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Riots And Grand Resignations

Here in the US, arts cuts play out far too often as stereotypical management vs. labor dramas. But in Europe, they take a different approach to dealing with perceived bean-counting decision making. Two items of note, from Estonia and Italy, are worth particular attention…

The 11/19/2010 edition of MusicalAmerica.com published an article by Susan Elliott that reports music director Neeme Järvi quit his position as Estonian National Symphony Orchestra music director shortly after the position began. Järvi made no attempt to conceal or sugarcoat the reasons why he left; he was distressed that the Estonian Culture Minister removed the orchestra’s general director for failing to make sufficient budget cuts.

Elliott painted a clear picture of just how deeply this issue ran for Järvi.

Järvi, 73, had become chief conductor in August in a triumphant return to the orchestra he had first lead in 1963, when Estonia was still under Soviet rule. He emigrated to the United States in 1980 after communist officials chastised him for performing a choral work that contained passages from the Bible.

“It was the dream of my life to return to work with my old orchestra and now that dream is ruined,” he wrote this week, in a letter to his lawyers.

As one of the orchestra’s principal stakeholders, it is easy to see why Järvi felt slighted but perhaps more meaningful is the process the local government used to arrive at and implement their decision. It is difficult to miss how this might be analogous to incidents unfolding at a handful of US orchestras.

Next up, we head south to Milan, Italy were demonstrations against government proposed steep cuts in arts funding turned aggressive. The 12/7/2010 edition of The Guardian published an article by John Hooper that reports before the opening night of La Scala “at least 10 police officers and an unknown number of demonstrators were taken to hospital after the skirmishes in which two home-made bombs were detonated.”

Inside the renowned opera house, Hooper writes that principal guest conductor, Daniel Barenboim, made a prepared speech critical of the cuts.

…the Israeli conductor turned to Italy’s president, Giorgio Napolitano, who was in the audience, and said: “For that title, and also in the names of the colleagues who play, sing, dance and work, not only here but in all theatres, I am here to tell you we are deeply worried for the future of culture in the country and in Europe.”

He then read out the ninth article of the Italian constitution, which says that the republic promotes “the development of culture and scientific and technical research”. The same article also promises that governments will safeguard the country’s “historical and artistic heritage”. The audience broke into applause, with Napolitano joining in.

Not only is it difficult to imagine public outrage to that degree over arts cuts here in the US but seeing a music director within the troubled organization making public statements with such candor is practically unheard of. In the few times it does happen, the reaction is usually swift and ends with the conductor losing his or her job. Remember Junichi Hirokami and the Columbus (OH) Symphony?

It is fascinating to observe the differences and similarities between the European and US cultural environments and their respective systems of governance. What are your observations?

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5 Responses to Riots And Grand Resignations

  1. lukebakken December 9, 2010 at 10:46 am #

    I performed a contrabassoon solo with the West German Radio Orchestra, Cologne in July this year.

    The concert program had neither advertisements nor lists of donors in it. Cologne is a city of about 1 million people, yet there are three full-time professional orchestras. I attended “Carmen” while I was there – the house was full, and half of the attendees looked to be in their 20s.

    The difference is that Europe has a long, deep cultural history, while America’s is short and pretty shallow (and getting shallower all the time). Unfortunately our national priorities don’t include arts support of any kind.

  2. Michael Comins December 9, 2010 at 1:06 pm #

    Several years ago, my wife and I were on a jet returning from Munich to JFK. Some German exchange students were talking in a nearby aisle. I beckoned to one young man to come over and chat.

    I asked him what kind of music he liked. He responded, “Oh, rock & roll.” I then asked him if it bothered him that some of his government tax funds went to arts support and to symphony, opera, ballet, etc. His response – “Oh no, it should.”

    I guess this adds just a little to lukebakken’s posting above.

  3. Cynthia Baker December 10, 2010 at 3:29 pm #

    I remember when the Phoenix Symphony conductor made a similar appeal to the public. (He was German.) Those were indeed happier times. He didn’t lose his job, but unfortunately he passed away not long after. When the people at the top care about the musicians as people, it makes a huge difference.

  4. pronetoviolins December 10, 2010 at 4:30 pm #

    When things are bad, the sacrifices required to make things right MUST be shared. There is nothing wrong with cutting arts budgets. Anything less only perpetuates the half-truth about the arts being elitist. Mozart died penniless – remember that.

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