Following yesterday’s introduction which foreshadowed some issues which will impact how some orchestras function, today’s article will examine how recent events in Europe may help U.S. orchestras avoid some potential problems…
On a fairly regular basis, the numbers of quality conservatory trained musicians available in the U.S. rise and fall. The most recent boom cycle in available musicians occurred shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union as a flood of orchestra musicians (especially string players) emigrated to the U.S. (as well as Western European countries). That event subsequently triggered an increase in the number of quality private teachers available which helped contribute to record numbers of students enrolling in conservatory programs since that time.
20 years later, those graduates are rapidly filling the ranks of smaller budget orchestras; contributing to an overall increase in the quality of American orchestras. The intriguing aspect of these issues is that it’s not a supply and demand problem; as a matter of fact, it’s not a problem at all so much as a series of opportunities for more musicians to move into becoming cultural entrepreneurs (such as the ranks of the musicians who belong to Chamber Music America).
Unfortunately, negative outcomes in the guise of exploitation are just as likely. Instead of seeing greater numbers of musicians as a benefit to the business, too many people may consider this as an “oversupply problem” and attempt to force established musicians into accepting lower wages or, even worse, begin to establish new ensembles bent on taking advantage of inexperienced, yet highly trained, labor for personal or organizational gain.
This problem has apparently begun to manifest in Europe. Recently, the Cologne New Philharmonic conductor and executive administrator, Volker Hartung (pictured to your right), was put in jail by French authorities for two days while being questioned over the charge that he violated French labor law by underpaying his musicians. I published an article on 12/01/05 which examined some of the issues and posed some questions related to that incident as to whether or not Mr. Hartung was deliberately underpaying his musicians in order to charge lower ticket prices. That article elicited a response from Mr. Hartung which he requested be published,
“Dear Sir, I read your very interesting article. Please understand and correct this: We have paid our musicians between 80 and 120 Euros for this concert. We do not refuse sponsorship at all and would definitely be able and willing to pay more to the musicians- but it is almost impossible to obtain subsidies!
Our musicians are well paid, otherwise they would not play! And they are Eastern Europeans living in Germany, as you have many Jewish Russians playing for the L.A. Orchestras.
It its all an incredible intrigue by some very jealous people, who try to turn the world opinion against us in order to force us from the market, because we are independent and free and were until now, very successful.
Independent artist like me are not any more supported in Europe- that is the problem!”
Mr. Hartung’s response brings up an interesting series of follow-up questions; such as, if he claims the players in his orchestra are well paid but the French and German musicians’ unions (which Mr. Hartung clarified in an email as being the “very jealous people” he was referring to) claim otherwise, then there must be substantiated reasons behind both opinions.
At the heart of the issue lay the musicians who comprise Mr. Volker’s orchestra. French and German union representatives claim he is paying them far below acceptable wages, even compared to other Eastern European orchestras who tour through their respective countries. Mr. Volker claims that if he wasn’t employing the musicians for the wages he pays, they would be without work and “on the streets”.
I asked Mr. Hartung to expand on his initial email statement regarding the issues of compensation. Mr. Hartung responded via email with the following message,
“The French and German unions are seemingly both unwilling to concede that a payment between 80 to 120 Euros for a member of an internationally mixed orchestra of freelancing students is no scandal at all and far from modern slavery…I wish I could bring my message through to [the unions], that there is no need of fear or hate against me, since I am definitely providing work for musicians who would be otherwise sitting on the street. I am actually working in their interests!”
In order discover more behind the position from the French and German musicians’ unions I contacted representatives from both organizations. The German Orchestra Musicians’ Union, the Deutsche Orchestervereinigung (commonly referred to in Germany as the DOV), and their director, Gerald Mertens (pictured to your right), had this to say when I asked him via email if Mr. Hartung’s above comments about his union were accurate and to elaborate more on the DOV’s position regarding how it determines a living wage,
“Mr. Hartung is not a scapegoat for the French or German musicians’ unions. As far as we know Mr. Hartung engages professional musicians directly from countries of the Eastern and South Eastern part of Europe, where the common wages (not only for musicians) are very low (about 200 to 300 Euros a month, [for example] in Romania),” wrote Mr. Mertens. “We don’t know if the musicians which he engaged for his last tours were really students ([if so,] what are their names, where do they live and study, who are their teachers?).”
I followed up by asking Mr. Mertens if Mr. Hartung’s assessment of what constitutes a fair wage holds true for German orchestral musicians by the DOV standards,
“A musician from the States Philharmonic Orchestra in Warsaw gets about 600 Euros a month, a musician in Germany about 2.000 Euros in a “normal” orchestra,” wrote Mr. Mertens. “When Mr. Hartung was imprisoned for the first time in Nice he said that his musicians from Russia, Romania, etc. got about 30 Euros day, which is of course a lot for them. But if you see the travel allowances for German or French musicians in an orchestra (they will get about 24 Euros a day), the daily wage for the Eastern musician of Mr. Hartung is reduced to only 6 Euros. The normal fee for a Central European musician would be about 100 to 150 Euros a day plus travel allowances. Mr. Hartung said on TV, that he never would dare to engage a German musician for this low fee of 30 Euro.”
When asked whether or not they have ever verified Mr. Hartung’s claims of paying his musicians 80 to 120 Euros Mr. Mertens said,
“We don’t know and Mr. Hartung never proved that he has paid between 80 to 120 Euros. I really don’t believe this, because originally he was talking about 30 Euros a day. After the first imprisonment this amount has probably been increased, but for 400%?”
In order to respond to the assertions from the DOV representative, Mr. Hartung was sent a list of questions asking him what method he used to determine that his method of compensation is a fair wage to pay a professional musician and if he could verify what his musicians were paid and if they were students or professionals. I also asked him what he pays the musicians for rehearsals and travel days while on tour and if they receive a per diem for meals. Unfortunately, Mr. Hartung declined to respond, even after several attempts asking for clarification.
Of course, the above information alone does not adequately demonstrate exploitative behavior on the part of any individual or organization. Tomorrow’s installment will continue to examine these issues and we’ll hear more from Messer’s Hartung and Mertens as well as a representative from the French Musicians’ Union (commonly referred to as SNAM).