Unlike many if not most presenters, the Handel and Haydn Society has announced it will be paying musicians for the concerts canceled in its 2019-20 season, to wit, Bach’s St Matthew Passion, which was scheduled for April 3rd and 5th , and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, set for May 1st and 3rd.
The H+H Executive Committee has pledged to pay 88 orchestra and chorus members more than $350,000, which is 100% of their expected salaries for these performances. “The society, like all arts organizations, is feeling the impact of these incredibly trying times,” said David Snead, president and CEO. “The board felt we needed to stand by our musicians as we all navigate the economic uncertainty ahead. H+H is thankful for the many patrons who donated back their tickets, the generous donors to the Musicians’ Relief Fund, and we welcome all additional support through the donation page on our website.”
FLE: How is Boston’s oldest music society doing?
DS: Fortunately, we were already set up to work remotely when the pandemic hit; everyone has laptops and VPNs. Our Vonage phone system transfers calls so that somebody answers it in their kitchen instead of the office. So the organization is getting along fine from that point of view.
Except the most important thing you want to be doing, giving concerts, you’re not going to be able to do for a while, and when you have the word “society” in your name, it must be hard when you can’t be social.
What are trying to find other ways serve people’s needs for music.
In H + H ’s case, we have a lot of recorded content, which is already out there and accessible, but we didn’t have a lot of video, but Symphony Hall just very recently installed robotic cameras for the general use. We are pleased with how they worked in when Masaaki Suzuki conducted Messiah last November. [HERE]
We’re doing our best to maintain the connections between H + H and the audience, now at a more personal level. We’ve been doing a series of very short videos of musicians performing music in their livingrooms that’s getting a lot of torque and I like the intimacy of it the fact that the musician can talk directly to the viewer. [See some on the Society’s Listening Room.] We’ve been talking to concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky about perhaps doing trios or quartets, and it may be that we find some repertoire where that makes sense, and we’ll put that up.
It could all change in a month or six months, especially since many of the logical studios for recording these sessions, like Fraser at WGBH, have closed for now. But the lede is that you’ve announced that H + H is going to pay its musicians through the end of your schedule season.
The responses of orchestras and opera companies have been all over the place; some have given two weeks’ notice and said “That’s all, folks”; others have offered to pay a month at full salary, a month at half salary, and then just medical insurance copays. So you’re giving out a hundred percent for basically two concerts (two iterations each), and then what?
The board very strongly wanted to pay the musicians for the April and May concerts this year. They haven’t made any decisions about future cancellations.
Do your contracts have force majeure clauses?
Yeah, we have a collective bargaining agreement with the union and it does have a force majeure in it. Technically, I suppose, we could have enforced that, but no one on the board wanted to do that.
Right, but if it looks like the whole next season is dubious, then you’re gonna have to revisit that in the fall.
Are you paying soloists who are under contract?
We paid our soloists for the Matthew Passion a reduced fee, and Music Director Harry Christophers took a cut for those concerts.
The BSO has the unique luxury of having many of their chairs permanently endowed. One wonders then if management has the option of furloughing them, or those funds must be used to pay these people even if there are no more concerts.
I have no idea. They’re obviously a very different structure from ours. They pay salaries and we contract for services. It’s a different completely different situation with them.
The BSO must be agonizing over this, what with the rest of this season and Pops already canceled and Tanglewood looking shaky. From the perspective of the BSO musicians, “The Players and the Corporation have engaged in productive discussions about how to move forward in these unprecedented circumstances.” If you’re on a board, you must look after the well-being of the organization as well as the employees.
And if you have no ticket revenues (and apparently these constitute 30% of your revenues), then it would ruinous to spend down your endowment on the justifiably important social welfare of your musicians, stagehands and staff. Yet it’s arguably also essential to your organization to keep that cadre of people intact. This is a real quandary.
You don’t have the BSO’s luxury, though, of having endowed seats?
No, not in the same way.
Are you getting out of rental contracts for halls?
We’re anticipating that concert halls will forgo rentals for our canceled concert.
It looks like you have a $1.5 million nut for your players and singers for the nine concerts next season.
The total artistic expenses for next year’s is something like $2.2 million, and you are pretty close to right about what is budgeted for the players and singers.
There’s a lot at stake. That’s why you can’t at this point say you’re going to keep paying them if you don’t sell any tickets for the whole season. The organization will of course revisit this when the time comes, with the understanding that these are freelance musicians, and this is not their only source of revenue.
When you get the green light to put concerts, how many of your superannuated and vulnerable patrons will return? Playing to houses that are only one-third full could be very expensive
So we’re gaming up scenarios very seriously for next year. What if what if tickets are down 10%, down 20%, or even more? The contribution side of the equation is even more important. I just did the math and actually it’s one-third of our revenue comes from ticket sales.
How major donors, foundations, and other institutions going to react is a more complicated picture. There may well be some reluctance to come back. Survey research posits that symphony orchestras may expect a 20% decline in attendance until there’s a vaccine and calm returns.
Then the wealth effect, which makes us all feel more generous when our portfolios look good on paper and less generous feeling when we don’t want to sell anything in a down market in order to give money away. There’s also the notion that we need to be feeding people edible food before we feed them spiritual foods.
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While we are living through these enormous perturbations, you’re also looking for a successor to Harry Christophers. Is every one of the guest conductors a candidate next season?
No, I can’t say that. We are not publicizing a list of candidates, or potential candidates. There are many reasons to maintain confidentiality.
A couple of times when community choruses were doing searches they announced that they were going to do a concert with each of four candidates during a season. That was interesting because we made a point of sending the same reviewer to review all four concerts; thus the reviewer could help the chorus with the evaluation.
Now, I don’t know whether as august an institution as H + H cares what an Intelligencer reviewer thinks about candidates, but I would promise to get somebody there to every one known to be conducted by a candidate. What more can you say about how the conductor search can go on in this era?
If no one’s doing concerts, we can’t go seek conductors and they can’t come here. If September comes, and there’s a vaccine, and the world is back to normal, then we’ll be right on schedule. We know that we may have to cancel September and October, but we can try to move those concerts to the spring.
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What does the conductor search tell us about plans for enlarging or shrinking repertoire? Does repertoire expand or look further backwards, or reinterpret the 19th century through different lenses? Some people have said your society suffers from mission creep in that you should focus on the time period you do best. Should you leave Beethoven to the big boys, for instance? How does your conductor search tie into any identity questions as to what Handel and Haydn wants to be?
We are a Baroque and classical HIP period-instrument orchestra and chorus. That’s our identity. The conductors that we are talking to are people who have interest in both Baroque and classical and in period-instrument performance. So anything which falls under that umbrella is within our scope. We’re doing the Brahms Requiem next year, for instance.
With Brahms-period instruments?
I hope you will be looking at the 19th-century performance styles as well as just the instruments. It would be amazing to hear music of Handel and Haydn with very light transparent playing and then Brahms with juicy portamentos and a much richer sound during the same show. Can the same players work over that wide a range?
I’m sure we’re both big fans of John Eliot Gardiner’s revelatory Beethoven’s cycle. We are looking for musicians and conductors who can bring insight and HIP perspective to all of that range of music, from Monteverdi through Beethoven, Schubert, and Mendelssohn.
People don’t always understand that “historically informed” doesn’t mean earlier than thou or holier than thou. It ideally demands a sensitivity to what the composers heard and intended.
Bernard Labadie is doing a great email series right now on Bach. He had some really great things to say about how HIP is not trying to recreate a specific point in time, rather it is looking for better-informed interpretations in the here and now based on the composer’s sound world and the instruments he or she wrote for. A HIP performance is still a contemporary experience … live here and now.
There are, of course, limits to the period of time that we can perform. We don’t go back to Renaissance, for instance, and I don’t think we’re ever going to use keyed horns, valved trumpets, or steel strings.
We are interested in commissioning composers who write new pieces for period instruments. We had a piece by Gabriela Frank. Matthew Aucoin does some work with Philharmonia Baroque. So we would be pleased to play contemporary composers who write something for our instruments and our sound.
Of course, the board is not going to make these artistic decisions by itself; you’re going to be waiting until you have a new music director.
Right now, the artistic director really does make the artistic decisions, though we have a shared philosophy and point of view. We also expect that Christophers’s successor will bring personal ideas about repertoire, even with sticking within the time period from 1600 to 1830-ish. [Ed.: the Brahms is from 30 years later.]
There’s still obviously a wide range of repertoire. This is why we asked countertenor Reginald Mobley to start bringing us some music that we haven’t been performing . . . still within the classical periods.
The Handel and Haydn Society looks forward to returning in the fall with a complete season of historically informed performances. Subscriptions are on sale now at handelandhaydn.org or by calling the box office at 617.266.3605.
Handel and Haydn’s 2020–21 Season Performances include:
Brahms A German Requiem September 25 + 27, 2020 Symphony Hall
Bach + Vivaldi Gloria October 23 + 25, 2020 Symphony Hall
Handel Messiah November 27 + 28 + 29, 2020 Symphony Hall
Bach Christmas December 17 + 20, 2020 Jordan Hall
Haydn + Mozart January 22 + 24, 2021 Symphony Hall
Mozart Great Mass February 5 + 7, 2021 Jordan Hall
Beethoven Symphony No. 7 March 5 + 7, 2021 Symphony Hall
Handel Israel in Egypt March 19 + 21, 2021 Jordan Hall & Sanders Theater
Haydn The Creation April 30 + May 2, 2021 Symphony Hall