Monday, August 31, 2009

Unhitching wagons from stars

Facing recession-driven budgetary strains, the Minnesota Orchestra, North Carolina Symphony and other orchestras are economizing by canceling the appearances of costly guest stars. Hampton Roads' financially troubled Virginia Symphony is increasingly turning to its principal players as concerto soloists; other ensembles, including some major orchestras, look to be doing the same.

The Richmond Symphony anticipated this trend some 20 years ago after it found that paying high fees to guest soloists didn't boost concert attendance. Now the orchestra is dipping its toes back into the stellar talent pool, bringing in pianists Jeremy Denk and Jon Nakamatsu, violinist Gil Shaham and jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval this season. Chalk that up to its return to the Carpenter Theatre, where it can accommodate piano soloists and play to large crowds for the first time in five seasons, and to increases in its ticket prices and the potential challenge of drawing suburbanites to a downtown concert hall.

The best-known classical instrumentalists and singers have routinely commanded fees in the high five figures, even nudging into six figures, for a one-night stand playing a concerto or singing some arias. A few, such as Emanuel Ax, have reduced or forgone their fees when performing with cash-strapped orchestras. But international-grade soloists continue to be paid generously, even lavishly (at least by classical standards), thanks in large part to the willingness of state-subsidized orchestras and music festivals in Europe and East Asia and their well-heeled clienteles to pay big money for big names.

This is about celebrity, not artistry. There are dozens of cellists who can play Dvořák or Elgar as well as Yo-Yo Ma, dozens of sopranos who can sing Richard Strauss as well as Renée Fleming, probably hundreds of pianists who can play Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff as well as Evgeny Kissin or Lang Lang. Truly singular artistry – András Schiff playing the Beethoven piano sonatas, for example – is quite rare, and often doesn't correspond with the size of the artist's paycheck.

Many of Ma's high-profile engagements in recent years have been devoted to appearing with his Silk Road Ensemble, playing music from Asian cultures previously unknown to Western listeners, and to introducing works that he commissioned. If resistance to high-dollar solo engagements outlasts the economic downturn, might we see more big names not replaying the warhorses but presenting new or neglected music that they uniquely perform?