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

To enter Mariedi Anders' sprawling house in San Francisco's exclusive Seacliff neighborhood is to step into another culture, another continent, another world.

After she seats you on one of her cream-colored couches, beside the black baby grand piano, across from the glassed-in Japanese garden, and below the dozen ancient chess sets mounted on the walls, Anders asks you to join her for coffee. Before waiting for an answer, she calls a maid, who soon appears in uniform with a gleaming white china set on a silver tray. Anders then offers a plate of delicately flavored sweet biscuits, taking one herself, so you can't say no.

She sets her compact frame onto a stuffed chair in front of you, leans forward, and listens intently, as if you were the one with the stories to tell, as if you were the one who left Viennese bohemian cafe society to become the representative, in America, of the great classical music performers of Europe.

"Do you have a family? Oh? I see. And when do you expect to see her? Ah hah, I know exactly how that feels," she says, before offering another biscuit, another bit of coffee, and some cream.

Mariedi Anders is sole proprietor of Mariedi Anders Artists Management Inc., and she provides most of the services that any agent provides to clients. But hers are not just any clients; she represents one of the country's most prestigious lists of classical music conductors, instrumentalists, chamber ensembles, and opera singers. Her artists include conductor Robert Spano of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, tenor Peter Schreier, bass-baritone Robert Holl, the Borodin Quartet chamber ensemble, and the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra. In the past she has represented such prominent groups as the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Orchestra.

By means of her almost irresistible grace, stubbornness, ambition, and energy, Anders has, for 35 years, made a specialty of creating significant American careers for European artists previously unheard of stateside. At around 80 years old -- she refuses to state her age, but admits she was married when she immigrated to the U.S. from Austria in 1938 -- she is part of a courtly, bygone era of classical music, when business was done in parlors, over tea, between aesthetes and impresarios. She's as spry as a 30-year-old and keeps the sort of globe-hopping schedule that might exhaust a person half her age.

In the Camelot universe of classical music, the Old World grace she shares at her El Camino Del Mar parlor has proved Anders' greatest asset, winning the favor of musicians, classical music promoters, and music directors worldwide. She began running prominent U.S. musical careers from San Francisco back in the days when it was unheard of to do such a thing outside New York. She used her command of six languages to scour the world for talent, then exploited her engaging nature and iron will to convince orchestra directors and concert hall managers to give them a try. She's known as one of her field's shrewdest negotiators.

Now, she feels that in some ways, modern times are overtaking her. Where once she was the only classical music agent in the Bay Area, now there are a dozen. Urbane Americans, the ones who used to fill concert halls, now consider indigenous African, South American, and Balinese music, and even jazz, to be part of High Culture. They buy fewer symphony tickets than their parents did. Classical music record sales are stagnant. Symphonies are going bankrupt.

"Young people, they are not brought up on the old traditions. They prefer jazz, ethnic music, modern music," Anders laments.

The grand globe Mariedi Anders used to traverse in her quest to bring European artists to the United States has shrunk. E-mail, the World Wide Web, cheap air travel, and easy telephone communications now allow Bay Area agents she doesn't even know to book worldwide classical music tours in cyberspace.

Perhaps worst of all, by Anders' lights, is a change in the ancient customs of the classical music representation business. Once, there was a gentlemen's agreement: European agents and managers stayed out of America, and American agents and managers did not promote U.S. musicians in Europe. During the past decade, though, that arrangement has eroded, and in its place is an incomprehensible free-for-all.

Globalization, in a word, has come to classical music, and Anders isn't at all sure the trend is good.

"Formerly, there was an unwritten law that European and Far Eastern agents cannot work in the States and Canada. Somehow this law has been dropped. It was never written out, you know. And now European agents are handling their artists directly in North America, and it is also happening the other way around," she says disapprovingly.

"Would you like sugar and cream?"

The savoir-faire she displays in her drawing room notwithstanding, Anders insists that she fell into her line of work as the result of clumsy stubbornness.

"I was a complete dreamer," she says.
In 1959, after promoting a few San Francisco concerts for a friend of hers who was a pianist and opera conductor, she decided to go to Italy to seek her fortune as a music manager. She had come from a music-loving family, and before she and her husband came to the United States to escape the Nazis during World War II, her father had been a prominent member of 1920s bohemian cafe society in Vienna. Representing a group of U.S. musicians in Europe seemed like a natural occupation.

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.

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.

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."

Or, as one rival West Coast agent put it: "There's tenacity, there's perseverance; she's a tough gal. She's been around a long time, because she's tough."

But her hard side is in some ways a manifestation of the emotional bonds she forms with people close to her -- including musicians on her list. She is an emotional person in the Germanic style, loyal to a fault and impatient with people she believes are not.

"I pick artists that are not so proud," she says. "If they give me trouble, I get rid of them."

Some who have been close to her recount a softer side.
Hella Stroeher, who worked as Anders' maid from 1973 to 1981, recalls her former boss as a kind, generous woman who bought her season tickets to the opera and the symphony, and showered her with compliments about her cooking and her gardening.

Sometimes, after concerts, the musicians would come to Anders' for dinner. If it was a chamber ensemble, they might play in the living room until late at night for Anders, her guests, and Hella.

"She's an artist in her character," says Stroeher, who now works as maitre d' at an Indian restaurant in Mountain View. "Every year she would spend three or four months in Europe. She would write to me: 'I'm in DYsseldorf, tomorrow I will be in Moscow.' She was so nice to me. I think so often about how she would buy me gorgeous presents when she went to Europe. She would always bring back something from Harrods for me. She would never forget my birthday, my anniversary. When she went on trips, I would get a postcard from Vienna, from London -- I don't know how she found the time," says Stroeher. "If I had to do it again, I would have never left her."

And that's the same way some of her artists feel.
"She cares like crazy for us," says Robert Spano, conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonic. "I feel very lucky. She's one of the great managers. She's been with me since before I was a professional."

The cachet Anders has earned in Europe with musicians and conductors during the past 35 years has made her as well-prepared as anyone for the new regime of free trade in classical music. A recent coup: Anders got Spano a date to conduct at the legendary La Scala theater in Milan.

Under the old regime, Spano's European manager would have made the La Scala booking. But Anders convinced Spano to let her take over his European management from the Schmidt agency a year ago.

"I told you about Scala? I would not do that before," she says. "Now, in the artists management business, I'm going to Australia, I'm going to Taiwan, I'm going to Singapore.

"I love it.

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