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Orchestras need maestros to make music profitable

There is a scene in Tár, the Oscar-nominated film about a charismatic but abusive conductor of a major orchestra in Berlin, in which the character played by Cate Blanchett whispers along to an old programme. It shows Leonard Bernstein, the maestro of the New York Philharmonic, charming his audience in one of its Emmy award-winning Young People’s Concerts.

The New York Phil has not been led by such a compelling maestro for a long time, but it will soon be again. It announced this month that it has poached Gustavo Dudamel, the charismatic leader of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to become its music and artistic director from 2026. Transfers do not get much hotter in classical music.

I reflected on this recently as I sat in the Berlin Philharmonic’s wonderful 1963 concert hall listening to it play works by Ligeti, Britten and Debussy. The orchestra’s low-key, Russian-Austrian conductor Kirill Petrenko was absent, but his British stand-in Daniel Harding summoned the orchestra’s virtuosity handily.

Dudamel’s appointment shows the value of a public face. Herbert von Karajan, the Berlin Philharmonic’s most famous maestro, sold 200mn albums under the yellow label of Deutsche Grammophon in his time. But recorded music can no longer sustain the finances of even the world’s leading orchestras.

Orchestras have never been good businesses. “The permanent orchestra season has, as usual, been financially a bad one all over the country,” the New York Times wrote in 1903. There are too many musicians to employ, and too much sunk into venues and promotion, for too little return.

The first duty of maestros is to make music: “They have to work bloody hard and make the musicians work hard too,” says Norman Lebrecht, founder of the music site SlippeDisc. Berlin’s bet on Petrenko was that virtuosity compensated for less public presence than his predecessor Simon Rattle.

But the economics keep deteriorating. The usual explanation is the “cost disease” in the performing arts identified by the economists William Baumol and William Bowen in 1966: wages rise steadily but there are no productivity gains. Playing Beethoven’s fifth symphony requires deep ranks of basses, violins and cellos and it can never be done much faster.

Orchestras indeed face higher expenses. It cost $550mn to rebuild the NY Phil’s home, now called David Geffen Hall after the biggest donor. But the larger problem is revenue disease: traditional forms of income, from recordings to ticket subscriptions, have been steadily eroded. It is a constant effort to attract audiences and money.

That is the genius of Dudamel. The 42-year-old Venezuelan is one of the few maestros who spans the gap between classical and pop music, and to charm not only orchestras, but audiences and donors. Even the NY Phil, with its large endowment and base in one of the world’s wealthiest cities, has to keep hustling.

“It all starts with compelling, electric, exciting performances on the stage,” says Gary Ginstling, executive director. It needs to, because fewer people now subscribe to season tickets, the traditional annuity of US orchestras. The New York Phil’s ticket subscriptions are down by 21 per cent on pre-pandemic levels, although it played to 88 per cent capacity audiences last year.

So charisma is useful. Dudamel’s appeal reaches beyond the suburban symphony crowd: the LA Phil has played with Billie Eilish and Dudamel was the model for the lead character in Mozart in the Jungle, an Amazon Prime comedy drama about a flamboyant maestro who joins the New York Phil (really).

A maestro also brings in funding. European orchestras rely on public subsidy but US ones require private support. There is nothing like a charmer to attract donations and build endowments. “I gaze with joy and excitement at the world that lies before me in New York,” Dudamel said, and the feeling is likely to be mutual.

When an orchestra is in full flow, the conductor waving at the front can feel more of a luxury than a necessity. But when it comes to making profits, the maestro calls the tune.

john.gapper@ft.com

This article has been amended to correct the nationality of Kirill Petrenko

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