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Blair Tindall and the Classical Music 'Jungle'

The world of classical music is customarily viewed from the staid remove of seats in a concert hall. Oboeist-turned-journalist Blair Tindall gives a very different perspective in her book Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music.

Her insider's account tells two stories -- an analysis of classical music over the past 50 years or so, and an autobiographical account of sex, drugs and struggling to make a living in a rarified world.

Read an excerpt from the book:

From Chapter Four, "New World Symphony"

Sam Sanders had succeeded despite huge physical odds. Born with a life expectancy of nine years, he twice benefited from medical advances that saved his life at the eleventh hour. The credit for his musical career, however, was his. Sam rose to prominence but still had to piece together a living, artistic or not, by playing radio and television variety shows, performing an array of recitals, and recording whatever paid best.

When Sam started out in the 1950s, few financial resources were available to classical musicians. No federal or state arts council would exist until 1960. With so few meal tickets, Sam learned to rely on the musical network that brought him work as an accompanist, and the social circle whose money backed organizations and performance projects.

Musicians like Sam earned good fees playing community concert series, but the money was whittled away by expenses. He might earn $450 for a performance; after paying the presenter, manager, piano rental, hotel, travel, advertising, promotion, and buying formal wear, he'd have no more than $75 in his pocket. Health and retirement benefits were luxuries.

During the 1950s, music groups began extending their seasons, and philanthropic organizations formed to offer support. New competitions sprang up offering cash awards, debut recitals, and concert management contracts. Until this time, only two major contests in America existed in the entire classical music community: the Naumburg Prize, founded in 1926, and the Leventritt Prize, founded in 1940. In addition, jet travel was just starting to allow a soloist to fit in more concerts, and paychecks, than ever before.

Musicians like me, born a generation after Sam, entered a very different music business, one filled with opportunity relative to that of earlier eras. During the 1960s, funding mushroomed for arts education, performing groups, and concert series. Jobs were still not plentiful compared to many nonmusical professions, but the improvement was so dramatic, I assumed that a fairly active arts world had always existed, complete with big audiences who clapped in all the right places.

"The American attitude toward the arts has completed a 180-degree turn since the end of World War II," wrote Alvin Toffler in The Culture Consumers. "From one of apathy, indifference, and even hostility, it has become one of eager, if sometimes ignorant, enthusiasm."

The apathy, Toffler argued, began in Puritan days, as settlers came to value work above idle pleasures. Statutes forbade plays, dancing, and "unprofitable" books along with smoking, drinking and gambling. Even so, theater, painting, and music emerged by the late 1700s as villages grew to cities, and hardscrabble lives became more comfortable. George Washington had urged Congress in 1789 to "accelerate the progress of art and science; to patronize works of genius," though his plea inspired little action at the time.

Until the late nineteenth century, American arts paid their own way. Market demand drove impresarios who survived only by producing art an audience could, and would, buy at competitive prices like a retail product. The nineteenth century scheme was also subsidized by performers willing to trade low salaries for artistic gratification partially subsidized that era’s scheme of producing entertainment, according to arts analyst John Kreidler.

To please the audience, presenters bowed to popular taste, mixing Shakespeare and Mozart with drinking songs and circus acts. Applause, shouts, hisses, stamping, jeers, and whistles punctuated performances, inspiring the orchestra to substitute "Tally ho the grinders" or "Yankee Doodle" for the classical overture.

European opera stars crisscrossed the country during the mid-1800s on lucrative tours, injecting popular tunes like "An Old Man Would Be a Wooing" into a Rossini opera, which might then be followed by a comic play. Once English-language performances made stories even more accessible, the New York Home Journal declared "opera has become a popular taste."

Concert music, without the entertainment value of a story line, was still something of a Eurocentric rarity and few instrumental concert performances were presented in the U.S. during the mid-nineteenth century. The wealthy traveled abroad for classical music. Members of the small middle class waited for European artists to tour America, while the working man had neither time nor money for sophisticated entertainment. Bands and orchestras began forming, sometimes playing a few classical pieces, but the groups could not attract an audience without combining the Beethoven symphonies with polkas and popular music.

When the New York Philharmonic was founded in 1842, it gave four concerts per season. A workers' cooperative, its musicians maximized resources. They shared profits, chose their own conductor and determined his salary, substituted violin for a missing oboe. They sold tickets even to rehearsals. During their summer seasons in a Central Park beer garden, conductor Theodore Thomas had to juxtapose waltzes and Wagner, complaining that "circumstances force me to prostitute my art and my talents."

One Philadelphia paper in 1899 noted the general public wasn't interested enough in classical music to buy tickets for it, declaring "promoters must expect to pay the piper." Pay they did, as wealthy elites of the era began to fund arts groups in order to satisfy their own preferences. Maestro Thomas's yen for pure classics became a reality when orchestras began divorcing themselves from the marketplace through guaranteed funding. As the necessity of pleasing a paying audience diminished, elitist, "pure" culture rose above the common entertainment, creating a wide chasm between the two.

Art became a lofty pursuit, and Americans began regarding concert halls as cultural shrines, music as uplifting mysticism. "The sermons in behalf of the arts then preached (and which continue to be preached) laid a heavy moral burden on an experience that elsewhere was considered simply sophisticated entertainment," wrote author Alice Goldfarb Marquis in Art Lessons.

Elites then controlled cultural policy by forming nonprofit organizations, which served as central clearinghouses of financial arts support. Under the aegis of these board-run operations, orchestras formed in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Minneapolis and San Francisco.

The nonprofit model pasted "an altruistic, morally chaste veneer over basically self-serving activities," wrote Marquis. Arts marketing was born. By selling culture as snake oil for the masses, elites could engineer a city's artistic life to separate themselves from commoners, creating a smokescreen of cultural ritual that also distanced performers from their audience.

The New York Philharmonic's musicians finally relinquished control to a board of directors in 1908, accepting a $90,000 note from Andrew Carnegie, J.P Morgan, and also Joseph Pulitzer, who left them ten times that amount upon his death, but only if their programs included his favorite musical warhorses.

A new system of American taxation in the early twentieth century further changed the business of philanthropy. When the country’s first income tax bill was enacted in 1913, charitable giving dropped when wealthy scions had to find the money to pay large sums to the government. There was a positive side to the 1913 bill, however, which gave nonprofit organizations like orchestras a new benefit of tax exemption. A second tax bill, in 1917, created a deduction for contributions to those nonprofits. The resulting tax incentives once again spurred philanthropy.

When the 1929 stock market crash devoured fortunes, foundation donations to the arts declined from $1.3 million to $740,000 between 1930 and 1933. Only a few organizations funded culture during the Great Depression, among them the Carnegie Corporation, which provided eighty-two percent of all foundation arts donations until virtually withdrawing all arts funding in 1943. In the following years, audiences sought lighter fare like movies, radio and stage shows, which were popular as relief to the grim realities of the era's everyday life.

World War II immigration built a fervent audience of European Americans, many of them amateur or professional musicians. As the war ended, a renewed sense of democracy diffused the elite's monopoly on artistic taste, opening the concepts of high and low culture to debate and often mixing the two. Operatic legends Lauritz Melchior, Risë Stevens and Ezio Pinza appeared in Hollywood films, soprano Beverly Sills hawked Rinso soap powder on the radio, and dancers Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire moved between the worlds of Broadway and ballet.

The Eisenhower era produced four million children each year born into a healthy economy where luxuries were commonplace, and technology freed the growing population to enjoy leisure activities. Real income had grown fifty percent between 1941 and 1952. The 1944 G.I. bill spent $14.5 billion to educate 7.8 million veterans, guaranteeing free tuition to a generation gaining the knowledge and income to appreciate the arts.

Americans of all ages participated in the arts, with one in six involved in cultural pursuits. One symphony's 1955 demographic survey revealed fifty-four percent of its audience was under thirty-five. Between 1940 and 1960, musical instrument sales quintupled, and more than half the world’s orchestras were located in America.

In this environment, the nonprofit Ford Foundation budgeted $57 million in 1951 for programs promoting peace, democracy, world economy, education, and interpersonal behavior. The foundation's first five-year arts and humanities program spent $2 million annually, starting a tab that would total $320 million by 1974. A private foundation, Ford was not accountable to taxpayers in its choice of artists, often giving large grants to develop a nascent organization over many years.

America declared superiority in technology, education, and industry, but the U.S. government saw the Soviets' cultural wealth as a threat. Echoing nineteenth century "arts religion," government leaders promised spiritual and social benefit for any community that launched an active cultural life. Bach and Beethoven would provide sublime, divine revelation, or, as one Life magazine story of the era stated, "impose form and meaning on the increasing complexities of the human experience." Europe and Russia had something America did not -- a complex creative class that had evolved over centuries. Not to be outdone, Americans wanted one too, and instantly.

"The sooner we can implement a program of selling our culture to the uncommitted people of the world as a weapon, the better off we are," said New Jersey congressman Frank Thompson, in 1954. Four years later, that "weapon" arrived, in the form of one Texan pianist so unpopular that Columbia Artists Management was considering dropping him from their rural touring program.

When pianist Van Cliburn won Moscow's Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, he beat the Russians at their own game. New Yorkers threw him a ticker-tape parade down Fifth Avenue, and politicians declared the arts essential to a free society. Dwight Eisenhower signed a bill to build a National Cultural Center (later re-named the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts), John F. Kennedy appointed an honorary arts council, and Jacqueline Kennedy brought Pablo Casals, Leonard Bernstein, Paul Hindemith, and Igor Stravinsky to the White House.

In the early sixties, The Rockefeller Brothers Fund examined the future development of the performing arts. Their published study, "The Performing Arts: Problems and Prospects," suggested that a more active cultural life would benefit all classes of Americans:

...the arts are not for a privileged few but for the many, that their place is not on the periphery of society but at its center, that they are not just a form of recreation but are of central importance to our well-being and happiness. In the panel’s view, this status will not be widely achieved unless artistic excellence is the constant goal of every artist and every arts organization, and mediocrity is recognized as the ever-present enemy of true progress in the development of the arts.

The Rockefeller report did not carefully examine how to pay for the vast arts programs it promoted. However, New York's most powerful men did find a way to capitalize on the idea, with plans of arts centers that would profit them as businessmen while painting them as beneficent cultural patrons. By 1962, construction of at least sixty-one performing arts complexes was underway nationwide, increasing real estate values and development and protecting a city's value and appeal as postwar residents were fleeing to suburbia. Although the centers looked like a boon to arts groups, they were a mixed blessing. The performing organizations would soon find that their elegant new surroundings increased operating costs dramatically.

"The raison d'etre for Lincoln Center was dubious from the beginning," observed New Yorker journalist Paul Goldberger. "It originated with Robert Moses, not Leonard Bernstein, and Moses didn't care much for opera, or theatre, or symphony orchestras. He just figured that they could serve as a magnet for development."

America still exhibited an inferiority complex about its cultural life, so even the very structure of New York's Lincoln Center echoed the Eurocentric activity inside its buildings. Tennessee pink marble had been good enough for Washington's National Gallery in 1941, but Cold War concert halls had to be built from European bricks and mortar. For Lincoln Center, travertine marble was brought from the quarries that built St. Peter's basilica in the Vatican, with the Metropolitan Opera's enormous murals by Russian-French painter Marc Chagall taking center stage on the plaza.

A multi-million-dollar industry revolving around performing arts complexes like Lincoln Center blossomed, providing new business for contractors, service industry, transportation, investment companies, law offices, and accounting firms. Moving companies provided exhibition tour packages, with insurance firms securing the precious artworks. Consultants peddled management surveys to orchestras, troupes, and civic organizations planning the arts centers, while manufacturers sold the centers' ingredients: carpeting, seats, lighting, concrete, steel, easels and industrial tiles.

Paying for it all became a staggering prospect. Orchestra trustees accustomed to plugging a five- or six-figure deficit each year shrank in terror when confronted with skyrocketing costs, as groups mounted longer seasons and more elaborate productions within the costly new arts centers. A New York City Opera performance at Lincoln Center's New York State Theater ended up costing nearly five times what it had at its old home, the populist City Center on Fifty-fifth Street. Even though the opera nearly sold out its new house at sharply higher ticket prices, the company’s annual deficit leapt from $325,000 to $1.8 million soon after the move.

Paid for largely by contributors, the complexes themselves cost a fortune. Some $144 million of Lincoln Center's $185 million construction cost came from private sources. The Metropolitan Opera's $32 million construction estimate rocketed to $50 million, and putting on its operas consumed ten percent of all music production expenditures in the entire country.

When President Eisenhower broke ground for Lincoln Center in 1959, he proclaimed that "a mighty influence for peace and understanding throughout the world" would grow out of what was then a $75 million complex. The cost had grown to $100,000 million one year later and $170 million by 1963. Private contributors, most notably the Ford, Rockefeller, James, and Avalon Foundations and the Carnegie Corporation, continued pouring new grants into Lincoln Center’s snowballing budget, but in its seventh year, the project teetered on bankruptcy. A summer music festival and film series were canceled, staff cut, and plans for an administration building were scrapped. At last two donors, John D. Rockefeller 3rd and Lawrence Wien, gave $1.25 million apiece, which, with more foundation, city, and individual funds, finally paid off Lincoln Center's building fund. Nearly ten thousand donors had contributed to the Lincoln Center project.

As Lincoln Center's crisis was averted by 1970, its administrators now faced the problem of paying for sharply increased operating costs, which totaled $40 million annually for all of the center's constituents. Amyas Ames, chairman of Lincoln Center's executive committee, predicted in 1970 that the complex's total deficit would increase from $11 million to $20 million in only three years, only a fraction of which could be recouped by higher ticket prices. If the arts were a public good, as their businessmen-architects claimed, the government had to step in.

From Mozart in the Jungle by Blair Tindall. Published by permission. Grove/Atlantic Press.

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