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

But a decade ago, tax-cutting ballot measures in California cut university classical music series budgets. Federal tax reforms discouraged some corporate giving. And the 1987 stock market crash cut into both donations and ticket sales.

Classical music never really recovered, in part because 1960s-bred baby boomers believed, to a much greater extent than their parents, that listening to Cuban Afroantiliana music or American jazz was just as much a cultural experience as going to the symphony or the opera.

Downsizing isn't the only trend wrenching classical music. After years of doing business in parlors over tea, classical music booking has entered the age of cyberspace, free trade, and unabashed competition.

Joanne Corbett-Barnes, an ample, gregarious woman who opened her own agency a half-dozen years ago, is at the forefront of this high-tech new wave. She promotes both classical and "world music" musicians on a state-of-the-art Web site, and does most of her business via e-mail. In fact, Corbett-Barnes says she organized her latest project -- a series of performances around the U.S. by the Ballet Philippines and the musical group Tanghalan Pilipino -- mostly in cyberspace.

"A few years ago, we simply couldn't have handled something like this. It took us six or seven weeks, and I couldn't have done it in seven months if I hadn't had e-mail," she says.

General trends toward globalization have also made it much easier for European agents to come to America on poaching expeditions -- an enterprise that would have been considered unthinkable only a decade ago.

European artists used to have separate management in Europe and America. That's just the way it was done, insiders say. But seven or eight years ago, a group of European managers banded together into a loosely knit trade association specifically aimed at breaking down these traditions. U.S. orchestras and concert promoters were happy to go along; local agents always had added another layer of commissions to the cost of a conductor or musician.

"The classical music business is globalizing like all other business," says Kathryn Takach, a manager with the Thea Dispeker agency in New York. "The European agencies are stronger, bolder, and obviously the American presenter is encouraging the move. American presenters are more sophisticated, too, which helps."

These trends all trouble Mariedi Anders. She's not much interested in Web culture. She'd rather not dabble in world music. And she is nostalgic for the traditions that kept European agents from representing their artists stateside. Those traditions, she explains, are what gave Anders her business in the first place.

But those old customs and the classical music boom are gone now.
"I had preferred it the other way," she says.
Her preferences aside, there's really no need to feel sorry for Mariedi Anders.

When she moans that the modern world is passing her by, Anders is actually indulging in a bit of backhanded modesty. Her Old World graces, polyculturalism, globe-hopping energy, and mince-no-words stubbornness are particularly suited to the brave new world she's found herself in.

As classical music presenters sort through ever more pitches, electronic and otherwise, they find themselves turning to names they know, and agents whose judgment they can trust. And they know that Anders enjoys a reputation for impeccable taste in musicians.

"There is so much mediocrity in this business. I have no problem with first-class singers, first-class conductors. If they're mediocre, they don't make it, and you hear them blame classical music itself for their failure," she says.

She has earned her reputation as a brilliant aesthete by spotting unknown, talented musicians and doing the hard work of building their names.

"If I take them, nobody knows them. Nobody! Ninety-nine percent of my artists are unknown when I get them. I have to start from scratch. I have to familiarize the music world to their talents. Perhaps I will arrange a tour for two weeks, with eight concerts -- and I goddamn have to come up with eight concerts! If I can get eight, the next 80 are easy," she says. "I'll call maybe 30 directors of university concert series, then send disks, biographies, programs. If out of 30 one is going to take my client, I am thrilled, thrilled, because the first one is always the hardest."

While it is only recently that businesses of all sorts have become more globally oriented, Anders has flitted effortlessly from one culture to the next for most of her life. While her exhausting schedule would seem more suited to someone decades younger, once you see Anders lithely bound from her chair to take a phone call, you realize no one could do her job any better.

"She is one of the most impressive women I have ever met," says Viennese conductor Carlos Kalmar. "Though she's been a very, very long time in the States, we still recognize her as the charming Austrian lady."

"She combines a remarkable combination of knowledge, of sophistication, of feistiness; she's a good agent," says John Gingrich, owner of a New York management agency. "She knows her clients, she knows her buyers, and her taste is very highly regarded. She's also smart. She's clever. She knows when to go for a low fee. If it means taking a low fee to make a tour, she'll do it. She's got a great craftsmanship there. She knows exactly when to knock another thousand off to wrap up a deal."

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