The Failing of an Orchestra
15 November 2009
In response to the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra filing for bankruptcy and canceling its season.
It would be interesting to know how much of their former budget was spent on conductors and executive staff.
Here in Missoula, Montana, our "professional" orchestra is commonly referred to as a community orchestra by players. This is mostly because they pay $10 per service unless you're a principal player (which would be $15). This is laughable from my experience living in all other parts of the country. Well, Missoula's population isn't that much, about 70,000, with a major university here. The state of Montana doesn't even have a million people. The biggest budget orchestra in Billings pays around $40 per service. OK, it makes sense, right? Not when the music director makes about $60,000 a year. And I'm lead to believe the executive director makes about the same. That's for a 5 to 6 concert season. Utter nonsense.
Now I'll be the first to admit the MD is a great and knowledgeable conductor and I've really enjoyed playing for him, but this isn't a reasonable ratio of pay. The Lyric Opera of Montana here pays a little more; $30 per service for core players. I understand good leadership and direction is very important, but if you can't attract good players and give them good reason to feel they need to practice to earn their pay, you've got a situation on your hands.
Years ago when I first learned that MDs in major orchestra pulled in seven figures a year in most cases, I couldn't believe it. My first reaction was, and still remains, you do know without the players, there is no music. It's one thing if it was a profitable venture, but these are non-profits that survive on donations and government aid (which can't be counted on in this country). To pay a 2nd bassoon or a section string player $100,000 and a MD $1,000,000 (for just a hand full of concerts with guest conductors taking the rest of the season) is bit off the scale of reason. It's not as if they are running the organization like the president or executive director. Now if they were doing both jobs, there would be more justification.
I think these orchestras are doing it to themselves in many cases. Yeah, our culture generally doesn't care for orchestral music on the whole. You've got to adjust for your environment. Although, most people aren't aware how much they actually do listen to an orchestra due to all the films they watch or when they are watching a Seth MacFarlane animated series (Family Guy, American Dad, The Cleveland Show).
Orchestras can't spend money like their product is as popular as an iPhone or is a major sports team. Overvaluing the higher-ups will limit or destroy any organization at some point.