Home     Foreign Correspondence   Philosophical questions and other practical considerations – My first year at the Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg.

Philosophical questions and other practical considerations – My first year at the Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg.

Antony Ernst recently moved to Europe to take up a position with the Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg after terms as CEO of Sydney Youth Orchestras and Manager of Artistic Planning for the Auckland Philharmonia. He reflects on what he has learnt in his first year in France.

Typical Strasbourg Architecture: the March au Cochons

It’s been a year now since I moved from Sydney to Strasbourg to take up a position as the délégué artistique (artistic planning manager) at the Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg. It’s not so often these days that someone goes in this direction – it seems much more frequent that Europeans or Americans come to take up positions in Australia and New Zealand, but that’s partly a function of the disparity of populations. Nevertheless, here I was, arriving in Europe (‘where the history comes from’, as a friend had so aptly put it), coming to a place I had visited a few times as a tourist and trying to settle into a position which, ideally, requires knowing the town, the society and the audience rather well. Oh, and the language. A bit of a challenge there.

I’ll skip over the getting the kids into school, the innumerable visits to Ikea, the dealing with the bureaucracy about the work visa, learning French while in meetings with three people talking at once, and various other matters which loomed a lot at the time but which aren’t of much interest to anyone else. Instead, I’d like to talk about some of the differences and similarities I’ve found – expected and unexpected – and how they play out in my work and the work of those around me.

To begin with, it should be mentioned that Strasbourg is an unusual town – it is the capital of the region of Alsace, one of the more stubbornly individualist provinces of France. It’s on the German border: the Rhine is five minutes drive away and on the other side is Germany, something which was a bit of a shock to my five-year-old son, who, like a good Australian, thought that you needed to get in an aeroplane to go to another country. In fact, Alsace has occasionally been part of Germany and the local dialect is a German one, not a French one, but the people are most insistently not German. Mind you, they refer to the rest of the French as ‘Français de l’interieur’, so they’re not exactly flag-waving children of la patrie either. That said, the Marseillaise was composed here and the city has one of France’s oldest universities. It’s contradictions like this which make it a logical place to base the European Parliament, Council of Europe, European Court of Human Rights and various other institutions, making Strasbourg simultaneously a relatively small, proudly idiosyncratic town and a self-styled ‘capitale Européenne’.

Antony Ernst in rehersal

I’ll come back to the ramifications of this double identity on artistic planning a little later, because I don’t want to get ahead of myself. The most major difference to grapple with when I arrived had nothing directly to do with socio-cultural issues and everything to do with politics and economics: for the first time I was working in the kind of heavily-subsidised orchestra that most of us artistic planners in Australasia fantasise about. When you’re sitting in Auckland (where I worked for five years) and realising that a late Bruckner symphony is going to be impossible because (a) you need too many casuals and you can’t afford them (b) the audience probably aren’t going to turn up for it and you can’t afford that and (c) the only set of Wagner tubas in the country is owned by another orchestra and they’re playing The Alpine Symphony that week, then you dream of a 110-piece salaried orchestra that doesn’t worry about box office receipts because they’re not part of the operating budget anyway. When I did the interview for the position in Strasbourg, one of the questions was ‘M Ernst, you’re aware that the economic situation in Europe is getting more difficult, and you probably know that this is having an impact on the orchestras here – do you think that in the future you would be able to work with a more restricted budget?’ I was able to say (not without a touch of self-righteousness, I have to admit) ‘Gentlemen, with all due respect, you know nothing of budget restrictions’.

By world standards, this is true. Although the financial crisis has had some major impact, notably in the Netherlands and Germany, and although the French cultural sector has been squeezed, Strasbourg has thus far been spared, and the Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg remains one of the French National Orchestras and as such, part of the national heritage and therefore to a certain degree insulated from the first line of budget cuts and austerity measures. This is partly because the orchestra is, structurally speaking, the Orchestra Department of the City of Strasbourg – something which even in France is increasingly unusual. In effect, the orchestra is part of the city administration, its budget is part of the municipal budget and its personnel part of the city payroll. This means that the orchestra is 85% directly funded by government and that its budget position is a matter of allocations within the municipal budget rather than absolutes of cash in the bank or interest on capital funds.

There is a downside to this. Although we aren’t in financial straits, should we want to actively expand our activities or obtain more flexibility of enterprise through sponsorship and alternative sources of income, these are very difficult to source, because any support has to go to the  city as a whole and not us in particular, thus reducing branding and promotional opportunities for sponsors. Another issue is that as a city official I need to fill in an application form three weeks in advance in order to take someone out for coffee.

As a corollary though, being part of the city administration also means that the administration of the orchestra itself, as a proportion of orchestra size and activity is, compared to orchestras run on other funding models, rather small. Where the Dallas Symphony, with an establishment of 96 musicians has a staff of 62 (29 of whom are devoted to fundraising and marketing in some form), the Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg, (incidentally servicing a town one tenth the size of Dallas), has an establishment of 110 musicians with a staff of 21 (with no fundraising and one marketing person).

Fundamentally, though, subsidy means that the activities and aims of the orchestra are defined by their civic value, rather than their commercial viability. We can spend money, but we need to be able to justify why we are doing it in terms of how we are benefiting the city of Strasbourg. I had an interesting experience shortly after arriving which opened my eyes to the implications of this difference. I had been in contact with an agent who was promoting one of the ‘blockbuster film with live orchestra’ packages. I’d never had the resources to make one work before, and I was determined to have a crack at it in this new environment; but I couldn’t get people on board. I took the case to the general manager and told him about the project, emphasising that it was a fairly simple business model. You buy the package, you fill the hall several times at high prices, the audience has a great time, you make money, everyone is happy. I couldn’t see where the problem was.

Maison des Tanneurs

He explained it to me – if you’re doing something popular to reach a large audience, you can’t charge high prices. It limits access, and that defeats the whole point of a popular initiative. I argued that popular doesn’t mean poor, and that students, frankly, would save up to go to something like this which even at a top price wouldn’t cost more than a night out at a club. We could charge heftily and they’d still come, but if we didn’t charge heftily then there was no way we could break even. At this point the general manager said that he didn’t mind losing money on the project, as long as we could point to it as engagement with the city and reaching a new audience. After all, we were launching the season with a Verdi Requiem in an arena venue in order to show that the new Music Director wanted to reach out beyond the subscriber base, and to demonstrate to the city that we were starting a new era of cooperation with the opera and conservatoire. We were losing money on it, but it was a project which sent the right social and political signals, and which would hopefully ease the way strategically for the Music Director’s tenure. Whether we did the film project he said, was a philosophical question about how we regarded our role as a subsidised organisation and how best to fulfil that role. I’ve put the project on the backburner until I’m confident enough of my postulates and my ability to express them in French.

France, I have found, is full of ‘philosophical questions’ in the most unexpected places. Questions which in the English-speaking orchestra world are ones of economics, in France remain philosophical. Why are tours important? Are pops concerts audience development or just entertainment – and if they are the latter, are we OK with that? Is the audience’s antipathy to Sibelius innate or learned? What is the nature of the cultural relationship between the town and its orchestra? What’s with Boulez anyway?  It’s refreshing to have the opportunity to reflect on these matters rather than simply to act on the fact of them. The questions are still there and need to be dealt with though: the difference that our subsidy makes is that it means audiences pay for us with their taxes rather than the higher ticket prices or the donations which they incur in other places.

On the upside, it means less stress about box office figures for individual concerts. We don’t even see our box office receipts – they go straight to the city’s consolidated revenue and are not regarded as particularly relevant to us. As a result we have the luxury of being able to take a longer term view of audience development in order to encourage audiences to embrace the unknown (and more Sibelius is on the menu this season, along with Lindberg, Takemitsu, Lutoslawski, Ligeti, Berio and Kancheli – we’ll see how it goes). Nevertheless, as elsewhere, we need to be responsive to our audiences – novelty needs to be a positive experience, because they are as wary of the unknown as most audiences. This is not so easy to do when you’ve just arrived in a new place in a new hemisphere and have to put a season together quick smart – Strasbourg has an educated, solidly middle-class audience, and if the subscription figures are anything to go by, they’re open-minded enough to come and hear the composers I’ve listed above; but it’s been a tense few months waiting to find out how they’d respond. If they don’t enjoy what we do, they’ll likely not stand up for us if there’s a threat to our subsidies, and subsidies can no longer be taken for granted – just across the Rhine two of the South West German Radio Orchestras have just been merged, and the axe is hanging over a number of other ensembles. Interestingly though, just across the Rhine are also between a quarter and a third of our subscribers – our position on the border and our hybrid cultural identity means that a solid German contingent has always been an important part of our audience base. It’s interesting that the benefit of the government subsidies here extends even beyond the tax base which supports them – but I’m sure it’s the sort of quid pro quo which exists across most European borders these days.

Being responsive to an audience and programming with the idea of engaging them and extending their horizons is really what this civic responsibility is about; but it requires a certain self-discipline in programming to follow through on this in the absence of an economic imperative. I’ve come to feel quite strongly that one of the reasons for the so-called decline of classical music lies in the fact that for much of the post war period, most European orchestras and opera houses had little incentive to appeal to audiences; and in fact there was more kudos to be had through stirring them than engaging them. I think it’s a mentality that is changing now and personally I aim for a respectful relationship with the audience that takes their tastes seriously and doesn’t regard my role as that of trying to enlighten an inchoate group. Ultimately, the reason for concerts is the audience, and even if you can get away with acting as if this were not the case in the long run I think it would be likely to harm the sustainability of the art.

I’ve found (and, for me, given what I’ve had to put together over the last year, the following is a comforting thought) that audiences, unless they have been carefully cultivated over a long period, tend to have fairly similar default tastes. They tend to like what they already know – it’s human nature. It is arguable but by no means certain that a given European audience may have been exposed to a wider repertoire than a given Australasian one; but in Strasbourg as in Sydney, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky will fill a hall; Lutoslawski and Ives will probably not. So the converse risk to that (of obliviousness to an audience’s needs) is also always present: trying to please people by giving them what they already know, abrogating your own taste and running the risk of an ever decreasing circle of acceptable repertoire repeated too often.

Strasbourg river

So, in a nuts-and-bolts sort of a way, what are the differences when it comes to artistic planning? One of the most significant factors in programming for the Australasian region is its distance from the major orchestral hubs of Europe and America. I won’t even touch upon the simple problems of time difference which make Australian or New Zealand phone calls to Europe and America a nuisance – I still can’t get used to the idea that I can just pick up my office phone in Strasbourg and call someone in London. The real implications of distance are twofold – one is the proportion of the artist budget consumed by travel costs, and the other is the difficulty in attracting artists to make the journey. The best way of tackling both these problems [in Australasia] is for orchestras to share artists, thus making the prospect of coming  more attractive to the artists, and also amortising travel costs. There is a significant degree of coordination of schedules between the regional orchestras required, which is a constant planning factor, and it also means that for budget reasons there will always be a motivation to use an artist who is already going to be in the region and available. The programming implications are that of course most artists will tour with certain repertoire and it is not always possible to program the concerto one would have ideally liked to have. By contrast, in Europe the travel costs are almost negligible no matter where in Europe an artist is coming from – this is also because there is no question of anyone traveling business class, which by contrast is an understandable wish for artists traveling half way across the world. Being in Europe means that there is a much wider possible choice of artists. For example, it is possible for a singer to come and do a concert with an orchestra between opera performances in another European country. There is a flipside though – sometimes it is possible to engage artists to come to Australasia simply because they want to visit the region. No matter how beautiful or interesting the town in Europe, no one is going to take a gig there just to visit it. It’s too easy to get there in your free time.

So yet again I am left with the philosophical questions – no longer constrained by the necessity of using one of the three available pianists in the region, or the two conductors who are mad keen sailors, hikers or golfers (I exaggerate of course – artists also visit Australasia for artistic reasons), whom do I choose and by what criteria? Given that I can choose repertoire and then secure the artists to perform it, to what degree do I let this influence me? To what extent am I willing to risk audience numbers in pursuit of breadth of programming? To be honest, I’m still in the process of answering these questions; but in the meantime I can say with reasonable certainty: removing the external economic pressures simply means that your own resources of vision, audience psychology and artistic self-discipline become necessary qualities. Our job will always be in a sense about juggling – and no matter whether you’re juggling skittles or chainsaws, it’s knowing how to juggle which makes it successful.

Antony Ernst is Délégué Artistique (Artistic Planning Manager) at the Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg.