‘Who Killed Classical Music?’

Provided photo

Provided photo

Jim Lowe

I recently finished reading the controversial English columnist Norman Lebrecht’s book on the history of the classical music business.

Although “Who Killed Classical Music?” was released in 1996, and despite the writer’s overuse of hyperbole, it offers great insight into the problems of classical music today.

And the root causes can be distilled into one word: greed.

Although there have long been financial promoters of classical music, it didn’t become big business until the 19th century, with superstar pianist Franz Liszt’s European tours and P.T. Barnum’s exploitation in the United States of the soprano Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale.”

But, it wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that conductors’ and soloists’ fees became so exorbitant as to threaten the future of classical music. And just three or four people share most of the blame.

Ronald Wilford (1927-2015) headed New York’s Columbia Artists Management Inc., perhaps the most powerful music management of the 20th century, for more than 30 years. His first success was introducing the great French mime Marcel Marceau to the U.S. That was his entry to CAMI, where he went after the crown jewel of the company, the conductors division. (I worked for CAMI for several years in the late ’70s, and met Wilford once, at a company party at his Upper East Side home.)

Wilford not only became exclusive manager of conductors Herbert von Karajan, James Levine, Claudio Abbado, Seiji Ozawa, Riccardo Muti, Kurt Masur and Colin Davis, he had more than a hundred other conductors in his stable. (Leonard Bernstein, one of the few major conductors not under Wilford’s thumb, was said to have loathed the manager.) That meant when any American orchestra needed a music director or guest conductor, it needed to go to Wilford.

What a lot of folks don’t know is that an orchestra’s music director must pay a portion of their salary, often 20 percent, to their manager. But that wasn’t enough for Wilford. He was able to influence his conductors to choose his and CAMI’s soloists, all the time raising the fees.

Those increasing fees became an ever-larger percentage of orchestras’ budgets. That meant higher ticket prices and smaller audiences. Wilford once famously said he wasn’t concerned with the fates of orchestras or operas, only his clients. That says it all.

Wilford’s most important “co-conspirator” was von Karajan (1908-89), the most successful conductor in history, who left an estate in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Once simultaneously music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, London’s Philharmonic Orchestra and the Salzburg Festival, he was dubbed “conductor of Europe.”

Karajan “on principal” demanded that he and his soloists be paid more than anyone else. As a Wilford artist, he hired Wilford and CAMI soloists, and was instrumental in creating Levine’s career in Europe. Together, Wilford and Karajan cleaned up. In fact, Wilford’s power was tempered by Karajan’s death.

Classical music’s P.T. Barnum was Mark McCormack (1930-2003), the lawyer and sports magnate responsible for The Three Tenors’ mega-concerts. As agent for the likes of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, he made the game of golf an international money maker, later doing the same for tennis with Björn Borg and Chris Evert, among many others, taking both sports to television. Like Wilford, he was able to continually jack up their fees.

McCormick, perhaps in a desire for “respectability,” decided to buy his way into the classical music world, kindled by a chance meeting with the great soprano Kiri Te Kanawa on an English golf course. He decided to do for music what he did for sports, developing arena opera and concerts, attracting thousands to each, as well as TV and recording rights. The performers, like the three tenors, were cleaning up. Why should they waste their time on symphony or opera gigs for a few thousand a night?

What is ironic is that this approach is proving self-destructive for everyone. Exorbitant fees are killing orchestras and concert series, so there is less and less work for the musicians — and their managers.

We are fortunate to live in Vermont, where there was never much money anyway, and fee expectations are low. Although they must make their livings, musicians here play for the love of music. And we are the beneficiaries.

Jim Lowe is music critic and arts editor of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald, and can be reached at jim.lowe@rutlandherald.com.