One or the Other

There was an article in the New York Times last week about the copious vacancies in the New York Philharmonic. An explanation was offered by its conductor Alan Gilbert, who said in a statement, “We’re looking for the best musicians, people with a human quality that makes them uniquely right for the New York Philharmonic.” According to the Philharmonic, it may take a long time to find these gems, but they are worth the wait as they bring to the table what cellist Brant Taylor (of the Chicago Symphony, which has 9 vacancies) calls “thinking, thoughtful musicians who are the whole package.” It appears that the level of musicianship required is integral to the orchestra, but extremely hard to find. Zarin Mehta, the Philharmonic’s president, is careful to point out that the vacancies are not the result of organizational cost savings strategies. Though he admits, “It happens that you do save money.” While the search goes on for permanent players, “We are fortunate that this is New York, and we have an awful lot of very good people out there.” The 12% vacancy rate at the Philharmonic is presented by the institution as a symptom of the difficulty in finding and acquiring these rare musicians. However, the abundance of very good people in New York City allows the Philharmonic to hire substitutes to fill in the vacant positions, and yet these players perform concerts at less than full pay. It is unclear why these substitutes are not of the quality required to persuade the orchestra to hire them as salaried members.

This question was further brought to a head recently by the experience of Erik Ralske. He is a french horn player who had been playing third horn in the Philharmonic, and he was the only finalist in its audition for principal horn. The Philharmonic chose to leave the chair open rather than hire him. Ralske went on to turn down an offer to be principal horn for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, deciding instead to join the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, as principal horn. If Ralske has sufficient musicality for both the L.A. Philharmonic and the Met Opera to offer him their principal horn chairs (not to mention his years at the NY Phil), one wonders what exactly the New York Philharmonic is looking for. What makes one uniquely right for the Philharmonic, and why is that quality unimportant to these other top-tier groups?

It appears that it is either true that the Philharmonic is currently offering concerts that are musically 88% of what they ought to be, or the concerts are of world-class quality and it is choosing to keep the vacancies in order to save money. It is fallacious to argue that they can offer a top-of-the-line product and at the same time believe that the vacancies remain because of the scarcity of musicians “uniquely right for the New York Philharmonic.”

The Philharmonic is either making the fiscal decision not to hire while hiding that choice behind the fig leaf of artistic integrity, or they are offering concerts that are musically substandard. Perhaps tickets should be 12% off?