Christina Fong

Visit Christina Fong's Web Site

I just finished reading Blair Tindall's book "Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music." I remember when this "tell all" book came out the classical music world was abuzz. Everyday for months, it seemed, the orchestra-based internet lists were filled with comments about this book.

Most of the criticism surrounding Tindall's book seems to circulate around her revelations of sexual behavior by prominent classical musicians and how much her career and employment centered around her own sexual relationships with them. I read "Mozart in the Jungle" carefully from cover to cover. Though sex and drugs is integral, the larger content and message deals with the state of classical music and musicians in America.

Such widespread reaction to the "sex scandal" aspect by so many in the orchestral world demonstrates those in the classical music world are no more enlightened than the general population. Like everything else in America, sex sells. Like America, the classical music world is in denial. And when enough people are preoccupied with their own moral superiority and code of ethics regarding sex and/or their infantile curiosity about such scandals, there comes about enough of a diversion to disrupt the focus on what is really plaguing classical music, and in particular orchestral music, in America. Once again, the Monica Lewinsky syndrome.

Quite frankly, I was appalled by the behavior of many of the people in Tindall's book. I was not so much appalled by her behavior, but her role in the classical music machine. Tindall, an oboist with a conservatory "education" knew how to do one thing; to play the oboe. In America, there are far too many in a field far too small. Because of this, winning an orchestra position is like winning the lottery. The only difference is many musicians who win jobs have tremendous egos and think the only reason they won was because they are better than everyone else ... not that they were at the right place at the right time.

For a majority of classical musicians the only way to make a living playing your instrument is to freelance. There are no formal auditions for freelancing. Because there are so many qualified people, getting gigs can be described euphemistically as networking and basely as cronyism. In essence it is about relationships, be it teacher/student, friendship, sexual or convenience. This is even true at the highest bastion of learning in America, Harvard University. Why is it so surprising this takes place on the substitute list of the New York Philharmonic, the hiring for Orpheus Chamber Orchestra or the pit of an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical?

If people genuinely cared about these non-profit arts organizations and their purpose, what should offend them most is what is destroying them. It is not sex, but greed and exploitation by many prominent musicians, managements and academic institutions, which Tindall discusses in great detail. Greed and bureaucracy are financially choking and killing our cultural institutions in America. First you have the biggest sharks of all; the superstar soloists. Yo-Yo Ma, Itzak Perlman and other major stars cost orchestras $70,000 for single engagements, while most musicians in those orchestras do not make that amount in a year. Kathleen Battle, well past her prime, demands a limo to drive her across the street and $1,000 a day per diem on top of her already outrageous and undeserving fee. Do these soloists honestly feel they deserve this? Perhaps they are delusional enough to think so because there are organizations willing to pay them, even at the cost of bankrupting themselves.

It is one thing not to recognize or acknowledge the importance and the dependency you have on a sea of faceless orchestra musicians and think somehow you deserve it. It is another to ignore one who is musically your other half. This is what, according to Tindall, Itzak Perlman did to his accompanist of many years, Samuel Sanders. When Sanders accompanied Perlman for a recital, Perlman received a hefty $35,000 fee and Perlman would pay Sanders $1,000. When Samuel Sanders was in the hospital for a heart transplant, Perlman never visited. Samuel Sanders remained loyal to Perlman and craved to be thought of as a friend and an equal. According to Tindall this never happened. I don't think Perlman or anyone is worth a $35,000 recital fee and certainly not a $70,000 solo fee. I am offended he chose to not at least financially acknowledge the importance of his loyal pianist. Unfortunately, Samuel Sanders exemplifies many classical musicians. They are like loyal dogs ever so grateful to have table scraps thrown at them.

This is a prevailing attitude of most soloists and it will probably not change as long as we have such a convoluted system. It is a system perhaps acceptable in the "for profit" music arena. After all, this is the way of capitalism; each man for himself. It would probably also be somewhat "acceptable" if orchestras were adequately supported, like in Germany. But we are neither. For organizations purportedly operating as non-profits, this should be completely unacceptable ... yet it continues.

The greed, corruption and bureaucracy that takes place in NPO arts organizations is astronomical. Tindall exposes many guilty culprits and it is high time somebody did. Except for the part about how percussionists are in bed, a metaphor of how they are able to make music out of anything anywhere; my personal and professional life was nothing like Tindall's. I was fortunate to have a university education and to land a full time orchestra job right out of school. Basically, if I wrote a book about these very issues, and included my life, it would be a real snooze. That Tindall was willing to lay out her wild personal life so people would pay attention, well, I say all the power to her. Let's face it, America at large does not give a rat's ass about the arts. Even most people in the arts are not really too concerned until it affects them personally. That it took sex and a beautiful author to lure people into reading a book that deals with very serious issues regarding the survival of arts in America, so be it. Blair Tindall could have sat on her hot ass and done nothing. Instead she used it to get people to look at what was, is, and may be, the future of classical music in America ... unlike Blair, it isn't so pretty.