Classical Discord

For three decades, Mariedi Anders has used Old World grace and negotiating acumen to create significant American careers for serious European musicians. Now, the doyenne of West Coast classical music agents faces a new challenge: the globalization of the

So she took a flight to the Continent, naively thinking she'd find someone to help her arrange a few concert dates there for the handful of U.S. artists she had recruited.

"With this artist list, which I had printed on a piece of paper, I went to Europe. My first stop in Europe was Rome, where I thought I was going to sell my artists. I didn't know there were any rules and regulations. I didn't have any idea. Somehow, I found out about a big agency's name there in Rome, and I went to see them. When I arrived at the office I noticed that all the famous musicians in Italy were under their management. And you can imagine, here I was with a list of unknown Americans. The woman there, who owned the agency, she said, 'I'm not really interested,' " Anders says.

"I was pretty upset. I'd made this expensive trip, and I thought I was going to come home with some engagements for my artists. I said, 'You know, I've come all the way from San Francisco to see you. Couldn't we at least have lunch together?' So that day, we talked, and I said, 'I'm so glad you had lunch with me, because I would be ashamed to return to San Francisco, and not have any rapport with anybody.' And she said, 'You know, I like you. I started my business exactly the same way.' And she said, 'How would you like to represent Rome's Boccherini Quintet in the U.S.?'

"It was a very famous string quintet, and because I am a music lover and a concertgoer, I knew the Boccherini Quintet. They had been in America before and even in San Francisco. I'd heard them. They were wonderful. I said, 'I'd love to.' I had no idea how I was going to go about it."

She nonetheless managed to arrange a successful 1961 U.S. tour for the quintet, and soon convinced a handful more musicians to let her represent them in the United States.

She hired a secretary and began taking more frequent trips to Europe. Riding on the crest of a U.S. classical music boom, she trawled the Continent for artists who needed management in the U.S. and, by custom, couldn't get it from their European managers.

Though she has received many hundreds of inquiries from performers over the years, she has chosen not to become as large as the giant agencies of New York.

"My list is small, and I give very personal care to my artists," she says of the 91 singers, conductors, instrumentalists, and chamber ensembles whose careers she directs. "A woman with 15 children doesn't pay as much attention to all her children as a woman with one."

While classical music is usually associated with its creative aspects -- the ingenuity of its composers, the skill of its musicians, the beauty of its sound -- it is also a business. During the 1995-96 season, U.S. symphony orchestras took in and spent $898 million, according to the American Symphony Orchestra League. And in California alone, symphony orchestra budgets total around $123 million annually, a figure that does not include festivals, operas, chamber music series, and other such events.

At the top levels of this business are silk-tongued symphony executives, cloying managers, and self-important traveling stars. In the middle are big-orchestra, front-office flacks, small-orchestra directors, and regal board members who set business policy for orchestras of every size. On the bottom are the journeyman musicians, who, if they are lucky, work for an hourly wage, under a union contract, for a fair-size orchestra. If they are not lucky, they work in as many as a half-dozen small-town "pickup" orchestras, finding free-lance symphony gigs where they can, perhaps doing some television work on the side. These musicians often earn less than $20,000 per year, and even experienced, full-time musicians with midsize orchestras rarely earn more than a kindergarten teacher.

In their poverty, these performers dream of someday becoming traveling guest performers, perhaps making the roster of a prominent agent. Like television actors, broadcast journalists, and other career strivers, these musicians spend much of their time polishing resumes, networking on the phone, and corresponding with potential employers. The orchestra directors spend their days begging money from corporations, rich patrons, and poorer ones.

The agents feed off allied conceits: the musicians' desire for brilliant careers, the orchestra directors' hope that the presence of a well-known guest artist will prop up a sagging gate. Typically, an agent receives 20 percent of an artist's performance fee, which for midrange guest performers and conductors is $5,000 to $10,000 per performance; stars the caliber of Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman get at least twice that amount.

While it has much in common with other businesses, the classical music industry supports a juxtaposition of conflicting motives that other enterprises would find impossible to sustain. It is made up of earnest charities that live or die by cutthroat business acumen; it seeks to crassly commercialize an art form swathed in spiritualistic aestheticism; it provides sustenance to a wealthy merchant class of agents and managers, partly at public expense.

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