Commentary Magazine

Musical New York

To the Editor:

As principal harpist and pension trustee of the New York Philharmonic, I read with great interest Samuel Lipman’s article, “Musical New York in Crisis” [October 1983]; Mr. Lipman writes on this subject with deep insight and empathy.

The musicians of the New York Philharmonic are frequently victims of one-sided barbs. We have no newspaper, radio station, or TV network at our disposal to defend ourselves from accusations, regardless of how false or unfounded they may be. Moreover, on at least one recent occasion, when a diatribe against our orchestra by Donal Henahan appeared in the New York Times, a reply I submitted as a letter to the editor was neither published in that newspaper nor even acknowledged.

What was amazing about Henahan’s article, which appeared on September 11, 1983, prior to the opening of our season, was that, for lack of anything about which to criticize the Philharmonic musically, Henahan found sufficient creative resources to write an extensive, in-depth article based on three words—“most exciting orchestra”—which had appeared in a Times ad. After questioning our possession of “inner resources of stability and morale,” he assured his readers that “Zubin Mehta, the music director, will find himself under even more pressure than usual, to keep the orchestra in a playing mood.” The reason, he continued, is “Money, as usual.”

Money seems to be more a preoccupation of Donal Henahan than it does of ourselves. Indeed, his articles on the New York Philharmonic have frequently placed a marked emphasis on matters financial rather than musical. Certainly, Henahan must know that alternative sources of income (such as TV, films, radio, extra concerts, etc.) are available to supplement our annual salaries, regardless of recording expectations. And he should know that, in any case, supplementary income could not ever be a determining factor in “keeping the orchestra in a playing mood.”

In his September 11 piece Henahan also made frequent references to our “standing” in the orchestral world, rating us like a soap opera or a baseball team. I’m sure the untold number of listeners to our concerts, broadcasts, and recordings are little concerned how Henahan rates the New York Philharmonic. In a world where many superb ensembles exist and perform simultaneously, we do not compete with one another; our object is to play our very best at all times.

Henahan went on to say that “if the conductor is technically inept, inexperienced, or out of his depth, a great orchestra puts its head down and plays not only as well as he will allow, but better.” Is it possible that he really believes that statement? If he does, and if it were true, this would present an excellent case for conductorless orchestras, and would tend to minimize the importance of the musicianship of the person at the helm.

This brings me to Henahan’s September 15 review of the opening concert of our season, a concert which in my own opinion will be remembered as one of the musically memorable events of the past decade. Although the audience greeted the closing notes of the Mahler First Symphony with a thunderous ten-minute standing ovation, and although the orchestra enthusiastically joined in this standing ovation and refused to take a second bow in deference to the conductor, Rafael Kubelik, Henahan evidently did not share the feeling of magic in the evening’s performance. After grudgingly conceding some laudatory remarks to Kubelik’s musical interpretation (and to the “former” power of Rudolph Serkin, who appeared as soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1), he found nothing more to declare in his last sentence than some offhand remark about the orchestra having performed without too many problems.

I have been deeply puzzled, in rereading past articles of Henahan, by the apparent hostility frequently directed at the musicians of the New York Philharmonic. I have found myself wondering whether such articles serve a constructive, objective, and unbiased function in this sophisticated city of cultural munificence. And my wonder only increased when the Times chose simply to ignore the rebuttal of Henahan’s views which I sent for publication.

The “crisis” of which Mr. Lipman writes is thus very deep indeed.

Myor Rosen
Teaneck, New Jersey



To the Editor:

In his article, “Musical New York in Crisis,” Samuel Lipman implies that the strike by the New York City Opera orchestra would not have occurred if the musicians had respected the singers and productions more. Is there anyone naive enough to believe that? In an effort to make his arguments fit his point, he has resorted to claiming for the strikers a motivation which anyone with even a modicum of knowledge of human nature must find ludicrous. Is your readership expected to believe that workers equate the quality of goods produced with money in their pockets, or that this orchestra, led by “militant officers of Local 802,” ever gave a moment’s thought to “a company musicians can respect”? . . .

Stephen Strimpell
New York City



Samuel Lipman writes:

Myor Rosen has provided an eloquent answer to Stephen Strimpell’s cynical and dismissive analysis of what makes the orchestra players of the New York City Opera tick. Clearly, my own position is very close to that of Mr. Rosen. The members of the City Opera orchestra, no less than the members of the New York Philharmonic, are musicians whose lives have been devoted to the accomplishment of an artistic task rather than to the maximization of economic gain. Almost all these players began their serious attachment to music in childhood; their adult activities seem more accurately described as callings than as jobs. To say this is hardly to ignore that on occasion they do band together to further their economic interests; it is, rather, to argue that as serious musicians they are willing to—and in fact every day actually do—make monetary sacrifices in order to continue playing great music. It is absurd to expect them to continue making these economic decisions without a compensating musical reward. That reward can only come through distinguished artistic leadership. Such leadership is now lacking on the New York scene, and its lack is the chief cause of the present musical crisis.



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