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Music News

December 24, 2008

Stay up to date with weekly classical music news from the Bay Area, across the US & around the World.

The Seven Percent ‘Solution’

UPDATE: According to reports from San Francisco City Hall Tuesday afternoon, the Board of Supervisors tabled Aaron Peskin’s budget-cutting proposals, including the 50 percent reduction in support to the Opera, Symphony, Ballet, and other organizations. Following a lengthy discussion (see below for some points made to the Board), the item was “continued at the call of the Chair (Peskin).” This means that Peskin’s de-appropriation ordinance will not be heard again until the New Year before the new board.

Yes, it’s dismal all around, and probably getting worse, but the panicked rush into cutting San Francisco’s already meager support for the major music organizations in half is a terrible idea.It comes from San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, who last week introduced a budget proposal to that end. Mayor Gavin Newsom, the three organizations most affected, and the musicians’ union have all agreed on a 7 percent cut — certainly not as devastating as the Peskin proposal.

The city’s current $6.6 billion budget includes $15.4 million for supporting the arts, money that comes from a 14 percent tax on hotel and motel rooms in the city. Grants for the Arts, the administrator, founded in 1961, funds 231 arts and cultural groups, including street festivals, neighborhood theaters, and film festivals. The three major recipients are the Ballet ($515,200), the Opera ($862,900), and the Symphony ($827,000).

What specifically would the 50 percent cuts mean? In his statement to the supervisors at the Friday Board meeting, San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley said:

The cuts to be imposed upon us by this body would wipe out our free AT&T Ballpark simulcast performances, our decades-old Golden Gate Park concerts, our education programs in San Francisco public schools, and our national/international radio broadcasts and opera-in-cinemas programs. All of this work brings the San Francisco Opera banner to millions of adults, children, and families in all sectors of the community.

We are deeply concerned about the economic firestorm sweeping the nation, and have responded with drastic cuts to our budget and programs to avoid a disastrous fiscal imbalance. We are signators of collective bargaining agreements with eight different unions, representing 650 employees, and these fixed costs limit our ability to reorganize more drastically.

Nevertheless, we have already cut two productions [Peter Grimes and La Bohème, so far] and two weeks from our season next year (2009-2010), for a total of 12 performances, and many qualitative elements of what’s left. This action was taken all in response to reductions in private-sector derived revenue.

We have agreed to join our colleague organizations to do our part by accepting a 7 percent funding cut and entreat you to limit it to that.

Here’s the letter sent by Musicians Union Local 6 President David Schoenbrun last weekend to Mayor Gavin Newsom, Mark Leno; Assembly Member Fiona Ma, and others.

I am writing to you in response to Supervisor Peskin’s proposed legislation to cut the San Francisco Symphony, Opera, and Ballet’s funding through Grants for the Arts by 50 percent for this fiscal year.

The Musicians Union Local 6 thinks that such a cut would be unconscionable and would cause undue hardship for organizations that already face both losses of ticket revenue and diminished corporate and private contributions due to the current economic conditions. The result would very likely involve catastrophic reductions of programming and free services that are currently provided for our schools and other groups.

We support Mayor Newsom’s much more reasonable and realistic plan in which funding for the six largest cultural institutions will be cut by 7 percent. These groups represent the jewels in San Francisco’s cultural crown and are responsible for attracting countless visitors to San Francisco, which in turn supports local business and government. To consider such draconian cuts is not only bad for our souls, it is bad business.

The members of our Union suffer as much if not more than most as a result of the economic downturn and the resultant loss of consumer discretionary spending ability. We are helpless in the face of the consequences for those musicians employed in the casual music industry (parties and the like), but feel that we must answer this challenge to our livelihoods in the strongest possible terms.

[These are the supervisors, their e-mail addresses linked to the names, in case you’d want to let them know where you stand: Michela Alioto-Pier, Carmen Chu, Chris Daly, Bevan Dufty, Sean Elsbernd, Sophie Maxwell, Jake McGoldrick, Ross Mirkarimi, Aaron Peskin, Gerardo Sandoval.]

San Francisco Symphony Executive Director Brent Assink told Classical Voice:

There is no question that the city faces tough choices, but keeping the arts healthy should be a priority. This city has an international reputation for its diverse cultural offering from institutions of all sizes, disciplines, and colors.

With more than 3,100,000 paid visitors per year (about 1,000,000 of which visit from outside the City) and over 3,000 employees, San Francisco’s major arts and cultural institutions also have a significant economic impact on the City. The arts drive tourism which drives dollars into the City. Audience members spend money in retail establishments, restaurants, hotels, and parking lots. The arts are an economic engine and the City’s investment in our largest budget cultural institutions pays off many times over.

Almost $5 million of the San Francisco Symphony’s annual budget is devoted to education and community programs. The SFS provides five years of free comprehensive music education to every single first to fifth grade student in every San Francisco public elementary school. We also provide concerts for Bay Area schoolchildren and their families, a tuition-free Youth Orchestra, free instrument training and support to San Francisco’s public middle and high schools, and free community concerts for all San Francisco residents.

We’re not pretending that the arts should ignore the challenges our community is facing in these tough economic times. And we are a part of the discussion and a part of the solution. But year in and year out, the impact we have is truly significant, both in terms of economic impact and notably in our service to children and underserved segments in our communities.

San Francisco Ballet Education Director Charles McNeal told the supervisors of the many free services for the City’s public schools, protesting perceptions of the Ballet as elitist. Such programs may be lost as the result of the proposed cut, he said. The Ballet’s “Dance in Schools & Communities Program” (DISC), provides a free interactive movement program to over 3,500 students in 36 San Francisco Unified School District Elementary Schools.

Boccanegra Opens 2009 Broadcasts

San Francisco Opera’s 2008 production of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra will be first in line when the Opera and KDFC-FM resume their joint broadcasts on Jan. 4, and continue on the first Sunday of each month. The other 8 p.m. broadcasts:

Die tote Stadt will be broadcast on Feb. 1

  • Feb. 1: Korngold’s Die tote Stadt
  • March 1: Listeners’ choice, to be determined by vote
  • April 5: Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov
  • May 3: Puccini’s La Bohème
  • June 7: Stewart Wallace’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter
  • July 5: Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love
  • Aug. 2: Mozart’s Idomeneo
  • Sept. 6: Puccini’s Tosca
  • Oct. 4: Opera in the Park
  • Nov. 1: Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess
  • Dec. 6: Verdi’s La traviata

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S.F. Behaved Better in the Last Depression

Music Director

Not involved in the debate over the city’s support to arts organizations is an annual grant to the San Francisco Symphony worth $1.77 million last year. The source: a 1935 voter approval for a slight raise in property taxes to rescue the then 24-year-old organization, which had just gone bankrupt.

These funds are earmarked specifically for the “Summer in the City” concerts presented by the S.F. Arts Commission, with 40 percent of the total sum paid back to the Commission, as stipulated by contract.

Pierre Monteux, SFS music director 1935-1952

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Of Budgets and Salaries

A story preceding Aaron Peskin’s cut-support-in-half proposal was a froth-at-the-mouth screed about “snobby arts organizations that cater to the rich.” Looks like Joe the Plumber has taken up journalism.

This story and a subsequent one, still characterizing arts organizations as the playthings of the idle rich, also challenged Michael Tilson Thomas’ salary, depicting him as a “baton-waving tycoon … draining $2.6 million from what is, in essence, a charity partly supported by taxpayers.”

Classical Voice has long kept an eye on salaries, without being influenced by the skewed view of arts as “charity for tycoons.” Since our last listing of conductor compensations (for Fiscal 2005), not much new information has become available, although diligent perusal of GuideStar may yield some figures.

About those figures flung about, the Symphony’s Brent Assink told us:

It is unfortunate that media outlets continue to reference an SF Weekly article/blog, filled with financial inaccuracies about our Music Director’s salary and orchestra contributions. The writer/blogger, who did not fact-check his numbers, lists many inaccurate figures.

In particular, the writer incorrectly attributes $538,000 in San Francisco Symphony payments to Columbia Artists Management for Guest Artists and Conductors to Tilson Thomas’ salary, mistakenly calls the salary of our concertmaster “additional compensation” for MTT, and misguidedly attributes payments to a film production company for work on the SFS’ Keeping Score project as payment to Tilson Thomas.

The Keeping Score project, with independent funding sources, is an award-winning educational tool for building young audiences and arts education in K-12 schools, and is produced by the San Francisco Symphony.

As to MTT’s value to the orchestra and the city, The Los Angeles Times was unequivocal:

The San Francisco Symphony has, under MTT, gone from second rank to first, from unimportant to important. Support for the orchestra has grown enormously, meaning that the $1.6 million draws in many millions more for the orchestra each year. He brings goodwill to the town, and even in orchestra-heaven Los Angeles, Tilson Thomas’ appearances are highly anticipated, as is his presentation this week with the Los Angeles Philharmonic of a program about his grandparents Bessie and Boris Thomashefsky, who were stars of the New York Yiddish Theater.

MTT attracts tourist dollars, especially for his festivals. He is the education conductor, who has used his SFS resources to make important television and fabulous radio programs about classical music.

The question, though, is not how much MTT is worth but how many millions might it cost San Francisco to once more promote itself as a sophisticated city if a Philistine supervisor actually has his way?

And how about those Yankees? Left-hander C.C. Sabathia just signed a seven-year contract for 100 times MTT’s $1.6 million. Now, that’s real money. It even includes a million bucks in pocket change.

MTT: not in baseball salary range

Also among cheerleaders, the otherwise antiestablishmentarianist Opera Chic intones:

How do you save America from a recession? Easy, you kick out one of our most prominent and talented men of culture.

A grateful country owes this stroke of genius to San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, who … has decided that S.F. Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas — who makes more or less what the other very few major conductors of the very few world-famous orchestras make — is way overpaid.

Now, this is not about Mr. Peskin personally — a gentleman who loves his Speedos. Maybe, unheard of for a politician, of course, he may simply be out to score some cheap populist points (”classical music is for the rich”, blah blah blah … ).

… if once upon a time we Americans had to import cranky Italians, certifiably insane Hungarians, and persecuted Jews in order to make our orchestras achieve the greatness they deserved, well, that era is over, thanks to Leonard Bernstein, to Thomas Schippers, and to a very few others … We do have foreigners running some of our orchestras now — isolationism, quite discredited in politics, certainly has no place in the arts — but thanks to our best conductors, we also wipe that latent sense of smug superiority off the faces of the few clueless Europeans who still have one, when it comes to classical music.

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More From Chicken Little

  • Santa Clarita Symphony has canceled its 2009 season “because of lagging ticket sales as well as a rapid decline in individual and corporate donations.” The orchestra itself remains in existence, hoping for future funding.
  • Orchestras of Pasadena, the umbrella organization for the Pasadena Symphony and the Pasadena Pops, has announced concert cancellations and executive layoffs.
  • Shakespeare Santa Cruz is making an urgent appeal for support: “In order to go forward with the 2009 season, we must raise $300,000 by Dec. 22.”
  • Both Opera Pacifica and Baltimore Opera have declared bankruptcy and shut down in recent weeks.

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Takács Quartet in Mill Valley

Takács String QuartetFormer San Francisco Symphony principal violist Geraldine Walther, who recently performed at Kohl Mansion, is returning soon, but this time she will bring her three colleagues with her. On Jan. 11, Walther, Edward Dusinberre (violin), Károly Schranz (violin), and András Fejér (cello) — the Takács Quartet entire — will perform in Mill Valley’s Mt. Tamalpais United Methodist Church.

The program: Haydn’s String Quartet, Op. 76, No. 3; Bartok’s String Quartet, No. 1; and Schumann’s String Quartet, Op. 41, No. 1. For information, see the Mill Valley Chamber Music Society Web site.

And a P.S. to Sunday’s Kohl Mansion concert: Robin Sutherland was taken ill, and Roy Bogas performed in his place.

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Valentin Berlinsky

Berlinsky (right), with Mstislav Rostropovich

Cellist Valentin Berlinsky, founder of the Borodin Quartet, died Monday in Moscow. He was 83. Berlinsky was studying at the Moscow conservatory in 1944 when he organized fellow students into a quartet, later to be named for Borodin. He was the only member who played through 60 years of performances. A memorial service will take place at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall on Dec. 18; he will be buried at Vagankovskoe Cemetery.

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Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].