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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On the banning and sacking of conductors,
with classical music agony aunt ALICE McVEIGH

Dear Alice,

Have you heard about David Miller being banned from performing in France because of his undercutting the French musicians' union?

D G, Paris

Dear D,

To be honest, I hadn't, but I have now done my research like a good agony auntie and discovered that the French have Done the Right Thing. You may disagree (certainly the Wall Street Journal seems to) but my own view is that this guy is stroking his ego at the expense of real musicians' livelihoods.

The story, for those of you who, like me, were pig-ignorant, is this:

David Miller is an American conductor who last month took a production of Don Giovanni with a Bulgarian orchestra to various small towns in France. The tour organiser (an Italian) was arrested and is now on trial on charges of illegally importing workers into the country, the remaining operas have been cancelled and the musicians transported back to Bulgaria. A similar situation occurred when the Cologne New Philharmonic's conductor (Volker Hartung) was arrested for two days on the charge of employing eastern Europeans at lower rates; he has now been banned from performing in France.

Now the Wall Street Journal (Brian M Carney) waxes wroth at all this: his view is that this is French and union protectionism at its most self-serving. They espouse David Miller's cause, that providing opera in places which otherwise can't afford it is a public service, and if Bulgarians are willing to travel for pittances, then everything in the garden is rosy. Miller claims -- plausibly enough -- that the opera tours would never have taken place with the rates French unions require, so the French musicians are simply spoiling the fun for the Bulgarian pittance-pullers and the opera-loving small-town Frenchmen alike.

This, frankly, does not wash. In Britain there are several small companies (Opera Box is one; Travelling Opera another) that do exactly what Miller is claiming is impossible: affording union rates for their musicians and taking opera to places where the big companies can't or won't go. With France's much more generous subsidies for classical music, I can see absolutely no reason why David Miller or anyone else with enough get-up-and-go couldn't do the same. You don't need vast forces for an effective Don Giovanni -- and the precedent set, as far as exploitation of desperate Eastern European musicians and the undercutting of the (never-exactly-plush) salaries of European players, is strikingly dangerous. From his air-conditioned ivory Wall Street tower somewhere in Manhattan, Carney shakes his head at the short-sightedness of French bureaucracy. He cannot be aware of just how badly-paid musicians are -- even at union rates -- in Europe (and even in parts of America). A handy way to bash the French, is what he sees this as, missing the entire point. I'd like to see him try to raise a family and pay rent on the kind of salaries French opera players subsist on. He couldn't afford his headed notepaper.

Perhaps the Bulgarians can't see it: perhaps for them it's a paid holiday to the West, to mess about with Mozart in a few dozy and pleasant little French towns. But their children will see it, and live to regret the selling-out that their parents colluded in. Musicians beget musicians, and the time will come when there will be no profession left at all. It'll be too late then to resurrect the unions, and the orchestras, and the (pretty meagre) standards of pay we have at present.

So let's hear it for the French Musicians Union, and may its shadow never grow less!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Ask Alice

Dear Alice,

When you wrote your review of Muti with the Philharmonia recently, did you guess that the whole of La Scala will be rising up in order to get him sacked, just a short time later?

Peter, in Brighton

Dear Peter,

No, not being psychic.
Absolutely bizarre isn't it?

For those of you not in the loop here, La Scala is in a bit of a pickle. The orchestra has been on strike since 22 February 2005, La Scala's recently dismissed superintendent is suing the mayor of the city for slander and the Senate has been hearing testimony from musicians and management in an effort to sort it all out. (I love that last bit. Can you imagine the House of Commons or the House of Representatives giving one single solitary damn if Covent Garden was to go on strike???????? These Italians have got their priorities straight!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

There are lots of theories about what's gone wrong. Muti didn't want Lloyd Webber's Cats to be allowed to be performed in order to get in a few extra shekels. (This is a shame, as Cats is the only really decent thing he's ever written.) Muti is supposed to be fussy and difficult (what conductor isn't??) He is also reputed to be a control freak: everything (soloists, orchestra, producer) has to be chosen by him. Carlo Fontana (the superintendent of the board) got kicked out, supposedly by Muti-ites. The orchestra apparently can't stand Muti, and are in open rebellion against him (but times they are a-changing: Leonard Slatkin has been got rid of by two orchestras -- Washington's National Symphony and the BBC Symphony orchestra -- in the last year).

Whatever next? Conductors who have to behave decently in order to keep their jobs???? Everyone having to learn to be a bit more flexible in terms of repertoire in the 21st century???? Governments that take the arts seriously???????

Yes, yes and yes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

At times like this, I feel full of hope.

Happy Easter!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Copyright © 25 March 2005 Alice McVeigh, USA

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