side gigs.

    So if you’re doing a lot of these side gigs anyway….and the symphony you work for has to, as a matter of necessity in order to survive, cut back on salaries and set you free for 12 weeks of the year, is that really so bad if it means you have more flexibility to do the other work you’re already doing anyway?

    One point: of course, NOBODY likes a pay cut. I haven’t been happy whenever I’ve had to take one, and I can certainly see why the BSO players would be fuming about it (one number I’m seeing is a 20% cut based on the reduction to a 40-week year). But what’s worse: that or no BSO job at all?

    A side note: Orchestras are clearly scrambling to try to scrape up audience to help them make ends meet, hence the over-abundance of pops concerts, XYZ Symphony plays the music of Queen, and the ubiquitous, never-ending parade of movie presentations with a live symphony orchestra playing the music track. Anything and everything to try to trawl up some new fannies in the seats. Is it really working?

    Yeah, I’m must a mean person who hates musicians. Except I don’t. There’s nobody I respect more than the players of the many orchestras whose concerts I attend. And there’s nothing I enjoy more than going to those concerts. But I know I’m in a minority of the population at large, and probably a shrinking one. I’d love to see droves of new attendees show up at the concerts, but NOT at the expense of watering down the music to something that no longer has artistic value.

    I hope the Baltimore Symphony board and its players can work out a solution that’s tolerable to both parties AND keep the institution alive. Both in order to get there, sides have to get some serious reality on where classical music actually stands in 2019.

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