Things That Make you Go “Buh?” Brooklyn Phil

The 4/14/2009 edition of The Brooklyn Paper published an article by Mike McLaughlin that reports composer Nathan Currier is suing the Brooklyn Philharmonic for making him cut sections of his piece, Gaian Variations, during the 2004 world premiere. According to the article, then Brooklyn Phil Executive Director, Catherine Cahill, approached Currier during the concert-length performance’s second of two intermissions to talk about overtime issues related to the work’s length…

exclamation markThe article reports that Cahill “demanded that Currier personally pay the overtime wages or trim the work, which took him five years to compose and had already cost him $72,200 to stage.” Apparently, Currier capitulated and added some cuts to the final act but to add insult to injury, communication problems resulted in the ensemble thinking the first cut was actually the revised end of the piece. Needless to say, the article reports that Currier was furious and his work ultimately received scathing reviews.

These events are so bizarre that in a different time or place, you might think this was a sitcom treatment; nevertheless, something as wacky as this almost certainly has more to tell than what was reported in the newspaper. On the other hand, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and if the basic information in McLaughlin’s article is accurate then it begs the following questions:

  • Why on earth didn’t the Phil’s ops personnel realize the length of Currier’s work hovered around the overtime red zone before the last of two intermissions?
  • Just how bad was the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s cash flow at that time to prompt the Executive Director to risk the quality of artistic offerings of a world premier over something as relatively benign as overtime? (does anyone else smell beans?)
  • How could a conductor mistake a cut for an ending?

The article reports Currier’s lawsuit claims that “[a]s a direct consequence of [the Philharmonic’s] arbitrary, capricious and inappropriate ‘butchering’ of the performance, … the audience in Avery Fisher Hall was deprived of an appreciation of the totality of the creative work.” As a result, Currier is suing for $250,000 but his attorney indicated the composer “would be willing to settle the suit if the Philharmonic agreed to play the piece in its unadulterated entirety.”

Hell hath no fury like a composer scorned…

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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14 thoughts on “Things That Make you Go “Buh?” Brooklyn Phil

    • Good question, my guess is the composer likely attempted to negotiate with the Phil during that period. It would be interesting to learn more about that and other details if the situation isn’t resolved in a way that requires confidentiality.

  1. Of course we can’t rely solely on a newspaper report, and there’s likely more to the suit. But of all the possible legal claims the composer could advance, this story’s focus is on one for which he probably has no standing to sue. If the audience was deprived of anything, it’s up to the audience or AFH to advance that claim.

  2. Additional factors might include a requirement in the composer’s contract that the piece not exceed a certain length, which he may have violated, hence Cahill’s request. And, it’s not unheard of for performance length not to be the same as rehearsal length, especially for a work long enough to require two intermissions. Finally, as for overtime being “relatively benign,” the BP was in significant financial distress at that time, so that any amount of unbudgeted expense could have been seen as important. If OT was relatively benign, then the composer could have paid is just as easily as the BP. It was his world premiere too.

    • I think it depends more on the work contract. All of those issues should have been addressed there and if they weren’t, then it’s up for interpretation. Frankly, I still have trouble with the timing issue. Even with extreme differences in tempo, management should have had a good idea of whether or not the piece would have run into overtime.

      Yes, financial distress is exactly that, but are we talking about the tipping point into bankruptcy or a major PITA? If it’s the latter then it shouldn’t have manifest into something that adversely impacts the artistic product. I doubt we are talking about cuts that are as simple to implement as the 1812 cut; as such, the potential likelihood for having an adverse impact on the performance seems pretty high.

      Regardless, it will be interesting to see if any more details come out, especially since the ED at the time of the incident has moved on to a different organization.

  3. Wow, that’s quite a story. It does seem like a botched performance and a trainwreck ending might well have caused poor reviews of the piece. And poor reviews about a performance at Avery Fisher could ruin a composer’s career, no? Or at least the career of that composition? Is this a loss-of-wages kind of lawsuit?

  4. If Currier and the Brooklyn Phil were working together on something as risky as a concert-length new work, they both should have negotiated a workshop into the process. That way, kinks of timing and trajectory could be worked out prior to the final rehearsal process, at a fraction of the financial and emotional cost of what eventually happened in this case.

  5. There’s a discussion of this situation at Elaine Fine’s blog: http://musicalassumptions.blogspot.com/2009/04/life-in-totally-unjust-musical-world.html

    The Gaian Variations has its own web site: http://www.gaianvariations.com/home.htm

    The work was presented not by the Brooklyn Philharmonic, but by the Earth Day Network.

    Allan Kozin reviewed the piece in the Times (Elaine Fine is highly critical of the review itself): http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/04/arts/critic-s-diary-a-week-for-youth-cello-and-adventurous-spirits.html

    Finally, I’m curious enough about what went down that I’ve emailed the attorney to ask for a copy of the complaint, which is a matter of the public record and includes Currier’s contract with the orchestra.

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