The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Are super-high concert fees morally right or wrong? Do they contribute to the wealth gap and lack of young audiences? What can music consumers do?

October 24, 2014
20 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Are artist concert fees — like those charged by tenor Placido Domingo (below top), soprano Renee Fleming (below middle) and violinist Itzhak Perlman (below bottom) —  too high these days and too unaffordable for most American concert-goers?

FRENI

reneefleming

Itzhak Perlman close

What would Janet say?

Maybe that refrain could become the economic equivalent of What Would Jesus Say?

I am speaking of Janet Yellen (below), the chairwoman of the Federal Reserve who last week made headlines when she spoke out publicly against the widening wealth gap as being contrary to America’s historic democratic ideals.

Key Speakers At Seminars At The IMF & World Bank Annual Meetings

But let’s localize the issue.

By all accounts superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma, along with pianist Kathryn Stott, turned in a terrific performance — his seventh — at the Wisconsin Union Theater last Saturday night.

The Ear didn’t go, but here is a rave review from the student newspaper The Badger Herald, which agrees with the word-of-mouth reviews I have heard:

http://badgerherald.com/artsetc/2014/10/20/yo-yo-ma-and-kathryn-scott-transcend-classical-music-norms-at-shannon-hall/#.VEfBQYeENUQ

yo-yo ma and kathryn stott

And for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t buy tickets, the Wisconsin Union Theater even webcast the concert live and for free.

Still, with seats that sold for well over $100, The Ear got to wondering: Are really high artist fees morally right or wrong?

We all hear about the widening wealth gap, and especially about the astronomical pay given to CEOs versus their workers as compared to the same ratio several decades ago.

Well, what about well-known and in-demand concert artists?

If The Ear heard correctly, Yo-Yo Ma’s fee for that one-night performance was either $90,000 or $95,000 -– or about $42,500 or $45,000 an hour.

Can Yo-Yo Ma demand and get that extravagant fee in the so-called “free market” society with its corporate welfare and tax loopholes for the wealthy? Of course, he can — and he does. That is why he sold out the Wisconsin Union Theater.

But should he?

It makes one wonder.

Is Yo-Yo Ma really that much better as a cellist and musician -– and not just as a celebrity — than many other cellists, including MacArthur “genius grant” winner Alisa Weilerstein, Alban Gerhardt, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Steven Isserlis, Carter Brey, Joshua Roman and others? (You can hear Yo-Yo Ma’s interpretation of a movement from a solo cello suite by Johann Sebastian Bach in a  YouTube video — with over 11 million hits — at the bottom and decide if it is that much better than other cellists play it.)

Now I don’t mean to pick just on Yo-Yo Ma. I have gone to a half-dozen of his other performances here and I have met him and talked with him. He is without doubt a great musician, a fine human being and an exemplary humanitarian.

The problem that I am talking about transcends any single performer and applies to the whole profession.

Maybe at least part of the problem of attracting young audiences to classical music concerts can be placed right in the laps of the performing artists themselves.

When The Ear was young, he got to hear all sorts of great musical artists—including Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Rubinstein (below), Vladimir Horowitz, Van Cliburn, Itzhak Perlman, Rudolf Serkin, Isaac Stern, Emanuel Ax and others for quite affordable prices. Not that those artists didn’t live well -– but I doubt that they were paid the equivalent of $45,000 an hour.

artur rubinstein in moscow 1964

Maybe it is time for economic populism in the performing arts.

Fees like that exclude a lot of families from participating. Some fans might find it better and cheaper to hear a CD or download than go to a live concert.

Too many performing artists – opera stars come immediately to mind as a class — seem to have taken the same path toward justifying greed as movie stars, sports figures, rock stars and CEO’s who make out like bandits.

In short, can it be that classical musicians are helping to kill off classical music?

Smaller theaters like the Wisconsin Union Theater and even the Overture Center simply cannot book such well-known artists without charging a ridiculous amount of money for a seat – and at a time when many people of all ages just can’t afford it. It just adds to the Wealth Gap and the One Percent problem.

SO THE EAR WOULD LIKE TO ASK CONCERT ARTISTS: PLEASE ADJUST YOUR CONCERT FEES TO HELP SUSTAIN THE FUTURE OF YOUR ART.

Well, these are just some brain droppings.

The Ear wonders what you think of stratospheric artist fees?

Do they contribute to the wealth gap?

Do they hurt the popularity of the art form, especially younger generations?

Are they contributing to the decline of cultural literacy?

In short, are such high artist fees morally right or wrong?

And if wrong, what can we arts consumers do about it? Boycott certain artists until they become more reasonable in their fees?

Ask artist and management agencies to adjust the fees to make them more affordable?

Go to alternative concerts that are perfectly acceptable without star power and cost less or, like those at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, free?

Tell us what you think in a COMMENT.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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