Getting displaced by an orchestra that doesn't exist

This business about cheap Russian touring orchestras is getting out of hand:

The Web site photograph depicted an elegant array of orchestra musicians in a glowing hall. A video clip showed an earnest young conductor leading players in a Tchaikovsky symphony. Below the picture, an official biography described the “Tschaikowski” St. Petersburg State Orchestra as “an ensemble with unlimited musical possibilities.”

But according to one of Russia’s best-known conductors, Yuri Temirkanov, there is a problem: The images depicted were of orchestras unrelated to the Tchaikovsky. The photograph was of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, and the video showed the St. Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra. Both were playing in the city’s Philharmonic Hall, where the Tchaikovsky orchestra does not perform.

The materials appeared on the site of Columbia Artists Management in advance of a major American tour planned for next year.

“This Tchaikovsky orchestra doesn’t exist,” said Mr. Temirkanov, the music director of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, a storied orchestra that recently finished its own American tour. “Nobody knows who plays there. Maybe they got some sort of band. Maybe students. But they put the word ‘state.’ But there is no such orchestra, neither private or state.”

The response by offices of the orchestra that doesn’t exist was a longer version of “does too!” The response by CAMI was… silence.

There are two lessons for American orchestras in this rather slimy story. The first is that they are not immune from the threat of foreign competition even in their day job, which is of course live performance.

The second is that orchestras need to figure out that runouts and touring about not about net revenue but about broadening the base of support and demand for their services. In practical terms, that means 1) figuring out how to tour better programs (not assigning all runouts to the resident student assistant conductor would be a start); 2) figuring out how to tour cheaper, and 3) not trying to cover salary expenses by runout and touring fees.

Given that the history of orchestras from the former Soviet bloc touring the US has demonstrated that such tours are profit-making enterprises for someone – if not the musicians – this ought to be possible.

In the interim, perhaps the AFM could figure out a way to lean hard on CAMI. I can think of one or two off the top of my head; I’m sure there are more.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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