29 NOVEMBER 2003, Page 63

Trouble in Manhattan

Petroc Trelawny on the malaise affecting the New York Philharmonic

New York

Concert-goers here have always been pretty scornful about the quality of music-making outside Manhattan. They believe that the New York Philhar

monic is simply America's greatest orchestra. Boston, they accept, has a pretty good ensemble; Chicago and Philadelphia 'ain't bad'; but don't try going any further west. California? That's for movie-makers and surfers, not lovers of Mozart and Schumann.

But as they brace themselves against the winter winds blowing off the Hudson River, New York's artistic cognoscenti are having to accept that the 'Golden State' has somehow managed to reinvent what an orchestra is about. As a result their grand old East Coast musical institution is looking a little left behind.

The Los Angeles Times is more interested in cinema than high culture. Yet it devoted two-thirds of its front page to the opening of the new Walt Disney Hall, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The inaugural concerts, featuring works by Lutoslawski. Ligeti, Ives and Adams, made a clear statement about the future direction of the orchestra. Its eternally young-looking conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen has already announced he's going to move his contemporary-music series into the new hall. Two thousand, three hundred seats are a lot to shift for a programme of modern works, but he is confident of selling out. Meanwhile his outreach work in Hispanic areas of LA is already bearing fruit, bringing new audiences to the orchestra's mainstream programmes.

In San Francisco, Michael Tilson Thomas is also highly regarded for his radical programming. People have been queuing up to buy tickets for his hugely successful 'Mavericks' seasons, examining American, and now European, musical pioneers. His orchestra has led the way in America by launching its own in-house record label, as the London Symphony Orchestra and Halle have done in the UK. It is also one of the first ensembles to have a fully integrated youth orchestra, dedicated to involving young people in music, as both players and audience members.

It is remarkable that the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony have managed to reinvent themselves so successfully. Change is difficult to bring about in the top-rank American orchestras — vast, inflexible organisations that dwarf their British counterparts. On the platform, the New York Philharmonic fields the same number of players as the London Symphony Orchestra, but behind the scenes it has more than twice as many administrative staff. Senior arts figures here accept that they have a problem — lavish pay deals and high staffing levels agreed during the boom years of the 1980s and 1990s are now strangling the big US orchestras. A rank-and-file violinist will earn a starting salary of around £60,000 — compared with £30,000 at a leading British orchestra. Musicians' contracts are thicker than the score of Mahler's Eighth Symphony, and run to the most minute detail.

Government funding is almost non-existent in the USA. Though the National Endowment for the Arts is run by a former classical music critic, he has just £72 million to spend across all arts forms. The Arts Council of England's annual budget is £335 million. When money is short, American orchestras have to turn to their corporate and private donors, and their own endowment funds. In Pittsburgh, play

ers recently donated $1,000 each in order to shame local businesses into giving financial support. At the New York Philharmonic, the falling stock market has cut the value of its endowments by 30 per cent. A downturn in ticket sales since 9/11 means its finances are pretty tight. Yet the orchestra seems to be doing little to address its current malaise.

The NYPO works hard. This month it will have played a total of 16 concerts in its home at Avery Fisher Hall, featuring seven different musical programmes, some of them repeated four times. In comparison London's five orchestras will have given 23 concerts — but almost all of them are oneoff events. Under its music director Lorin Maazel, the NYPO's programming is conservative in the extreme. Though it has an Ives festival planned for next spring, most of its concerts follow the old-fashioned overture–concerto–symphony pattern, with lots of the Berlioz, Beethoven, Mahler and Strauss that appeal to its traditional Upper East Side white, rich and ageing audience. Every summer its annual season of free concerts in New York's parks attracts thousands, but the orchestra finds it hard to convince outdoor patrons subsequently to buy tickets for formal concerts.

American orchestras have always been very clever at engendering civic pride. Citizens of LA, San Francisco, Cleveland and Boston feel they own a stake in their orchestra, even if they don't regularly attend its concerts. In the old days, under conductors like Leonard Bernstein, New Yorkers were fully behind their orchestra. Now it provokes little more than a shrug of the shoulders. The NYPO seems to have become remote from all but its regular patrons.

The other big problem is its home, Avery Fisher Hall. Many in the music business here breathed a sigh of relief when the recent merger talks between the NYPO and Carnegie Hall collapsed. It has been clear for decades now that the acoustics in Avery Fisher are simply not good enough for such an important ensemble. As an orchestra manager remarked, 'It's like keeping a Rolls-Royce in a lock-up.' Carnegie Hall, however, has near-perfect acoustics — which explains why it is rarely dark. Other New York music groups, like the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, play there, and it provides a home for dozens of visiting ensembles every year: the Berlin Philharmonic and the Orchestre de Paris among this month's highlights. None of them would have willingly given up their Carnegie Hall dates to make way for the Philharmonic.

Both organisations are now suggesting the plan was only at a very tentative stage when it was leaked to the press and immediately gained momentum. A lot of backpeddling is going on and the NYPO's relationship with the Lincoln Center (parent body of Avery Fisher Hall) will take a long time to heal. While the move was still under discussion, the Lincoln Center board considered legal action; subsequently they are said to have felt 'betrayed'.

Animosity aside, it looks like the NYPO and Avery Fisher Hall are stuck with each other. There was briefly a plan to raze the hall to the ground and build a new one but it collapsed due to the estimated cost (in excess of $400 million) and because of resistance from the Fisher family who assumed that their father's name would stay above the door in perpetuity. So a refurbishment is in the offing instead. Getting better acoustics is a notoriously tricky business — attempts to improve sound at the Barbican and Royal Festival Hall in London have had mixed results.

Will it work?' I asked one New York concert agent. 'Ask Mrs M. on the way out,' he answered. Mrs M. turned out to be a tarot-card reader, operating from his Broadway basement. If the New York Philharmonic is to retain its status as one of the world's great orchestras, it must urgently examine a lot of issues about its future. And it needs to look further than Mrs M. for the answers.