Monday, June 8, 2009

How does great music engender such bitter people?

I am soliciting opinions on the following: how in the world is it that so many people who are involved in the classical music business are so bitter? It is hard for me to see how either playing the music of Beethoven or Mahler or being a behind-the-scenes person who brings Beethoven and Mahler to the public can make one quite so unhappy. For goodness sakes, it's a privilege - most people have jobs that allow little or no room for emotion or expression or beauty or a glimpse of the eternal. Very few people hear applause at the conclusion of their workday. But if, for example, you have the good fortune to play in a great symphony orchestra (which comes with an income that is solidly upper middle class, every imaginable insurance benefit, etc.) and you play the works of great composers at least *most* of the time, how can you complain? Yet I can tell you that orchestra musicians, on average, are very very very unhappy. Of course I have never had the experience of being in an orchestra, so I am probably missing something - but as a pianist who depends quite a bit on the annual whims of different concert presenters to find out whether I will be able to pay the mortgage or not, I find it hard to understand the bitterness. I know I'd have a more stable income as an attorney, for example, but it is a great joy and privilege to play great music for people.

Likewise the people in the music "business". Recently I have had the good fortune to get a new manager, someone who is relatively new to the business (though experienced in the music world). He is a hugely enthusiastic and energetic guy, who is of course trying to make a living, but genuinely loves music and wants to see people succeed. I have had other good managers in the past, but most recently I had someone helping me at a sort of minimal level. She explained at the outset of our relationship that she would not be making any phone calls on my behalf to help get concerts, but would be willing to negotiate contracts, etc, as offers came in. As it turns out I only worked with her on one concert during two years - it was clear that she had little interest or time to spend in helping me and after all she wasn't getting anything out of the arrangement financially. (It is typical for a manager to take 20% of each concert's fees). All of my exchanges with her consisted of me doing my best to be polite and grateful, to which she would respond curtly and with a tone that suggested I was taking too much of her valuable time. So I thanked her and told her I would from now on be managed by someone else, and that I appreciated and admired her work. Within minutes of sending her this email, she wrote back just to disparage this new manager and to sarcastically wish me luck. What a bitter, bitter, small person! Apparently it makes her feel better to speak ill of others.

I went to an extraordinary high school, Crossroads School in Santa Monica, CA, which recruited young musicians and, in addition to a great liberal arts education, gave us music theory, orchestra, chamber music, and the camaraderie of fellow music "nerds" who spent all our time practicing instead of "hanging out" or whatever normal teenagers do after school. We have had an exceptional group of alumni - that's the subject of another blog post, I suppose - but there was one violinist in particular who, when we were students, was practically a demigod to the rest of us. Nowadays he has an incredibly prestigious and wonderful position but I remember that this exceptional young kid moved to New York at age 16 or 17 to study at Juilliard and that experience seemed to really beat him down to where, for a time, he seemed bitter and confused and cold. His playing, which had always been fiery and brilliant, became dull and removed. (I have not seen him in years, but I know he has recovered from all that!). Somehow music went from being art to being a business - I think that can happen when you are in New York. Of course, the struggle just to pay one's rent and parking in New York probably turns everyone in to desperate animals. But does that have to happen? New York is probably the cultural capital of the world - it certainly seems to have the greatest concentration of great concerts happening, basically within a couple of square miles. Can't you live in New York and be inspired by great art, instead of being turned in to a soulless shell?

But I shouldn't single out New York - a few years ago I was playing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and I had a number of old friends in the orchestra. It took them till the second rehearsal to remember to be friendly to me - as if they had become so hardened and jaded by the "business" that they had only a dim recollection of fun times playing Brahms Trios and the like.

And conductors... why are so many of them so unpleasant? Does it make them feel that they are somehow more important, more authoritative? Of course I know many conductors who are wonderful people - but how are the rest of them getting hired at all? Are they such great musicians that they don't need to bother to be civil and courteous and human? (Generally this is NOT the case!)

Well, if you have answers to any of these great mysteries, please share them! Meanwhile, don't forget that the Beethoven "Archduke" Trio is one of mankind's greatest accomplishments - and that the "music business" exists to bring that piece together with a world of people whose lives will be better if they spend 30 minutes listening to it.

And oh yeah, as a piece of advice - I don't think you will REALLY feel better about yourself by talking down about others.