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Foreign orchestras thrive on shrewdness, Americans’ naivete

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Every year foreign orchestras with exotic or impressive-sounding names crisscross the country. They follow grueling routes and play in arts centers, small theaters and school auditoriums in places like Pembroke, N.C., and Modesto, Calif.

But they are not always what they seem.

The Dublin Philharmonic that played two years ago in nearly 50 towns? Mostly Bulgarians. The Moscow State Radio Symphony Orchestra that toured the United States last year? Largely freelancers. The “Tschaikowski” St. Petersburg State Orchestra, which is scheduled for a major U.S. tour next year? Even the man advertised as its principal guest conductor said he had never heard of it.

A close look at these groups shows a pattern of creative marketing — even truth shading — concerning credentials and identities. At the least, audiences often do not know what they are getting, even though visa regulations require the groups to be “recognized internationally as outstanding” and to have had three-quarters of the same players for at least a year. Many of these groups are in fact pickup ensembles or have little reputation, even in their home countries.

A major force in bringing in these orchestras is Columbia Artists Management Inc., one of the oldest and most prestigious classical music agencies. Its clients have included Vladimir Horowitz, Jascha Heifetz and Herbert von Karajan.

The Columbia Artists executive behind many such tours is a senior vice president, Andrew S. Grossman, who acts as the tour producer. Grossman, 62, is an influential figure in the classical music business, as well as a lightning rod for strong emotions.

Former colleagues, competitors and contractors call him a shrewd businessman, both brilliant and capable of great charm, who can ride his employees hard. These people also pointed to what appears to be a pattern of misleading publicity photos, altered program biographies and last-minute substitutions.

Grossman did not respond to requests for comment. In a telephone interview, Ronald A. Wilford, Columbia’s chairman, denied that misrepresentations had occurred, saying that the agency relied on the orchestras it brings in for information about their musicians. He defended Grossman, calling him a tough man in a hard business.

“He knows how to do it better than everyone,” Wilford said. “We haven’t been dishonest that I’m aware of.”

Orchestras typically have shifting personnel in a world of musicians who easily cross borders, he added.

“It’s a little bit of a naive position to take that there couldn’t be international players in an orchestra,” he said. “All of this is quite silly. We bring institutions that are fully formed.”

But more important, the agency argued, the orchestras provide live classical music at affordable cost to small cities and towns spurned by the major orchestras.

“We go to these communities that very much want this and are also struggling with the economic realities,” said Tim Fox, the president of Columbia Artists Management. “It should be a celebration.”

The local concert presenters like the cachet of foreign names and the small price tags, which are on average less than half of the fees of major international orchestras, like the Vienna Philharmonic or the London Symphony. Those fees can top $100,000 a concert.

And it is true that an orchestra’s makeup is not necessarily a comment on quality. The “Dubliners” received good reviews from critics and presenters two years ago, although the Moscow orchestra, as heard last year at a performance in the Bronx, would have had trouble matching up to a midlevel conservatory orchestra.

Eric Amada, a former Columbia employee who now runs Arts Management Associates, a booking agency and sometime rival, said, “Most of these presenters are completely fooled,” and so, by extension, are their audiences. “It’s just like, ‘Teflon Andrew.’ ”

While smaller, lesser-known foreign orchestras can make important contributions to local cultural life, they also bring surprises.

For Jane Schumacher, the surprise came Jan. 23, 2009, when the Dublin Philharmonic played a concert at the Etherredge Center for the Performing Arts, where she is executive director, at the University of South Carolina in Aiken. Going backstage before the concert to meet the musicians, she said, she heard them speaking several languages. None had an Irish lilt.

“I remember going back there, joking, and saying, ‘Is there actually anybody from Ireland?’ ” she said. “I got stares, because they didn’t know what I was saying.”

Only two of the orchestra members came from Ireland, orchestra officials later acknowledged. The rest were mainly from Bulgaria and a smattering of other countries.

Schumacher said she was troubled by the unexpected roster.

“You know you’re taking a chance on misrepresenting to an audience,” Schumacher said. “This town is small but very educated, very cosmopolitan.”

The tour received endorsements from the president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, and from U.S. and Irish ambassadors. The orchestra brought three classical programs and an “Irish spectacular” of traditional music.

To gain visas, Columbia Artists had to give its application first to the American Federation of Musicians for approval. With the OK in hand, it submitted the paperwork to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which says it relies on such union sign-offs regarding an orchestra’s bona fides in approving performance visas. In practice, the union said, its objections have little force. The State Department has the final say in issuing visas.

Columbia’s supporting evidence to the federation included a roster of 75 musicians, nearly all said to be Irish citizens, except for three Bulgarians and four people from Britain. It also listed their length of service, to fulfill the one-year minimum for 75 percent of the members.

But a very different group was approved for visas, according to a list issued by the immigration service. Most of those musicians were Bulgarians, and only 19 people out of 75 came from the original orchestra roster given to the union. In the end, after last-minute substitutions, only two Irish people ended up touring as members of the Dublin Philharmonic, according to orchestra officials.

The contractor for the tour, Gavin O’Sullivan, a 20-year veteran of the Irish music scene, said he had never heard of most of the Irish names on the orchestra list given to the musicians’ union and had no idea where it came from.

Wilford, the chairman of Columbia, said that whatever list the agency had submitted came from the Dublin Philharmonic.

“We don’t make it up,” he added.

Besides, he said: “We don’t say in our contract, ‘You’ve got to have predominantly Irish players.’ We don’t get into this nationality stuff.”

Fox, the agency’s president, said that the roster sent to the musicians’ union was the same one approved by immigration officials.

“What they sent to us was false information,” said George Fiddler, a federation contract administrator. “This is done to mislead.”

The immigration service said it could not comment on an individual case.

“We are always concerned about ways that people could potentially take advantage of the system,” said a spokesman, Christopher Bentley.

Applicants are legally bound to be truthful in the information they present, he said.

The player makeup of the Dublin Philharmonic — which was first disclosed by the Irish Times — ultimately does not matter, said Derek Gleeson, the orchestra’s music director, who lives in Culver City, Calif., and has worked often in Bulgaria.

He pointed out that his tour had featured all Irish soloists, composers and conductors. The difficult economy in 2008 made it too expensive to hire Irish musicians, he said, so he turned to the Bulgarians. A tour of China last summer was nearly all Irish, he said. (Yet only five of the same names appeared on the roster given to the federation for the 2009 U.S. tour.) He acknowledged that despite the Dublin Philharmonic’s name, it has played only a half-dozen or so concerts in Ireland since its founding in 1997.

“The orchestra is the organization who hires the musicians,” Gleeson said. “Musicians come and go.”

Industry figures critical of the one-night-stand tours say that Columbia Artists Management reaps big profits.

A contract to bring the Opole, Philharmonic of Poland, a lower-tier Polish orchestra, this winter listed an average fee from presenters of $41,543 per concert paid to Columbia Artists, or $1.9 million in total for 46 concerts. Columbia Artists was listed as paying the 90 musicians — including the more highly paid conductors and soloists — and other personnel a total of $8,500 per concert, or a total of about $390,000 for the tour. The orchestra paid its own air fare. Out of the remaining $1.5 million paid to Columbia, the agency covered domestic travel, lodging and promotion, taking in the rest. The contract, a copy of which was provided by the American Federation of Musicians, allowed the orchestra to play up to 15 performances on consecutive days and travel 350 miles by bus on the day of a performance.

“The audiences are being deceived,” said Ray Hair, the musician federation president. “They believe they’re buying a ticket to some ensemble that has a legitimate pedigree. But the ensemble does not have that. It’s a pickup orchestra of unemployed East European musicians that is willing to work for substandard wages.”

Wilford called the tours a “marginal business” with high risk and rejected the idea that the musicians were being exploited. Indeed, in interviews some have said they were happy for the work and the chance to see the United States. The pay scale is what allows the tours to happen, Wilford said.

“The AF of M., they are for higher prices, higher fees and less work,” he added, referring to the federation. He declined to release financial figures.

Presenters have also complained about what they called misleading claims about several dance companies Grossman has brought in, a charge the agency disputed. The complaints extend at least as far back as 1996, when Bolshoi Theater officials charged in a federal lawsuit that a group sponsored by Columbia Artists, the Stars of the Bolshoi Ballet, had no Bolshoi dancers. A judge ruled against the Bolshoi, and the agency says the case ended with no judgment against it.

Some presenters praise Grossman for providing good performances dependably.

“I’m very satisfied with what they represent,” said Thomas G. Reynolds, director of arts programming at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

Reynolds has booked the “Tschaikowski” St. Petersburg State Orchestra on its tour next year and said he would be “unhappy to learn” that the agency’s materials were misleading.

Yet that is what at least three Russian conductors have charged, including Yuri Temirkanov, one of Russia’s most respected maestros and the music director of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, an orchestra with a venerable history. Temirkanov said that photographs and video of the “Tschaikowski” orchestra on the Columbia Artists’ website showed other orchestras, including his own. In fact, he said, there is no “Tschaikowski” orchestra. A spokesman for St. Petersburg’s city culture committee said, “Such a collective does not exist.”


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