Silent Spaces

Mike Patton in the Temple of Dendur September 28, 2013
Mike Patton in the Temple of Dendur September 28, 2013

It seems to me that there is something very wrong, something that is objectionable and upsetting on the gut level, when institutions that claim to support and present the arts sink their money into buildings and stiff the people who do the actual creating.

The Minnesota Orchestra has been silent for a year because the musicians declined to take either a 25% or 33% pay cut in their new contract. Management’s response was to lock them out, prevent them from playing music in public. Although management claimed the orchestra’s budget situation demanded the pay cuts, they themselves declined to cut their own salary until their most recent offer this past weekend. Since it took a year to figure out it might be wise to make this gesture, how is anyone expected to believe that money was such a problem?

Management has made the point that only two administrators make more in salary than the musicians, and I want to ask them what instruments they play, and how often they are featured. The draw of the orchestra is that people buy tickets to experience live music, and no one should be paid more than the musicians and the conductor. In the pieties of contemporary political economy, the musicians are the makers, the administrators are the takers, their salaries depending on the quality of the makers’ production. The most important administrator is the orchestra’s librarian, so pay that person well. But the so-called executives? Well, aren’t boards full of rich arts lovers who supposedly are brilliant managers? Can’t they prove their love by volunteering their indispensable skills?

But money can’t be the real problem. The Orchestra managed to raise $50 million to renovate their hall, which of course now stands empty. But some rich person will probably have their name carved on it, so it will exist as a monument to their values, which are centered around the maintenance of their self-regard, like the Schwarzman Building and the Koch Theater (which is at the fulcrum of the bad decisions made by wealthy board members that have ended up destroying New York City Opera). A quick and rough calculation tells me that would pay the salaries of a 100 person orchestra for about four years. Instead, there’s been silence in Minnesota for a full year.

Despite the instance of the privileged few and their mouthpieces, there is enough money in this country for everyone to enjoy a decent quality of life, and for musicians to receive proper compensation for their work. But we live in a society that constantly coddles the rich, that bathes them with infantile and unearned adulation. I’m not talking about just the Political-Media Industrial Complex, but culture organs like “Vanity Fair” and ESPN. We seem to be irrevocably stuck with the donor model for the arts, which means sucking up to plutocrats in hopes they’ll hand over some cash. Has any development officer suggested that substantial donations could be honored by having the donors’ names stitched into the musicians performing clothes, so to be prominently displayed to the audience? Or perhaps as part of the quid-pro-quo the musicians would legally change their names to those of the donors whose contributions funded their salaries? Synergy!

5493_1_PAA_BoO 1 TNA week or so past, I went up to the Park Avenue Armory, one of the most beautiful buildings in North America and one built by some of the richest men of the Gilded Age for their own enduring edification. The Armory has renovated its Board of Officers Room and will be programming chamber music in it. The room is gorgeous, redone by Herzog & de Meuron and a team of extraordinarily talented, patient and dedicated craftsmen and women. The sound is beautiful with a full, rounded resonance, and the renovation is a tribute to the skills, patience and dedication of real artisans. It was made possible by a $15 million donation from the Thompson Family Foundation, part of an overall $200 million renovation of the Armory. I certainly don’t begrudge them this, in fact the Armory is turning itself into one of the most important venues in New York City, and rivals BAM, Issue Project Room and Roulette for the creative chances they take.

There will be a fine looking recital series in the Board of Officers Room, and I’m especially excited to hear Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories played in such an acoustically rich setting. But tickets for the series start at $75, while at the Chamber Music Society you can buy a package of seven concerts starting at $340, less than $50 each for good seats. It’s not a terrible price, less than rock and pop concerts demand, but when I go hear classical music I always pay attention to the audience, the ages and colors and styles — who is the music reaching? That price is for a particular socio-economic niche, and it’s not one of the heavily populated ones.

A pleasant stroll away is the Metropolitan Museum of Art, themselves having some trouble with their prices. The law appears clear and right: the land belongs to the citizens of New York, the Museum exists to serve the public. But once the donation carousel starts, and you get people’s names on galleries, than a small group think they own the place, like they own everything. I saw the other side, beautifully, on Saturday. As part of the celebration of John Zorn’s 60th birthday, the Museum hosted his music from 10:00am – 8:00pm, free of charge with admissions, throughout the galleries. An a cappella group sang in the Medieval Sculpture court, Mike Patton screamed in the Temple of Dendur, Zorn himself blew sax in front of a Jackson Pollack (now there’s a NY moment!) and played the organ in the Arms and Armor Gallery. The crowds were substantial, surprising Concerts and Lectures director Limor Tomer. There was a core group of Zorn fans, and many others who wandered in a stuck around. It was a great public event, a thing of by and for the people. The Museum payed the musicians, the audience payed their way in, but it was modest and seemed free. The best part is that the spaces were full of people, and full of music.