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

Virtually every symphony orchestra, concert series, and music festival in America is run by a nonprofit entity. Orchestras in California receive between 25 percent and 70 percent of their income from ticket sales. The rest comes from donations and the government. Orchestras and concert series are also sustained by armies of volunteers.

To inspire donors and volunteers, orchestras need to entertain and even thrill them, and to do that, they have to get people inside halls, listening to concerts. One of the most effective ways to sell symphony tickets is to host famous guest performers at special concerts.

To do this, symphony executives must dial up the managers and agents who control these traveling guest artists' schedules. While they are an integral part of classical music's dichotomous world, these agents suffer none of its contradictions. They are business operators plain and simple, out to obtain the most money per performance from symphonies for their artists, and the highest commission possible from their artists. Just as in any business, some agents are venal creatures, duping unfair expense fees out of musicians, extorting orchestras to hire several mediocre artists in exchange for a night or two with a true star.

"I don't want to make it sound evil, but there are people out there who have notorious reputations," says one West Coast conductor.

The classical music agency business is dominated by giant New York agencies such as Columbia Artists Management Inc. (CAMI) and International Management Group (IMG). There are also a few dozen small "boutique" agencies that bet on the notion that one or two of their lesser-known artists might become stars under their tutelage.

And there are a few dozen even smaller, elite agencies, often run by agents who are drawn to their work by a love of music and a deep sense of allegiance to their musicians. This type of agent -- and by many accounts, Anders is of this stripe -- enjoys a stellar reputation and is the very symbol of steady, unyielding tradition. But the industry that such agents serve is undergoing rapid, tortuous change.

Anxiety wafted through conference rooms, onto the patio, and through the lobby of the Doubletree Hotel in Pasadena's Old Town section during the first week of August, blending with the wet Southern California heat to form a sticky pall. It shadowed every conversation, every presentation, every tinny round of hollow classical music boosterism hosted in the hotel that weekend.

The occasion was the annual conference of the Association of California Symphony Orchestras. The backdrop was a years-old depression in the niche economy of California symphonies, made more frustrating by the state's current business climate -- full-steam economic boom. Two of the state's largest symphonies, in Sacramento and San Diego, had recently gone bankrupt. The state's premier orchestra, in San Francisco, had months earlier emerged from a bitter strike. Across the bay in Oakland, the city symphony's failure a decade earlier still served as warning to the dozens of other orchestras that were consuming their endowments, outspending their budgets, and otherwise courting doom.

Anxious to avoid a similar fate, symphony executive directors sat at tables trading ideas about how to coax more money out of wealthy patrons.

"If someone says yes too fast, you probably didn't ask for enough," said one orchestra director.

They fretted about finances.
"If the stock market holds, we'll be pretty good," said the board member of a Bay Area symphony that has been speculating on Wall Street to make ends meet. "If it doesn't, we won't be doing very good."

They grumbled about dwindling public spending on classical music as the National Endowment for the Arts enters its death throes in Congress. They lashed out at newspapers, magazines, and radio stations that routinely ignore classical music. They complained about having to trot their musicians around to local schools as a way of passing themselves off as public-service charities to potential donors.

"As a lot of companies in Silicon Valley begin to give, first they give to education; second, they give to social programs; and third, they give to the arts," said Shirley Lewis, president and CEO of the San Jose Symphony. "So we make the argument that we're a social service agency."

And they listened to corporate-donor guest speakers freely admit that they're suspicious of orchestras' efforts to refashion themselves.

"If you say you're doing things to make yourself more diverse, I will take a close look at your marketing strategies," said Linda Kendrix Burroughs, who directs regional corporate giving for Mervyn's department stores. "If you say you're doing outreach, we'll look at the ethnic breakout of your board to see if you are talking the talk and walking the walk."

Tough words amid tough times for the attendant symphony orchestra directors, who are largely of the belief that classical music institutions should flourish as a matter of birthright.

They feel this sense of privilege in part because during the past 30 years, classical music was a fat, happy industry to be in. A booming economy and Sun Belt hubris led to a flowering of classical symphony orchestras during the 1960s and '70s.

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