Arts & Culture » Arts


The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra goes off the air


The classical-recording industry died. And I say that absolutely. It's not arguable. It's true. It's a fact. It's sad, but it's true. -- Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

If you love the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, you've got to love it live. They have no recording contract. Their own vanity label, Arch Media, failed. And now their concert series on National Public Radio and KFUO (99.1 FM) goes off the air April 9.

The reason -- as with most things having to do with SLSO (or any other orchestra) these days -- is financial. Last summer, when the musicians' union and management negotiated their latest collective-bargaining agreement, the radio series became an extravagance that did nothing for the bottom line. SLSO general manager Carla Johnson estimates the additional production costs and musicians' fees (musicians are paid additional money for a broadcast, above their salaries for the concert itself) for the series came to $260,000-$375,000 per year.

As has been much reported, SLSO has been struggling against insolvency, so its last contract was "pretty lean," as executive director Don Roth describes it. The musicians chose to forego the extra dollars from broadcast fees, says Roth, because "the orchestra's expectation -- which is not unreasonable -- is that the contract needed to provide a good wage for them first."

Gary Smith, a trumpeter and a member of the musicians' negotiating team, says the electronic-media guarantee (speaking in contractual lingo) was not a sticking point between the orchestra and management: "What are you getting for NPR today? Who's playing it? Where are they playing it? What does it mean to us? At one time, we were on 127 stations. I think that was very meaningful. We were touring then. We were trying to sell a lot of CDs." Then the NPR format changed to "intelligent talk," and the SLSO series received limited distribution, to 38 stations -- from Barrow, Alaska, to Valdosta, Ga. -- with Atlanta the only significant major market.

Smith puts the issue in the bluntest economic terms: "There's no money for it. We were all looking at a budget that was in real distress. The orchestra didn't want to do it for nothing, and we were already being paid half-price for what an NPR rate should be. So there was no sentiment to do that again, especially when you're look at how NPR has changed. What's the sense of that?"

SLSO may have received a $40 million challenge grant toward its $110 million endowment campaign, but there's still a long way to go before the symphony expends capital for anything beyond the orchestra and its educational-outreach programs. And the symphony isn't alone in that economic bind. Fifteen years ago, concert series by the Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, New York and Chicago symphonies could be heard throughout the year on the radio. Now Philadelphia can be found intermittently, Boston can only be heard in New England, Cleveland broadcasts a small number of concerts and, even with Time-Warner as an underwriter, the New York Philharmonic broadcasts only one concert per month. Chicago still broadcasts nationally throughout its concert season with the Elizabeth Morse Genius Charitable Trust as a major underwriter.

"If the Chicago Symphony didn't have a sponsor, they wouldn't be on the air," says Roth. "And we need our [corporate] sponsors for things that are more core than the radio is. We have an obligation to St. Louis to behave in a way that is as fiscally responsible as possible and saves our money to invest in the quality of this orchestra on our stage and out in the community." The former underwriter for the SLSO radio series was TWA, which has its own problems.

The lamentations voiced over the loss of the SLSO radio broadcasts are muted by the realities voiced by Salerno-Sonnenberg in the quotation above. KFUO's director of broadcast operations, Dennis Stortz, mostly shrugs: "It was a disappointment that the symphony decided to discontinue the broadcast, but in this business you're not shocked or surprised at anything. It was a contractual deal and it was negotiated out, and that's the way it is." NPR's executive producer for cultural programming, Andy Trudeau, says he realizes that "you have local issues you've got to deal with. Having a national concert series may not be helping you." Although he speaks fondly of the days when any of the major orchestras could be heard regularly around America over the airwaves, Trudeau concedes, "The world has changed."

The audience for orchestral recordings, whatever the format, is a very specific one -- and radio stations and recording companies don't profit, or at least don't profit as much, catering to a limited market. Artists such as Salerno-Sonnenberg are broadening their repertoires to keep their recording careers alive. She has recorded contemporary music with gypsy inflections on the Nonesuch label with Brazilian guitarists Sergio and Odair Assad. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma plays the music of Appalachia with musicians such as Mark O'Connor and Edgar Meyer. Violinist Joshua Bell gained recognition beyond the concert hall by playing on the soundtrack to The Red Violin. Bell has also worked with Meyer, and traditional bluegrass players Mike Marshall and Sam Bush, performing Meyer compositions that mix modernity with Irish musical themes on Short Trip Home.

Most major orchestras are not so adaptive, unless it's the San Francisco Symphony playing with Metallica. And most orchestral audiences are not so open to variations from the core repertoire (unless it's San Francisco). In the 21st century, a number of St. Louis Symphony patrons arrive late so they can miss the 20th-century selection dolloped into the first part of the evening, or they walk out -- as they did with composer/conductor John Adams -- when contemporary noise begins to encroach on their 19th-century expectations.

The world has changed, and it hasn't. Roth says it was tough to give up anything "that puts our orchestra in front of people across the country," but the fact that SLSO exits NPR at a time when the recording world is dramatically changing with the advances in the World Wide Web leaves him encouraged: "I've got to believe, at the end of the day, that something that's Web-based is more likely to be the medium for orchestras than something that's radio-based."

Every SLSO concert is being recorded, and any of those recordings may someday appear on CD or on NPR's new series SymphonyCast -- which will broadcast performances by several American orchestras, including the SLSO -- or on KFUO (the station and the orchestra hope to come to a new agreement in the near future).

Or there may come a time when that specified audience will be able to download an SLSO concert -- or any concert by any orchestra. So the acclaimed 1999 SLSO performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 3 with Hans Vonk conducting can become part of the Mahlerphile's collection. And for those who didn't walk out on Adams' Symphony No. 1, they can have that recording to ward off the cranks who did.

With orchestral music having lost its mass appeal to pop, the future is in the direct accessibility to the niche that still cares, from Barrow to Valdosta.

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