Wednesday, December 19, 2007

World Famous European Orchestras or Georgian State Dancers?

Thanks to Michael Comins from New York for responding to one of my articles on foreign orchestras:

World famous European orchestras that come here do not replace local musicians any more than famous soloists do. There is a concert market for these groups and individuals just as there is a demand for American orchestras and soloists overseas. When Amsterdam, Vienna, Berlin, St. Petersburg, etc. play here, the NY Philharmonic, Brooklyn Philharmonic, Orchestra of St. Lukes, are likely to be playing the same night.

However, if a foreign pick-up group with a made-up name comes here just to back a pop or classical singer, then American musicians are being put out of work. Often, the AFM doesn't know the difference. In any case, much blame can be placed on the State Department that has made granting visas to legitimate foreign musicians much harder since 9/11/01.
The first thing to note is that the State Department has nothing to do with these visas. That there was some sort of State Department-sanctioned "exchange program" going on was misinformation designed to give the AFM's visa processing some legitimacy. The AFM, which will make over $1 million off visa processing fees in 2007, is guarding this revenue stream with every ounce of its being (as it is currently, and frighteningly, keeping the AFM afloat). This is a straightforward immigration issue. (And visa applications in general—not just for foreign musicians, but for many other legitimate applicants—have been more scrutinized since 9/11.)

The process begins when an American promoter (such as Columbia Artists Management, a non-signatory booking agency in New York) arranges a touring season with foreign groups. Examples from Worcester's 2007-2008 season: Ballet Follorico, Georgian State Dancers, New Zealand Quartet, Sofia Festival Orchestra, State Symphony of Mexico, Camerata Ireland, State Symphony of Russia. (Where are the "world famous European orchestras?") Many of these musical acts are totally subsidized by their home countries (for instance, instruments, wages, travel, etc., are all paid). Occasionally admitted is a "world class orchestra," in order to sweeten the deal for the purchaser.

Many of these groups leave town with more than a million dollars. These tours are not sponsored by the State Department or part of any exchange agreement, but purely profit-motivated. This relatively recent phenomenon (since the beginning of this century) has causally wiped out the Worcester Symphony Orchestra, which formerly played the season now occupied by the likes of the above groups.

When the Boston Symphony Orchestra plays in Worcester, there is no displacement: they are AFM musicians, and the receipts stay in Boston. Furthermore, world class American orchestras are not subsidized by the government (like, say, a military band). However, when the Warsaw Philharmonic plays in Worcester, over $1 million goes to Poland to add to the bottom line of an orchestra that is already entirely subsidized.

There may be sympathy for the world class European orchestra, based on some vague demand for like American performers overseas. However, this standard of reciprocity is not apparent in the concert scene of smaller communities in America.

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