Saturday, 18 September 2010

What's a conductor worth?

I love all sorts of music and there are some classical works that are always with me, enriching my inner life. That makes me an elitist, in the sense that only a small percentage of the population cares about classical music at all. In a recent article in the Irish Times, Enda O'Doherty deplored the dumbing down of classical music which he sees as a misguided attempt to appeal to a larger population; when the focus is on the celebrity performer rather than on the music then the fundamental value of the work is lost. I think he's absolutely right, although I must guiltily admit that a morbid interest in the tragedy of Jacqueline du Pré is what first led me to discover Elgar's Cello Concerto, a work which now has worked its way into me so completely that it is almost a part of me.

It's an odd paradox though when an elitist art form such as classical musical is funded through government spending - we all pay for it, like it or not. The Montreal Symphony Orchestra is funded by Lotto-Québec, and I can't imagine there are many regular lotto players who attend its concerts. This doesn't seem just or democratic, yet I'm in favour of it on the basis that I don't see a workable alternative. But spending public funds in this way needs to be done transparently and with constant focus on the goal: ensuring the survival of an art form that might otherwise dissappear or become inaccessible.

So when La Presse reports that the conductor of the MSO, Kent Nagano, is paid more than $1million per year, well at that point I think that the focus on the goal has been lost. Nagano, a Japanese-American, is a celebrity who garners a lot of publicity for the MSO - but clearly not enough for it to break its reliance on public funds. It's not easy, even for this elitist, to understand his value from a musical perspective. Couldn't a local conductor do as good a job, thus promoting musical talent from Québec and saving maybe $900,000 that could be better spent elsewhere?

This strikes me as just more celebrity-fixation, more dumbing down. It should be about the music.

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