America’s Symphony Orchestras Taking it on the Chin?

JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
Getting it right: Music Director JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.
The news this past weekend that the Philadelphia Orchestra’s board of directors has voted to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy is just the latest in a string of ugly news items about the precarious financial state of professional symphony orchestras in America.

That the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra, 111 years old and one of the best-known, best-loved ensembles in the classical music field, should be facing bankruptcy proceedings comes as a surprise to most people. This orchestra, with its stellar roster of past music directors including Eugene Ormandy, Ricardo Muti, and Leopold Stokowski of Disney’s Fantasia fame, would seem to be nearly immune to financial stresses.

But the fallout from the economic recession has affected private and public funding alike, with corporate donors snapping their wallets shut … and many well-heeled retirees and other donors looking at their financial and real estate portfolios and feeling much poorer.

In the new economic reality, the prognosis for the Philadelphia Orchestra and other professional classical music ensembles is grim unless severe cuts are made to operating expenses. But those steps can also be risky. Just a week before the Philadelphia announcement, the Detroit Symphony, another well-established body whose list of past music directors including Antal Dorati, Paul Paray and Neeme Järvi is almost as impressive as Philadelphia’s, nearly went under after proposing more than a 15% reduction in player salaries, plus other concessions.

Rather than agree to their base pay dropping from ~$104,000 to ~$88,000, the musicians went on strike in the Fall of 2010. It was only when the board of the DSO was ready to pull the plug on the orchestra’s existence that the players agreed to come back to work.

On Saturday, April 9, the DSO performed for the first time in over five months, and the musicians are now committed to completing the current orchestral season. After nearly two years of wrangling, it’s the best outcome anyone could have hoped for.

Looking out across the country, it’s difficult to find much good news in the orchestral field; the Honolulu Symphony was recently liquidated and the Louisville Orchestra has also filed for bankruptcy.

But one bright spot is in Buffalo, where the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, under the inspired 11-year leadership of music director JoAnn Falletta and a pragmatic, forward-looking Board led by Cindy Abbott Letro, is weathering the economic stresses with better success. Another venerable orchestral institution, the BPO is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, and its roster of past music directories includes such luminaries as William Steinberg, Michael Tilson Thomas and the composer-conductor Lukas Foss.

Considering that the Buffalo urban community is much smaller than many other metropolitan markets like Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco that support professional symphony orchestras, what the BPO has been able to accomplish is nothing short of amazing.

In 2008, the BPO concluded a capital campaign that added more than $32 million to the orchestra’s endowment, and posted a balanced budget in the 2009-10 season. In 2010, it went on tour for the first time in ~20 years. The BPO’s symphony programs are some of the most interesting and inventive being performed by any orchestra in America (I know: I’ve attended several of them). And the orchestra is continuing to release new CDs of fascinating orchestral repertoire on Naxos, the world’s largest classical music label.

Key to the BPO’s success goes beyond public monies, or support from foundations plus a few wealthy individuals. It’s about creating a strong link between the orchestra and the wider community – something easy to talk about, but challenging to accomplish without building strong chemistry and a sense of shared destiny. And in that regard, the attitude, approachability and personality of the music director cannot be overstated.

Richard Morrison, esteemed music critic of The Times of London, writes in the pages of BBC Music Magazine of “the existential crisis that could soon devour orchestras across the world with exemplary management, hard-working musicians, high standards and realistic attitudes.” He can “easily envisage a future in which dozens of ailing cities across Europe and America lose their orchestras forever.”

Not that Morrison is happy about his prognosis: “Some might argue that, in this age of universally-available Internet concerts, the physical presence of an orchestra in any particular region no longer matters. I can’t agree. It would be a tragedy if the opportunity to hear live classical concerts was bestowed only on people living in the wealthiest cities,” he opines.

If the example set by the Buffalo Philharmonic is one that could be replicated in other urban areas, Morrison’s grim prediction could turn out to be wrong. Let’s hope so.

Farewell to an Audio Hi-Fi Pioneer

1812 Overture

Wilma Cozart Fine, audio Hi-Fi pioneer, operating the controls at Mercury's classical record division in the 1950s.
Wilma Cozart Fine, audio Hi-Fi pioneer, operating the controls at Mercury's classical record division in the 1950s.
This past week, the world lost a legend in the audio recording field with the death of Wilma Cozart Fine, age 82. The name may not be familiar to many. But if you grew up in the 1960s or 1970s, chances are your family owned at least one of the recordings Ms. Fine produced for the Mercury label – perhaps the 1812 Overture sonic blockbuster featuring the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (and also featuring real cannons and bells) that would become the first classical album to sell more than one million copies.

A native Mississippian who grew up in Ft. Worth, Texas, Wilma Cozart graduated with college degrees in Music and Business, then went to work in the late 1940s for the newly reorganized Dallas Symphony as personal secretary to the orchestra’s new music director, the fiery Hungarian conductor Antal Dorati. The Dallas Symphony managed to secure a recording contract with RCA Victor – highly unusual for such a young ensemble – and proceeded to release a number of praised recordings including the Bela Bartok Violin Concerto #2 with Yehudi Menuhin.

When Dorati took up a new position as music director of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Cozart decamped to there as well. Shortly thereafter, she was retained by Mercury Records in New York City to manage the label’s newly formed classical record division.

Using her orchestra management acumen, Cozart, all of 24 years old, snagged a recording contract for Mercury with the lauded Chicago Symphony Orchestra – the first of several exclusive contracts she would negotiate with orchestras in Minneapolis, Detroit and Rochester.

The debut classical recording produced by Mercury’s sound engineers led by C. Robert Fine was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and it caused a sensation in the music world when it was released in 1951. It was widely praised as the best-sounding classical recording made up to that time, with the New York Times reporting that the realism and clarity of the recording made it seem as if the listener was “in the living presence of the performers.” Sensing the marketing power of this description, Cozart would adopt the “Living Presence” moniker for the entire Mercury classical catalog.

The secret to making the Mercury classical records was simple in concept yet quite challenging to implement: A single microphone was painstakingly tested for positioning in the auditorium above and in front of the orchestra at the precise location where the sound would “bloom” most naturally. (Later, when stereophonic disks were introduced, three microphones would be used during recording and then mixed down to two channels.)

Cozart, who married Robert Fine in 1958, learned the craft (and art) of record production from the ground up. In the end, she and her team would release several hundred Mercury classical recordings before the label was acquired by Dutch-based Philips.

It is difficult to cite another instance in which a classical record producer such as Ms. Fine has had such a positive impact on the reputations of the conductors and performers being recorded. Indeed, the enduring popularity of conductors like Antal Dorati, Paul Paray, and Frederick Fennell and his Eastman Wind Ensemble would not be nearly as potent without the documentation of their art as taken down by Fine and her production team.

As the years have ticked by – with new technical innovations introduced and thousands of new classical records produced – the Mercury recordings have retained their reputation as examples of exceptional clarity and realism in sound. For many, these recordings remain the audiophile standard against which all other sound production quality is judged.

But the story doesn’t end there. The pioneering efforts of Ms. Fine would have an interesting “second act” more than three decades later. It was to her that Philips turned in the early 1990s to undertake the endeavor of remastering and transferring nearly the entire Mercury classical catalog to CD. And this was no mere “symbolic” or cameo effort on Fine’s part, either. The original Mercury mixing equipment would be repaired and brought back into production for the project. Ms. Fine performed the digital editing herself – nearly 50 years after she had done it (in analog) the first time around!

And again, the critics swooned.

What is the legacy of Wilma Cozart Fine? It’s not just that she was a pioneer in classical music’s Hi-Fi wave – or that she was the first woman to break into a male-dominated field. It’s that she and her team brought the world some of the best classical recordings ever made …and set a standard for excellence that has yet to be surpassed nearly six decades on.