Riots And Grand Resignations

Here in the US, arts cuts play out far too often as stereotypical management vs. labor dramas. But in Europe, they take a different approach to dealing with perceived bean-counting decision making. Two items of note, from Estonia and Italy, are worth particular attention…

The 11/19/2010 edition of published an article by Susan Elliott that reports music director Neeme Järvi quit his position as Estonian National Symphony Orchestra music director shortly after the position began. Järvi made no attempt to conceal or sugarcoat the reasons why he left; he was distressed that the Estonian Culture Minister removed the orchestra’s general director for failing to make sufficient budget cuts.

Elliott painted a clear picture of just how deeply this issue ran for Järvi.

Järvi, 73, had become chief conductor in August in a triumphant return to the orchestra he had first lead in 1963, when Estonia was still under Soviet rule. He emigrated to the United States in 1980 after communist officials chastised him for performing a choral work that contained passages from the Bible.

“It was the dream of my life to return to work with my old orchestra and now that dream is ruined,” he wrote this week, in a letter to his lawyers.

As one of the orchestra’s principal stakeholders, it is easy to see why Järvi felt slighted but perhaps more meaningful is the process the local government used to arrive at and implement their decision. It is difficult to miss how this might be analogous to incidents unfolding at a handful of US orchestras.

Next up, we head south to Milan, Italy were demonstrations against government proposed steep cuts in arts funding turned aggressive. The 12/7/2010 edition of The Guardian published an article by John Hooper that reports before the opening night of La Scala “at least 10 police officers and an unknown number of demonstrators were taken to hospital after the skirmishes in which two home-made bombs were detonated.”

Inside the renowned opera house, Hooper writes that principal guest conductor, Daniel Barenboim, made a prepared speech critical of the cuts.

…the Israeli conductor turned to Italy’s president, Giorgio Napolitano, who was in the audience, and said: “For that title, and also in the names of the colleagues who play, sing, dance and work, not only here but in all theatres, I am here to tell you we are deeply worried for the future of culture in the country and in Europe.”

He then read out the ninth article of the Italian constitution, which says that the republic promotes “the development of culture and scientific and technical research”. The same article also promises that governments will safeguard the country’s “historical and artistic heritage”. The audience broke into applause, with Napolitano joining in.

Not only is it difficult to imagine public outrage to that degree over arts cuts here in the US but seeing a music director within the troubled organization making public statements with such candor is practically unheard of. In the few times it does happen, the reaction is usually swift and ends with the conductor losing his or her job. Remember Junichi Hirokami and the Columbus (OH) Symphony?

It is fascinating to observe the differences and similarities between the European and US cultural environments and their respective systems of governance. What are your observations?

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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5 thoughts on “Riots And Grand Resignations”

  1. I performed a contrabassoon solo with the West German Radio Orchestra, Cologne in July this year.

    The concert program had neither advertisements nor lists of donors in it. Cologne is a city of about 1 million people, yet there are three full-time professional orchestras. I attended “Carmen” while I was there – the house was full, and half of the attendees looked to be in their 20s.

    The difference is that Europe has a long, deep cultural history, while America’s is short and pretty shallow (and getting shallower all the time). Unfortunately our national priorities don’t include arts support of any kind.

  2. Several years ago, my wife and I were on a jet returning from Munich to JFK. Some German exchange students were talking in a nearby aisle. I beckoned to one young man to come over and chat.

    I asked him what kind of music he liked. He responded, “Oh, rock & roll.” I then asked him if it bothered him that some of his government tax funds went to arts support and to symphony, opera, ballet, etc. His response – “Oh no, it should.”

    I guess this adds just a little to lukebakken’s posting above.

  3. I remember when the Phoenix Symphony conductor made a similar appeal to the public. (He was German.) Those were indeed happier times. He didn’t lose his job, but unfortunately he passed away not long after. When the people at the top care about the musicians as people, it makes a huge difference.

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