In light of the recent news about the Minnesota Orchestra, the New York City Opera, and all of the other small orchestras that have gone bankrupt recently, I was reminded of an article I read over the summer about the Berlin Philharmonic. As everyone has their opinions about who is at fault for the struggles of these American organizations, it would be beneficial to consider what an extremely successful organization is doing differently. Yes, orchestras such as the LA Philharmonic and the NY Philharmonic are extremely successful, but their general organizational structure is not all that different from any other American orchestra. The article titled The Coolest Band in the World was originally written several years ago, but earlier this year it was reposted with some clarification. This was to clear up the confusion as to how one can compare an orchestra, like the BPO, that receives a substantial amount of government subsidy to American orchestras that don’t receive any. The reposting of this article was prefaced with, “it doesn’t mater where resources come from…what is important is how resources are used to develop an organization into something of contemporary vibrancy”.
The most startling facts to me are in the way the BPO is governed. When it was originally founded in 1882, it involved a democratic system that empowered the musicians. Today, the orchestra is still built around this basic principle. There are ten members of The Board of Trustees. This group is made up of politicians from the Senate, musicians of the orchestra, members of the Friends of the Orchestra, and the chair of the Orchestra Academy. The Joint Executive Committee reports to the Trustees. This committee is made up of the Chief Conductor, General Manager, and two musicians. There are other committees as well, but the point is that the musicians are involved at every level. The musicians determine their concert schedules and tours. Although Sir Simon Rattle is influential, the committees help to make the final program decisions for guest conductors. Every member of the orchestra is in the audience, and gets a vote, during auditions for new members. With this setup, it is extremely difficult to imagine problems like we have seen in Minnesota. In Minnesota, there is the issue of the management versus the musicians, but in the BPO the management and the musicians are one. Sir Simon Rattle is on the executive committee, so it is impossible to imagine him in the situation Osmo Vanska has been dealing with.
Yet another reason it is hard to imagine the BPO ever being in a Minnesota-like situation is because of the way their players are paid. The base salary of all players is the equivalent of $117,000, and then principals receive 15 percent extra. Yes, they are making plenty of money. Regardless, they do not have the option of negotiating individual contracts like in American Orchestras. It is important to them that there is equity among members of the ensemble. That alone eliminates a financial issue that a lot of organizations here are dealing with.
Of course, there are also musical reasons why the BPO is incredibly successful. Their programs consist of a wide variety of music, from early music to new music. Extraordinary performances of this wide repertoire of music are all available on their online “Digital Concert Hall”. (Which, if you are unfamiliar with it, I highly recommend making the investment for at least a month to check it out.) The musicians perform as soloists and in chamber groups. They also, by choice, are involved in the community everywhere, from elementary schools to prisons. The musicians all understand the responsibility that they hold as individuals to maintain classical music in a contemporary world. I know that great musicians everywhere realize this and are also making a difference, but the BPO musicians have a huge advantage. They are facilitated by the democratic structure of the orchestra so that they can come together as individuals to share their ideas and make a difference as an organization. We can all learn a great deal from the example they are setting. It would take a lot for American Orchestras to get to this point of success, but maybe even a step in that direction would help avoid another situation like the one in Minnesota. It certainly would be difficult to rival the “Coolest Band in the World”, but still, a few more “cool bands” wouldn’t hurt the future of classical music.