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Music and the law

By Anne Midgette this week brought my attention to a lawsuit by a 60-year-old violinist against Young Concert Artists. YCA, now in its 50th season, holds a competition for young musicians; it then presents the winners on its concert series in New York, Washington, and Boston, and provides them with management as they get their start in the concert world. This violinist, Martin Stoner, recently lost his job with the New York City Ballet Orchestra, so he is looking for new avenues of work. He wants to audition for YCA; and now he’s bringing a suit against them for age discrimination because the cutoff age for their auditions is 26.

Others have already weighed in on the basic foolishness of this claim, which seems an obvious ploy on Stoner’s part to get media attention (and it’s working, because I’m writing about him). The man has been playing the violin professionally for years; he knows how the business works; and he’s had plenty of time to show the world whether or not he has the talent and chops to become the kind of world-class soloist YCA is looking for. Furthermore, YCA is clear about its age requirements (and most competitions have some sort of age cut-off or restriction, frustrating as this is to the 30-something who has yet to be recognized).

The larger issue, though, is the difficulty of applying civil law to musical organizations.

There are always complications when questions of artistic merit are brought into conflict with issues of civil rights. Traditionally, orchestra musicians in particular have had to put up with less than desirable treatment at the hands of their conductors; and while no one today would tolerate outbursts a la Toscanini, courts do tend to recognize that artistic considerations take precedence over civil ones. In October, an oboist for the Welsh National Opera went to court after being dismissed, claiming he had been bullied by the conductor, Carlo Rizzi; the court upheld the right of the orchestra to dismiss a soloist for what it sees as poor performance.*

And whether the performance is poor or not is usually not for a court to decide -- though back in the 1980s and 1990s, after the trombonist Abbie Conant was demoted from first to second chair in the Munich Philharmonic because the conductor Sergiu Celibidache told her “We need a man for first trombone,” she actually did, in the course of her subsequent lawsuit, have to play for an independent evaluator and collect dozens of testimonials to demonstrate her artistic merit. And in that case the court did, repeatedly, rule against the orchestra.

Yet orchestra are seeking to become more socially-minded, civic organizations. An illustration of the conflict between the elite role of the musician and the community goals of an orchestra, which I've already posted about, is the Detroit Symphony Orchestra management's desire for a contract that requires its musicians to take on non-performing duties like teaching and outreach activities. Does this imply a more social definition of an orchestra musician? Would this lead to a scenario down the road where an orchestra job would go not to the very best musician, but the most well-rounded one -- as Ivy League schools select no longer purely on the basis of academic merit? And would such a step imply the gradual eroding of a certain kind of artistic elitism -- or open up opportunities to more, and different kinds of, performers?

I trust, though, that most musicians will continue to understand that their "right" to perform is not something that a court can uphold, or force upon an unwilling presenter.

*Edited to add: I was just told of an example closer to home I hadn't known about: a violinist with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra who sued the Kennedy Center alleging that he was let go after his probationary period not for poor performance, but because he was Jewish and Heinz Fricke, the then-music director, and the orchestra manager, Shana Alewine, were German and therefore anti-Semitic. The case was decided in 2000; the violinist, Boris Reznikov, won $150,000.

By Anne Midgette  | November 3, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  news, random musings  
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Of course I don't know the specifics of this case, but the Kennedy Center violinist's lawsuit alleging dismissal due to anti-Semitism seems like grasping at straws. Surely many of the other orchestra members are Jewish and weren't dismissed. Maybe he just didn't play well enough.

Posted by: Lutoslawski | November 4, 2010 8:50 AM | Report abuse

Agree with previous comment. Without knowing the facts and circumstances, it's possible that the award of $150,000 was less than the legal fees which would have been incurred had the case proceeded to trial.

Posted by: 74umgrad1 | November 4, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

The members of the orchestra clearly agreed with Maestro Fricke. Back in 1998, they sent the following letter. (Is Mr. Reznikov playing professionally anywhere?)

The musicians of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra are distressed to learn a former probationary member of the orchestra has made false claims against our music director, Heinz Fricke. Boris Reznikov, a former principal second violinist, has claimed that he was singled out by Maestro Fricke and the former personnel manager of the orchestra Shana Alewine, for unfair treatment because he is a Russian Jew and they are of German ancestry. The musicians of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra reject their former colleague's claim and fully support Maestro Fricke's decision to not grant Mr. Reznikov tenure in the orchestra. Although Mr. Reznikov was respected as a violinist he did not adequately fulfill the responsibilities of a section leader despite counseling by Maestro Fricke and encouragement by members of the orchestra.

The musicians of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra are a diverse group representing many nationalities, religions and races. Maestro Fricke has continued this diversity by granting tenure to over twenty musicians of various nationalities, races and religions since his appointment in 1991 as music director. There is no evidence of discrimination by either Maestro Fricke or Ms Alewine against any member of the orchestra.

The orchestra has experienced great success because of our association with Maestro Fricke and look forward to our continued work under his direction.

Posted by: newcriticalcritic | November 4, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

I don't know that artistic organizations are any more problematic than regular businesses in terms of challenges to employment decisions. If the person isn't alleging violations of civil rights laws, that the action is taken because of a prohibited reason, courts don't want to get into the intricacies of whether someone is a good performer or a bad performer. It's almost easier to defend in an orchestra setting, because auditions are usually done behind a screen, if someone misses too many notes, has a crappy tone, etc., it's easy to identify and quantify.

Posted by: c-clef | November 8, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

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