When the great orchestras of Europe glide through the United States on tour, they stay at elegant hotels like Le Parker Meridien near Carnegie Hall, play in grand spaces like Symphony Hall in Boston and can receive more than $100 a day in meal money.
On their nine-week tour, these Muscovites are slogging to Ashland, Ky.; Quincy, Ill.; and Zanesville, Ohio, often riding buses for up to seven hours, moving from highway to budget hotel to concert hall, and then all over again the next morning. They have a day off every two weeks, on average.
The pay? About $40 a concert in most cases, the musicians said. Per diems? Zero, making “breakfast included” the sweetest of words. The bus drivers often stop at malls to let them shop for food at a Wal-Mart. Many of them double up in hotel rooms.
“Musicians are human beings too, and they should be treated like humans,” one disgusted musician wrote in an e-mail message. Like most of the orchestra members who were contacted, this one spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing being blacklisted from future jobs.
The conditions are tough — akin to the grinding travel of low-level minor league baseball teams or striving rock bands or the barnstorming jazz orchestras of yore — and a little unexpected for a group of highly trained classical musicians. Yet they are not uncommon.
Performing arts centers and concert halls in smaller cities and towns around the country are hungry for classical music programming. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra or Berlin Symphony is well beyond their means. So lesser known, and lower priced, foreign orchestras provide a solution.
Presenters on the Moscow orchestra’s tour said it cost from $50,000 to $75,000 to engage it, compared to $100,000 and up for a well known orchestra, or twice that for one of the elite, like the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonic.
Foreign orchestras, no matter the level, provide a lure of the exotic.
“There’s a cachet there,” said Wesley O. Brustad, the president and chief executive of the State Theater in New Brunswick, N.J. “American orchestras are tough to sell,” he said. They are also more expensive because of union rules. As a bonus, presenters of foreign groups benefit from a built-in audience: ethnic groups that live in the area. Russians are especially enthusiastic concertgoers.
The State Theater played host to the Muscovites on Feb. 14, a day after they performed at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., where the musicians plowed through a preconcert buffet.
“It’s not the best orchestra in the world,” Mr. Brustad said. “The winds were a little weak.” But the musicians played with emotion, he said. (When told the Moscow players generally made $40 for the concert, Mr. Brustad said: “Oh, my goodness. No kidding. Wow. I had no idea.”)
The Moscow State Radio Symphony’s biography says it was founded in 1978 to give broadcast performances. It toured the United States once before, in 2004, and has made recent trips to China and Italy. It has made several dozen recordings, including a number for the Naxos label.
Anatoli Nemudrov, the orchestra’s artistic director, declined to discuss financial arrangements, saying they were confidential. But, he noted, touring “is hard work for all musicians, Russians and Americans.” He said the tour had been going well, adding, “We have good concerts.”
The producer of the tour, Andrew S. Grossman of Columbia Artists Management, did not respond to phone messages left at his office, on his cellphone and with his assistant, and did not respond to an e-mail query.
The Columbia Artists chairman, Ronald A. Wilford, said he was not familiar with the details of the contract. But he said that typically Columbia Artists, as a producer, receives fees from the presenters, who keep the box office receipts. Columbia Artists arranges travel inside the country and lodging, and guarantees the orchestra a set fee. “We have no idea what they’re paying their orchestra,” Mr. Wilford said of Moscow State Radio Symphony’s management.
The orchestra began its latest American tour on Jan. 13, when it arrived in Atlanta, and is due in St. Louis on Wednesday. After an original itinerary of 53 concerts in 67 days, it leaves from Los Angeles on March 22. The trip began in the deep South, worked its way north, swung through southern New England, is now in the Midwest and heads out to Arizona, Nevada and California.
On Feb. 17 the tour brought the group to Worcester, Mass. This season’s schedule of the presenter there, Music Worcester, also includes the Odessa Philharmonic, the Orquestra de São Paulo, the Shanghai Symphony and I Musici de Montréal.
“It was an all-Tchaikovsky program, which is a win-win to begin with,” Stasia Hovenesian, the executive director of Worcester Music, said of the Moscow group’s appearance. “No one but no one plays Tchaikovsky as well as the Russians do.”
And Russians they are, including conductor and soloists (except for several last-minute American substitutes). Whether they were actually members of the Moscow State Radio Symphony Orchestra is another question. A half-dozen players interviewed said they were students or freelancers hired for the tour. One musician who did allow his name to be used, Vladimir Prikhodko, a double bassist, estimated that only about 20 to 30 players in the 90-piece group were full-time members.
Mr. Nemudrov, the artistic director, said that only about a half-dozen were not regulars.
On Feb. 21 the orchestra played a concert at the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts in the Bronx. Eva Bornstein, the center’s executive director, introduced it as “one of the finest orchestras of Europe.”
A few days before the Lehman concert a Russian mechanical engineer living in Manhattan, Sergei Levitan, contacted The New York Times to denounce what he said was mistreatment of the players. He said he knew several through mutual friends. “It’s demeaning,” he said of the conditions. “I got upset.”
After the Lehman concert a player said he grew dizzy and tumbled over a railing into a stairwell, cracking his skull. The player was interviewed by telephone at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, where he was admitted with a head injury.
The conditions are “very bad,” said another member. “I wouldn’t do this trip again. They should pay us at least twice as much,” the player said. Others lamented that they had come to see the United States but had little opportunity. Several said that a kindly bus driver had taken them into New York on a day off while they were staying in New Jersey.
Rehearsals are relentless even though they are not paid for, some musicians said, but pride in their craft pushed them to attend anyway.
Others welcomed the chance to gain concert experience, and said that the money was not bad by Russian standards. Mr. Prikhodko, 31, the double bass player, called the tour a “difficult experience, but a very useful one.” Besides, he added, “I like traveling.”
The e-mailing orchestra member, in a separate interview at Lehman, acknowledged that the performance level was not the highest. “There’s a direct relationship between how we play and how much we get paid,” he said. As for the rigors of the tour, he shrugged them off.
“I am strong man, and I am Russian,” he said. “So I can do this.”
By DANIEL J. WAKIN -NYT (March 4, 2010)