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New York Times to classical orchestras: Show us the birth certificates!

The New York Times ran a very strange article today on the apparently troubling phenomenon of traveling orchestras misrepresenting their national credentials: The Dublin Philharmonic that played two years ago in nearly 50 towns? Mostly Bulgarians. The Moscow State Radio Symphony Orchestra that toured the United States last year? Largely freelancers. The “Tschaikowski” St. Petersburg ...

BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images
BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images

The New York Times ran a very strange article today on the apparently troubling phenomenon of traveling orchestras misrepresenting their national credentials:

The Dublin Philharmonic that played two years ago in nearly 50 towns? Mostly Bulgarians. The Moscow State Radio Symphony Orchestra that toured the United States last year? Largely freelancers. The “Tschaikowski” St. Petersburg State Orchestra, which is scheduled for a major American tour next year? Even the man advertised as its principal guest conductor said he had never heard of it. 

A close look at these groups shows a pattern of creative marketing — even truth shading — concerning credentials and identities. At the least, audiences often do not know what they are getting, even though visa regulations require the groups to be “recognized internationally as outstanding” and to have had three-quarters of the same players for at least a year. Many of these groups are in fact pickup ensembles or have little reputation, even in their home countries. […]

While smaller, lesser-known foreign orchestras can make important contributions to local cultural life, they also bring surprises.

For Jane Schumacher, the surprise came on Jan. 23, 2009, when the Dublin Philharmonic played a concert at the Etherredge Center for the Performing Arts, where she is executive director, at the University of South Carolina, Aiken. Going backstage before the concert to meet the musicians, she said, she heard them speaking several languages. None had an Irish lilt.

The horror!

It seems like there are two seperate issues that are being conflated here. One is that many orchestras associated with a particular country feature musicians from many other countries. Another is that some, but not all, of these orchestras suck:

The local concert presenters like the cachet of foreign names and the small price tags, which are on average less than half of the fees of major international orchestras, like the Vienna Philharmonic or the London Symphony. Those fees can top $100,000 a concert.

And it is true that an orchestra’s makeup is not necessarily a comment on quality. The “Dubliners” received good reviews from critics and presenters two years ago, although the Moscow orchestra, as heard last year at a performance in the Bronx, would have had trouble matching up to a midlevel conservatory orchestra.

So isn’t the issue here that concert promoters should to their homework before they hire a second-tier orchestra rather than the nationality of these groups? If the Dublin philharmonic plays well, who cares if it features Bulgarians?  (There’s also a subtle condescending attitude toward Eastern Europeans running through the article, which is pretty bizarre for a piece about classical music.)

In any case, a quick scan of the website of that little pick-up ensemble called the New York Philharmonic reveals musicians from Japan, South Korea, Russia, Britain and China — and that’s just in the violin section! Something tells me that the Times wouldn’t run an article complaining that there are too many foreigners taking jobs from American violinists. 

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