The Coolest Band in the World (part III)

[In my previous blog post, I took a close look at the London Symphony Orchestra, a cooperative ensemble notable not only for the excellence of its playing but also its deep involvement in the community and its eminently sustainable organization. In this blog, I examine the Berlin Philharmonic, probably the greatest orchestra in the world, and its similar but unique structure. Some people may dismiss the idea of comparison between an American and European model.  One enjoys endowment support, the other substantial government subsidy.  That is not the point.   The point is how do orchestras use their available resources and what is the outcome? Given the dire situation facing orchestras in this country, it is time to consider new models and there is undoubtedly much to learn from these two great orchestras.]

Part III

When the Berlin Philharmonic was created in 1882, its fifty-two musicians decided to do business differently. They wanted a democratic system that not only involved the musicians, but empowered them as well. So they came up with a musical mission informed by a strong entrepreneurial spirit.

Interestingly, when the London Symphony was established in 1904, they used the Berlin Philharmonic as their model.

Public Foundation Offers Independence
Nearly 130 years later and boasting 128 members, the Orchestra today is still driven by these fundamental principles. It is currently organized as a Public Foundation, a structure that I have never previously encountered and which is relatively new to the Orchestra. Prior to 2001, the musicians of the Berlin Phil were employees of the City of Berlin, being paid at taxpayers’ expense along with civil servants and teachers. As a Public Foundation, the orchestra has become more independent and also more responsible for its own budget, The City of Berlin provides a subsidy to the Foundation of €13 million for the running of the Philharmonie (the home of the orchestra) and the actual operation of the orchestra itself. The overall annual budget is €25 million ($36 million), roughly equivalent to that of the Minnesota Orchestra or the Nashville Symphony.

The Board of Trustees of the Foundation numbers ten and includes three politicians from the Senate (the Minister of Culture is the ex-officio President and two others are elected by Parliament), members of the Orchestra, members of the Friends of the Orchestra, and the chair of the Orchestra Academy (I will talk about the Academy in detail shortly). Reporting to the Trustees is a Joint Executive Committee of four, comprising the Chief Conductor, the General Manager (Intendant) and two musicians who are both Chairs of the Orchestra. It is this smaller group that sets the strategic and artistic direction of the Orchestra, chooses the programs, and settles any issues. The Orchestra also has an advisory Orchestral Committee Council of five which is used as a sounding board for the two musician Chairs. In addition there is a seven-strong Employees’ Council, with no artistic role, but which is responsible for contractual and personnel matters for all, including non-musician staff members. So, it is the musicians who manage themselves, from scheduling concerts, to making tour arrangements, or handling delicate personnel matters.
The Chief Conductor, currently Sir Simon Rattle, is Artistic Director and a member of the executive management committee and is responsible for his own programmes.  He also exerts some influence over the programmes of guest conductors, but these are always discussed by the executive committee. He has no unilateral power over hiring and firing. In fact, the audition process is totally inclusive. Every member of the orchestra takes part forming an audience for the auditioning candidates on the stage of the Philharmonie. There are 128 votes and the Chief Conductor, like everyone else, has just one. The audition tests stylistic understanding and qualities of sound and expression. Technique is a given but never used as the main criterion. I was told by one player that he and his colleagues were looking “to have their souls touched by the music-making.”

At Home in Spectacular Hall
The Orchestra gives about 100 concerts at the Philharmonie, one of the world’s great concert halls. Designed by Hans Scharoun and built in the early 1960’s (the Orchestra was without a home after 1945 and played everywhere from cinemas to church halls), the hall is a gem and provides a wonderful intimacy through overlapping terraces that reduce the distance from the stage to the listener. The style of the concert hall has been the inspiration for many new auditoriums since that time, from Saint David’s Hall, Cardiff, to the Royal Concert in Nottingham in the U.K.
The Philharmonie has a capacity of 2,400 seats and the BPO enjoys average attendance of 98%. Audience are diverse, ranging from core subscribers aged fifty-plus to a young audience twenty to thirty years old who descend upon the Orchestra for unusual contemporary programs.

The Musicians’ Life
In addition to the 100-concert Philharmonie series, the Orchestra gives a further 30 concerts on tour, including opera work. A regular week includes up to four approximately 2½ hour-long rehearsals (with no clock on stage), a dress, and then three to four concerts. There are no restrictions on the length of a concert.
Base salary is €90,000 gross for all rank and file players. Principals receive 15% extra. There is no individual negotiation of personal contracts as in the USA. Transparency and equity are seen as essential to solidarity and the stake-holder attitude of all members.

The musicians are legally entitled to six weeks paid vacation in the summer, but through careful season planning can generate an additional seventh week. Similarly, they have generally been able to organize an additional week of paid vacation in early January.

Healthcare in Germany is extensive and excellent; all employed individuals are required to buy either public or private insurance and employers contribute 50% of the premiums. Most medical services are delivered by state-funded institutions and individuals can pay for additional private coverage at their own cost.

There is a national mandatory retirement age of sixty-five (shortly to be increased to sixty-seven) to which the Orchestra must adhere. This was described to me as “equal justice for all” and it has the effect of circumventing the sensitive problems of aging musicians. The State provides a pension programme which is supplemented through the Union and supported by the Orchestra.

Like all German orchestras there is no endowment, and the budget is balanced through subsidy from the City, box office receipts and touring fees. Financially, the Orchestra is doing very well and is deficit free (currently the subsidy is only 40% of the overall budget excluding the Philharmonie). I learnt that the German political Constitution mandates  support of the arts.

Musicians Seek Range of Styles, Experiences
All guest artists who perform with the Orchestra are there at the invitation of the musicians, including the Chief Conductor and all the guest conductors. The players deliberately choose guests who present interesting artistic and stylistic opportunities, including the chance to explore historic performance practice. So for example, the Berliners work regularly with Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Philippe Herreweghe and William Christie. The Philharmonic’s repertoire is eclectic, to say the least, and includes Vivaldi and Bach, as well as Ligeti, Schoenberg and Harrison Birtwistle. For early music, many players perform on gut strings with baroque bows, and wind players use wooden flutes. Whilst the Philharmonic hasn’t become a specialist period instrument band, the musicians are nevertheless pushing their own boundaries artistically.

Besides playing in the Orchestra every musician is expected to be a soloist, perform chamber music, and contribute to the overall vision of the Orchestra. Looking at the website, I counted some thirty recognized ensembles including the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet, Amarcord-Quartet, Philharmonic Piano Quartet, and Berlin Baroque Soloists.  I was told there are at least another six not cited. These ensembles, many of which we see on the international touring circuit, are organized and managed by the musicians, working as entrepreneurs from within the orchestra. These groups are also presented at the smaller chamber music hall at the Philharmonie. The musicians prepare their programmes in their time and at their own expense. They will only receive additional compensation for the series at the Philharmonie. The qualities of chamber music are seen as being at the centre of their work as an Orchestra allowing them artistic collaborations that inform the character of the full orchestra.

Embedded in the Community
The Berliners take a broad view of their responsibilities as musicians. Besides the established concert series in the Philharmonie, the musicians are involved in community work that is remarkable for the depth of its engagement and interactivity. This has been the great initiative of Sir Simon Rattle, the present Chief Conductor and Artistic Director. He had the vision to take the orchestra out into the city and today roughly half of the musicians sign up for community work.  Out of this contingent, a very dedicated group of 20 musicians personally creates community engagement projects. These players are particularly aware of the need to engage with social issues such as immigration and the problems suffered by the Turkish émigré population.

Because music education is becoming less and less important in the schools, the players are also trying to fill in those gaps. Their education projects relate back to the main orchestra with the idea that kids should see and hear the Orchestra at its home. So, if the Orchestra has on its series Debussy’s La Mer, the players will devise interactive projects based on the idea of the sea. Composition plays an important part of in this educational work and performances of student pieces involving BPO musicians are a regular feature.

But it isn’t just classical music that is promoted. The Berliners’ educational portfolio also includes jazz, ethnic and contemporary music, improvisation, and dance. One of the biggest undertakings each year is a Dance Project for teenagers at risk through which youngsters are galvanized into a performance of, say, Rite of Spring
with the BPO and Rattle in a downtown location.
The musicians’ work touches many, from kindergarteners to prisoners, from teachers to lifelong learners. There is no contractual obligation for the musicians to do this work. They are paid no additional fees–just travel expenses. They do it because they understand the inherent transformative power of music and want to share that with audiences who have not previously experienced it. This educational work is generously funded by the orchestra’s sponsor Deutsche Bank; it does not come out of the general budget.

The Digital Concert Hall
The Orchestra is increasingly exploring the potential of technology and one of its great innovations is the “Digital Concert Hall,” a subscription series of streaming concerts displaying the highest production values (better than CD sound plus High Definition picture). Live streaming has become very popular and for every sold out house of 2,400 concert-goers, there are the same number watching at home.
Little or no net income is generated for Orchestra members by these digital events. Instead they believe this is a necessary new activity and see their participation as a “stakeholder’s responsibility.” The series has introduced the Orchestra to a whole new global audience. This new project is now seen as a huge force in promoting and reinforcing the brand of the Orchestra. Again, the idea for this project came from a musician who saw it through from concept to delivery. The two orchestra Chairs work with the Committee Council in considering new media projects, and the Orchestra is very active in recording, T.V., and other broadcasting.
Given the Orchestra’s technical savvy, it’s probably no surprise that it is also involved with social media, getting its name and activities broadcast through that viral network. So, for example, it can boast 187,833 fans who follow the Orchestra on FacebookThe London Symphony has 26,000. By contrast, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has 1351 followers, but doesn’t utilize the page for messaging. The Detroit Symphony has 6,000 fans.

The Orchestra Academy
The Orchestra Academy created in 1972 by Herbert von Karajan provides training opportunities for outstanding young musicians aspiring to an orchestral career.
The impetus for this programme was the recognition that traditional conservatory training was not providing the level of preparedness that young musicians need, particularly if they aspired to play in the Berlin Philharmonic. Designed for up to 30 young artists, the program offers a two-year, post-graduate course that includes coaching by members of the orchestra, chamber music experience, and performance with the BPO in three programmes within a two-month period. The Academy students receive a stipend of €950, ($1,387), as well as all tuition. Many of the alumni go on to become members of the BPO; in the current roster about 20% of the musicians came through the Academy. What’s more, many of the other top orchestras in Germany and Europe boast large numbers of Academy alumni.

The World’s Premiere Orchestra
The last time I saw the Berlin Phil I thought it was the greatest orchestra I had ever heard. I thought that the time before, too. The performances have such energy, such commitment, such movement, indeed the musicians move physically with the music. Even their very presence on stage speaks of a different level of communication and engagement. I was very much taken by their tradition at the end of the concert of shaking hands and thanking their colleagues.
As an ensemble the Berliners have demonstrated an impressive ability to reinvent and rejuvenate, doing things differently from self-governance to historically informed performance practice to community engagement and social responsibility.  Their model is not the vision of any one leader. It comes instead from a collective of musicians who are empowered to be creative with new ideas, new directions, and new
challenges. Whether it’s a project like the “Digital Concert Hall” or their work in prisons, it all emanates from the desire of the musicians to interact with the contemporary world differently than they did in the past. The Berliners’ model should lead us all to imagine more flexible and responsible organizations that have music as their mission, and the community as their foundation.

Is this the “Coolest Band in the World?” Yup . . . I think so.

With so much happening in the U.S. orchestral world recently, including bankruptcies being announced across the nation, it is my intention to produce Installment 4 on this situation and write exclusively about the reasons for this situation and the need to consider a new model. Stay tuned!

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23 Responses to The Coolest Band in the World (part III)

  1. Katie DeBonville says:

    I can just imagine the chaos that would ensue in the U.S. if the Constitution mandated support of the arts…

  2. Mike Getzin says:

    I cannot agree more than what is written here. Berlin I feel is the cultural Orchestral centerpiece that should be the model for all Orchestras especially in the US to follow. With El System from Venezuela being moved in the US thanks to Gustavo Dudamel in LA, both concepts could radically change the cultural health in the US. The present practices of Management – vs – Orchestra vs Unions is dead as a viable means of doing business. The Berlin model must be adopted!! ask why everyone seems to look to Berlin. About all the DVD’s available – why not here in the US? The marketing of their product is nothing less than fantastic.

  3. What an inspiring group of thoughts!

    “Coolest Band in the World” – Yup, and then some. Thanks for communicating about this!


  4. Paul says:

    i concur – the Berlin Philharmonic is #1 in my book

    western classical music is primarily European and therefore THEY OWN IT like no American orchestra can

    perhaps American orchestras should primarily program American music and OWN THAT

    • “perhaps American orchestras should primarily program American music and OWN THAT”

      What an intriguing idea–one of the reasons I just could never see myself as a symphony musician (in the US) is precisely because there seemed to be so little focus on developing (and performing) American Symphonic music in the US. Sure, I love the classics as much as the next person, but without active involvement and collaboration with living American composers it’s not surprising so many of them have turned to writing for smaller or non-orthodox ensembles. *sighs*

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  6. Paul says:

    I look forward to your next piece Tony. I would have to agree, first of all, yes BPO is fabulous, we all idolized their virtuosity and their cohesive readily identifiable “sound” as music students in our younger days. And today it is still magnificent to see and hear as an institution. And their growing relevancy to their community is admirable.

    Second of all, the status and/or role of culture and performing arts today in the US is a complex one, and the model is not so easily “undone” or “re-created.” The relationship between unions/musicians and management is often times a tense and combative one with friction easily raised with quite often disasterous results. Unions and management together must find a way through the fog to a better point of relevancy to their communities in a way that works financially, not easy…

    Even more complex is the role or relevancy of orchestras to their community. I was at a major orchestra in the late 1980s/early 1990s when state legislators said “change and become relevant to your community or else,” hard line but effective, and change the orchestra did at the time. Leadership, musicians, union, political leadership and community together found a way through the difficult financial difficulties at the time to a place that worked artictically and financially for all involved.

    Today? With funding extremely tight, discretionary dollars both personal as well as grant dollars, especially state (s) funding, very difficult to come by, seats expensive at concert halls and hard to fill, music education programs withering in public schools, it is a very very difficult arts climate out there. Orchestras, and other performing arts organizations, have to adapt, a new model has to be discovered/devised/created…musicians’ work has to be valued by and relevant to their communities in a way it is not currently in many places across the country, and yes music schools play an enormous role in the potential change.

  7. I have advocated this for years. Sadly very few orchestras do this. Considering the success rate of the ensembles that do (Berlin, Orpheus, Vienna and the LSO), I feel this IS the best way. Having played in an excellent ensemble for over 30 years, yet having NO sense of ownership, was a great frustration and was at least partially one of the reasons for my departure.

  8. The Berlin Phil has the fourth lowest ratio of women in the world: 13.82%. (By comparison, the NY Phil, the National Orchestra of France, and the Zurich Opera all have over 40%.) The Berlin Phil also has one of the lowest rates of increase for women members. So that’s cool?

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  10. If the Berlin Philharmonic is so cool, why does it have the fourth lowest ratio of women members in the world? Is this democratic progress?

    • Joan says:

      Perhaps you should ask a member of the Berlin Phil why the number of women is lower than the number of men. In the States and Canada, the number of WOMEN is far higher than the number of men in our orchestras. What does this reflect?

  11. I can hardly believe you haven’t noticed the large elephant in the room -no women! Half the world is women, and arn’t they sitting next to you in class, or teaching you? I understand the men not noticing, but the woman who commented didn’t notice either? Odd.
    The BPO has the fourth lowest ratio of women in the world: 13.82%. By comparison, the NY Philharmonic, the National Orchestra of France, and the Zurich Opera all have over 40%. This makes for a cool orchestra?

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  13. Berlin has changed the male bais recently with many newer members, and especially women. Although Vienna being VERY conservative and still resisting this, they have a few female members. What I find so compeling with these European Orchestras is their sense of ownership. They run their affairs, and make artistic decisions themselves. They hire the conductors, not the other way around, and yet have extremely high standards. I have always wondered why conductors carry so much weight in the hiring and firing of musicians. Frequently they just don’t get it, with what makes one musician more desirable than another. They also don’t spend all their time with one orchestra either. What gives them the right to decide then?

  14. Karl Winkler says:

    I had occasion to hear the BPO twice in the late 1990s in Berlin and I concur that they are the greatest symphony in the world. There was a cohesion to the sound, a power but with warmth, and sheer passion that is difficult to describe. Thanks, Tony, for writing the details about how this group thinks and operates. I hope that organizations in the US can learn something from this. But it takes commitment from the musicians, the community, the government and the audience. Overall, we probably have too many musicians and not enough jobs in the US. That, coupled with a gradually diminishing level of cultural importance for classical music (and fine arts in general) and it is not a mystery as to what is happening out there. I hope there is a way to reverse the trend. Again, in many ways, BPO is showing the way.

  15. To help people better understand the concerns expressed above, I would like to provide more information about the lack of women in the Berlin Philharmonic. With social questions like these, of course, there are often many complex factors at work. We should remember that insititutions often try to hide their sexism behind these complexities. A brief look at the orchestra’s history and some statistics will help clarify the matter.

    The Berlin Phil did not begin admitting women until the early 1980s. When Karajan brought the clarinetist Sabine Meyer into the orchestra she was treated horribly. Among other things, she would sit down at rehearsals and the men would slide their chairs away from her. Male members made openly sexist statements to the press in support of the orchestra’s behavior. I describe some of the details in an article I wrote for the Journal of the International Allicance for Women In Music in 1996. You can find it here:

    The German political establishment and media did not react favorably toward the orchestra’s chauvinism, and at times very negatively. The Berlin Phil already had very serious problems with its public image due to its strong collaboration with the Nazis. Its complete exclusion of women into the 1980s only added to the problem.

    After the Sabine Meyer affair, the orchestra began a long-term public relations campaign designed to revamp its image. The social programs mentioned are part of these efforts, though they are often more oriented toward PR than substantive change. The issue of Turkish immigrants, for example, is a hot button issue in Germany which the orchestra exploits it for its own purposes. They also hired Simon Rattle with the specific purpose of giving the orchestra an image of modernity. This is also why the orchestra began admitting women, but at a rate slower than almost any other orchestra in the world. If the BP were admitting women at a rate consistent with international norms about 30% of its personnel would be women, instead of 13.8%.

    Some comparisons with other German orchestras make this apparent. During the four year period from 2005 to 2009, the ratio of women in German orchestras increased significantly. In the Gürzenich Orchester, for example, the increase was 9.27%. (That’s the Cologne Opera Orchestra which is one of Germany’s best and best paid orchestras.) Similar increases are found in several top German orchestras, but not in the Berlin Phil, where the increase during the same four year period was less than 1% (0.81% to be exact.) Even the notorousisly sexist VPO had a rate of increase of 1.59%, which is twice the rate of the Berlin Phil.

    We thus see that women are applying for jobs in ALL of Germany’s top orchestras, including the Berlin Phil, but that the Berlin Phil is employing them at a far lower rate – and at one of the lowest rates in the world.

    People will quickly assume that the very best musicians, those that get into the very top orchestras, must therefore be males. Not true. As noted above, the ratios for women in comparable orchestras like the New York Phil, the Zurich State Opera, and the National Orchestra of France are all over 40%. (In the NY Phil its actually 49%!) For another type of example, the Czech Phil only began admitting women in 1997 (the same time as the VPO) but in 14 years already has almost the same ratio of women the Berlin Phil has gained in 28. The Czech Phil is admitting women at twice the rate as the Berlin Phil and will soon surpass them in its percentage of women. The Berlin Phil will then drop to the third lowest ratio in the world. German women are fantastic musicians. When the Berlin Phil starts hiring women at ratios consistent with international norms we can then believe that it is genuinely socially progressive and cool.

  16. Even though Mr. Woodcock made an unfortunate oversight about the lack of women in the Berlin Philharmonic, his comments about the need to look at new concepts of funding and social responsibility for orchestras are very important. In all other respects besides the inclusion of women, the Berlin Philharmonic provides an excellent example for other orchestras to study and immulate. Especially important is the public funding system that the Germans have developed.

    In recent years the orchestras in San Diego, Miami, Kansas City, Albuquerque, Syracuse, Tulsa, San Antonio, New Orleans, Denver, San Jose, Colorado Springs, Honolulu, and Philadelphia have gone bankrupt. When bankruptcies happen that often it is clear that we have systemic problems with our system of funding the arts. Our neo-feudalistic system of funding the arts by (and for) the wealthy is anachronistic and doesn’t work. It is especially problematic for regional orchestras removed from the large financial centers where the wealthy live. Germany, for example, has 136 fulltime, year-round orchestras while the USA with four times the population only has 13. In Germany, everyone has the ability to listen to a local orchestra, and one funded in a manner that allows for genuinely professional standards.

    Germany has 80 fulltime, year-round opera houses while the United States doesn’t have any. (Even the Met only has a seven month season.) We only have a handful of real opera houses, and they have only partial seasons. In terms of opera performances per year, Chicago is in only the 62nd position, San Francisco 63rd, Houston 101st, Washington 121st, and Santa Fe 172nd. The few other companies that exist in America have even shorter seasons. They usually do not have houses and perform in poorly-suited rental facilities with pickup orchestras and singers. This applies even to cities with metropolitan populations in the millions like Atlanta in the 272nd position, Kansas City at 275th, Baltimore at 322nd, and Phoenix at 338th. They are far outranked by even cities like Pforzheim, Germany which only has 119,000 citizens but occupies the 87th position and thus outranks even our nation’s capital, Washington D.C, by 34 positions. (These and many more valuable statistics are available at Operabase.)

    At some point, musicians, conservatories, and arts administrators need to begin advocating for a comprehensive public funding system like ALL other developed countries already have – and have long had. Sure it will be a long struggle, but you have to start somewhere. Distinguished administrators and educators like Tony Woodcock have very influential voices, so I hope many more like him will speak up about this issue.

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  19. Apierce says:

    This article was a great read. I do agree that BPO is the best organization in the world (musically), but the model will never work in the US because of capitalism. No matter how well the European models work our orchestras have to be consumer driven. I do believe that that is our biggest problem over here is the lack of true diversity to make any impact in our urban orchestras. Take Detroit for example, the city is 80% African American and only has 4 African American musicians. Detroit has done nothing of merit to increase their minority patronage nor have they tried to diversify their workforce. The key for American orchestras to survive is to bring in the minority audience, and the only way to do that is to diversify your employees both on and off the stage. Unfortunately, most organizations are satisfied with maintaining the most egregious display of class discrimination that one can find here. Orchestra patrons are dying off here, and the cities are full of younger people and minorities that they have no idea how to market to. This has to change or you’re going to see many more orchestras going under over here.

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  21. Alex says:

    The OSESP in Sao Paulo, Brazil, was a dilapidated orchestra in the late 90’s. They adopted a similar model, a public foundation, and guest what? A new hall, and an excellent orchestra flourished! International tours, recordings, and first rate concerts with first rate soloists!….and Brazil is a 3rd world country!
    I agree 100% with the LSO and Berliner models. The LSO has more flexibility with auditions and trial periods than Berlin. The beauty of the system is DEMOCRACY and the fact that everyone is recognized and proud of it. 15% above scale may be a bit little for Principal pay, but I agree that NO extra side overscale should be negotiated; this totally promotes the “star” system that breaks the cohesion that a section should have! We end up in America orchestras of stars but no TEAM effort! Conductors should be priviledged to conduct the orchestra that the musicians choose to be before them…not the other way around. MDs come, usually divide and conquer power, fire, and leave the mess behind! Provided we were to have a good retirement fund and S.S. benefits and healthcare that works in America, a mandatory retirement age for each orchestra is in the interest of the ensemble and future generations!

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